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With Data Disconnected, States are Unable to Answer Basic Questions on Early Childhood

Published:  March 15, 2011
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Check out our interactive map that shows how many federal grants states have received to expand their state longitudinal data systems.

While states collect quite a bit of data about early childhood programs and the children who participate, meaningful connections are missing and basic questions go unanswered.

This was a key finding of an inaugural state survey conducted by the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC).* The ECDC identified six policy questions that states should be able to answer about their public early childhood systems:


  • Are children, birth to age 5, on track to succeed when they enter school and beyond?
  • Which children have access to high-quality early care and education programs?
  • Is the quality of programs improving?
  • What are the characteristics of effective programs?
  • How prepared is the early care and education workforce to provide effective education and care for all children?
  • What policies and investments lead to a skilled and stable early care and education workforce?

According to the ECDC’s survey results, not only are most states unable to answer these important policy questions, but they also have difficulty answering the most basic questions on enrollment numbers and the qualifications of the adults working in early childhood programs.

The survey asked states to report on data collection in subsidized childcare, licensed childcare, preschool special education, early intervention, state pre-kindergarten, and state-funded Head Start. The survey also asked questions about the type of data that states collect on individual children, program sites and the early childhood workforce – and whether or not these data can be linked across programs and connected to K-12 data systems.

Federally funded Head Start was left off the survey because, as officials for ECDC said, the collaborative already knew these data were not being collected at the state level. At an event on March 10th to release the findings, however, Elizabeth Laird of the Data Quality Campaign (ECDC lead partner organization) noted that several survey respondents asked about the missing Federal Head Start question. Laird said that it would be included on future surveys. Also at the event, a representative from the National Head Start Association expressed the organization’s interest in helping states overcome barriers to including Federal Head Start data.

The questions posed at the event showed that there is continued confusion and misinformation about whether states are allowed to incorporate the information into their data systems. We highlighted these concerns in our report Many Missing Pieces. In a nutshell, we found it can be done as long as Head Start programs receive permission sign-off from parents – a task that could be accomplished during registration at the beginning of each enrollment period.

According to the survey, all of the 48 states that participated, as well as Washington, D.C., collect data on individual children, program sites and the workforce for at least one of the state’s early childhood programs. Pennsylvania is the only state that can link data on children and sites across all state-funded early childhood programs because it uses the same unique identifier across programs. It can produce an unduplicated count of how many children are benefiting from one or more than one program. Most other states cannot. No state has the ability to link data across all early childhood programs at the workforce level.

No state collects child-level data on how children are progressing in their development within all publicly funded early childhood programs. For the most part, states only collect developmental data on children in special education preschool classrooms and who are receiving “early intervention” services, such as language therapy. Both of those are funded through the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that states conduct child and family assessments. 

Less than half of the states in the collaborative collect data about the quality of early childhood programs, making it nearly impossible for policymakers to determine which children have access to high-quality programs and to evaluate the impact of quality-improvement investments.

According to ECDC’s analysis, data are separated by funding stream. For example, state departments of health and human services house information on state-funded Head Start programs, while state departments of education house data collected from state-funded pre-k programs. These education data are sometimes linked to other data systems, but more often than not, they are only linked to other systems inside the same agency. For example, subsidized childcare is linked to social services data systems while special education and state pre-k data are linked to the state’s educational data systems for K-12 students. Data are linked less frequently across state agencies.

These survey results are very similar to what we suggested was happening across the states last fall in the Early Education Initiative’s report, Many Missing Pieces. States are still a long way from collecting and connecting early childhood data (birth to age 8) that can inform teachers and parents about needed changes in instruction, improve learning opportunities in each year of a child's educational journey and guide policy decisions related to early childhood programs.

The survey’s most important role is to shine a light on states that are leading the way in collecting and utilizing early childhood data for continuous improvement. On its website, the ECDC points to promising practices in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.


*The ECDC is coordinated by six partner organizations the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley, Council of Chief State School Officers, Data Quality Campaign, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and Pre-K Now and provides a national forum to support the development and use of coordinated state early childhood education data systems. 

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