Revolutionizing the Way States Inform the Public About Education & the Workforce

Bell-Ellwanger: Inside the Data Quality Campaign’s roadmap to make robust data access a reality.

This is a photo of a roadmap.

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Information comes fast and furious. People can access it in the blink of an eye — about everything from which restaurant to eat at to the best way to get to work. But when it comes to answering life-defining questions about pathways through education and the workforce, there is still an urgent need for meaningful information to guide crucial decisionmaking about school and work. 

At the Data Quality Campaign, we know this to be true — because we’ve asked. In surveys, 80% of high school students, 94% of parents, 93% of principals and 98% of superintendents said they would feel more confident making decisions with better access to data.

In May, DQC released a roadmap that lays out how states can revolutionize how they deliver access to information that people need about education and workforce pathways — for individuals, the public and policymakers. This vision — of robust statewide longitudinal data systems that help individuals make decisions and support policymakers in driving systemic improvements — is based on the collective work of more than 40 national research, policy and advocacy organizations, as well as state advocates, leaders and funders.

Six months later, this work is starting to happen across states and at the federal level. 

During the 2023 legislative session, Alabama, Montana and Rhode Island passed laws to codify cross-agency data governance involving early education, K-12, postsecondary and workforce. This is the single most important step states can take toward enabling robust data access, as establishing clear governance ensures that agencies come together for shared decisionmaking and that the efforts outlast changes in state priorities and leadership. Three states might not seem like a lot, they have nearly doubled the number that now have cross-agency data governance policies in place. Before this year, only California, Kentucky, Maryland and North Dakota were on that list. We look forward to seeing that number rise again in the coming years as other states consider these important changes. 

Four states and Washington, D.C., made strides this year by funding their state data systems, and three states passed privacy laws to mandate safeguards for student data use — two additional steps toward ensuring that each state has a longitudinal data system that enables robust access to information. 

Leaders across the federal government are also working to untangle the red tape and supply the funding necessary for states to get this work done. Last year’s appropriations process not only led to a $5 million increasing in funding for the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data System Grant Program — which assists state education agencies working to improve their statewide data systems — but this year’s application stated explicitly that the goal of the program is to help all states create “comprehensive P-20W (early learning through workforce) systems.” The Senate is also exploring the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, which allows the government to collect information and conduct research on the education system. While funding for the act has continued since it expired, reauthorization underscores the necessity of strong data and systems for evidence building and decisionmaking.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor began a process to explore revising its regulations and guidance for sharing unemployment insurance wage data — vital information for understanding and supporting how individuals move into and through the workforce. And the Office of Management and Budget released a proposal to revise the government’s Uniform Grants Guidance, clarifying that both indirect and direct funds can be used for a range of data and evidence-related purposes.

But the work can’t stop here. 

State leaders — including governors, legislators and education agency staff — must continue to prioritize access and take the leap to share data in ways that people can use to make decisions. In addition to codifying cross-agency data governance and funding their systems, state leaders must take the following actions to ensure that everyone has access to the data they need:

  • Establish an independent entity to administer the state’s data system — because when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge;
  • Map the state’s existing technology, tools, data, funding, staff, legal supports and other assets and policies so leaders can be strategic about where to begin and what investments they should make;
  • Engage the public to understand how to prioritize people’s data access needs;
  • Create a shared understanding among state leaders of how state and federal law are interpreted and implemented;
  • Help people understand how to use and benefit from state data tools and resources while supporting schools, community colleges, agencies that administer workforce education and training programs, and others in building their own capacity to use data;
  • Invest in the talent necessary to staff this work sustainably;
  • Ensure that people’s data is kept private and secure. 

Federal leaders must help states make changes by clarifying how state decisionmakers are permitted to use different types of funding and increasing available dollars for state data systems; expanding privacy technical assistance and support available to states; providing guidance on and support for linking and accessing data; and sharing information on how states can emulate best practices.

States have an opportunity to make big changes to their data systems so they meet the needs of the many users who require this essential information to make decisions. It takes courage and leadership — but it’s possible. And it’s time for leaders to build on the momentum already growing across the country to make robust access to education and workforce data a reality. Their communities deserve it.

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