The California Cradle-to-Career Data System Workgroup and its various subcommittees and advisory groups have been working hard all year to develop recommendations for the Governor and the Legislature on how to design and implement a longitudinal student data system to support the information needs of policymakers, practitioners, students and their families. The legislation that established the Workgroup set lofty goals for a data system that would serve multiple purposes, including the connection of student records across agencies in a manner that allows for disaggregation by race, gender and other characteristics, as well as the transfer of high school students’ records to postsecondary institutions. The legislation recognized the need to develop a data system over time, envisioning an evolution in several phases. It suggested starting by connecting student records collected by the state’s K-12 and higher education systems, then adding in workforce data, early care and education information, and health and human services data going forward.
As the discussions in the Workgroup have progressed, the recommendations under consideration have expanded to become very ambitious. The inclusion of such a broad range of stakeholders in the planning process, while likely critical to building support for the effort, also poses challenges to setting priorities for getting started. As currently conceived, the Workgroup’s recommendations may call for the inclusion of data from many different agencies right from the start into a very expansive preschool-to-workforce (P20W) longitudinal data system, along with the statewide expansion of two existing “operational tools”—eTranscript California and the California College Guidance Initiative. Such an expansive vision for “phase 1” poses significant challenges given the state’s dire fiscal situation.
California has long needed a P20W data system, and is one of the few states in the country that does not yet have one. It would be a critical piece of infrastructure to help the state recover from its dual health and economic catastrophes. The data could be used to assess students’ needs in the context of the pandemic and to identify strategies for addressing them, and could help target state investments to meet the needs of workers and regional economies. Given the current capacity constraints in terms of both funding and policy attention, the Workgroup should consider making its recommendations in a manner that helps the Governor and Legislature set priorities. For the initial start-up phase, perhaps defined as the first two years, the focus might include:
- Establishing a strong governance structure for the data system, including setting up a new state office to manage it and establishing a governing board and processes;
- Building a P20W data system that connects preK-12 and postsecondary data that are already collected by the California Department of Education and the systemwide offices of the California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California, along with earnings data from the Employment Development Department that are currently shared with the higher education systems;
- Making information from the P20W data system accessible to various audiences including students and their parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers as called for in the legislation; and
- Ensuring the managing entity has adequate staffing capacity and resources to 1) help the various audiences understand how to access data and make appropriate use of the information, and 2) provide basic information, annually, about key issues related to education as a public good.
The Workgroup has developed comprehensive preliminary plans for sharing data with the various audiences through dashboards, query tools, and a data request process for researchers. One area that could use more consideration relates to ensuring that the state office managing the data system takes ownership of ensuring that the state and its residents are informed about whether California is providing equitable opportunities and outcomes for students within and across our education systems. Current plans rely primarily on external researchers to take on that role, but such researchers often have different goals, incentives, and timelines for their work, so the state office needs sufficient analytical staff capacity of its own to provide timely answers to broad questions that address the public good.
Phase 1 could also include preliminary planning for expansion of the P20W data system in phase 2 to include information from the other agencies represented on the Workgroup, such as health and human services data and records for students enrolled in private colleges. As California’s budget challenges abate and resources and policy attention become available, future phases could consider the addition of other data sources to the P20W system (e.g., juvenile justice) and implementing operational tools for practitioners. For the latter, time in the early phases might be spent conducting comprehensive evaluations of the proposed tools to ensure they are the most effective and efficient options for meeting identified needs. As noted by a Workgroup member at one meeting, we should be “less interested in solving one particular project’s or program’s individual infrastructure issue, and more interested in setting up a common infrastructure that solves everybody’s problem…That’s the foundational thing we should be focusing on.” An evaluation of the needs of students and educational institutions for operational tools and how best to meet those needs, one that is more comprehensive than the assessment conducted for the current planning process, should come before significant investment of state dollars into particular products or services.
Developing a longitudinal student data system has long been a goal of many educators, advocates, researchers, and policymakers in California, and there is finally a real opportunity to succeed. The Workgroup should focus its recommendations on setting priorities for getting started to fit the current context, while developing a comprehensive vision for expansion going forward.
 See pages 20-22 and 29-30 of the linked assessment for estimated costs of expanding the proposed operational tools.