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How to tackle early childhood data coordination challenges by sharing lessons learned across state lines

How to tackle early childhood data coordination challenges by sharing lessons learned across state lines

By Meredith Lukow
June 22, 2018

Each state in the Midwest region has a unique policy context, with diverse governmental structures, demographics, and circumstances. However, the region’s states also face common challenges in managing their education systems. For example, many states are exploring how to coordinate data systems across multiple government agencies in the education, health, workforce, and child welfare spheres. But how can they learn from one another to address these shared hurdles if they are separated across state and agency lines?

Enter Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest’s research alliances, which include communities of practice. These collaborative research partnerships bring together diverse groups of educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders to address the region’s education priorities, with alliance members collaborating with REL Midwest researchers to develop a research agenda. The research alliances typically focus on a problem of practice in a single state. However, state agency staff working on similar issues in other states in the region participate in a community of practice to share best practices, explore research findings, and work with REL Midwest to answer research questions unique to their states.

Partners from across the region involved in early childhood had a chance to connect at a recent convening of the Illinois-based Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA), which includes representatives from the other six states in the REL Midwest region. A portion of the gathering featured a presentation from June Fox, the program manager of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Integrated Data System (ECIDS). Fox’s colleague Sherry Kimball from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is a member of the MECERA community of practice and suggested Fox as a presenter for the convening.

Wisconsin’s ECIDS allows staff from DPI, the Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to exchange data, offering a helpful example for other states in the region that are undertaking similar efforts. Fox discussed the long process that Wisconsin experienced to get ECIDS up and running, starting with an initial commitment in 2011 and culminating in the system’s launch in December 2017. Wisconsin’s cross-agency team began its work with a feasibility study, which sought to determine how best to implement a coordinate data system. During this process, the team took very seriously the guidance offered by the Early Childhood Data Collaborative’s “10 fundamentals of coordinated state data systems,” which ranges from using unique statewide child identifiers to employing transparent privacy protection and security practices.

Additionally, the team undertook a stakeholder engagement campaign that included a 100-person roundtable with early childhood experts from both inside and outside state government. Fox described this event as a “turning point” in the work toward a coordinated data system, as it allowed the team to address two of the project’s biggest obstacles: "fear and misunderstanding." Before the roundtable, some agency staff thought the system would "just throw their data up on the internet." The gathering helped stakeholders understand the benefits of sharing data and the safeguards that the system would provide.

Fox said of ECIDS’ impact on how state agency staff do their work, “At this point, I don’t know why anyone would want to do research outside of ECIDS.” Reflecting on the six-year process to build ECIDS, Fox recommended the following to her colleagues in other states:

  • Use technical support, and reach out to other states for help: A case study from the Early Childhood Data Collaborative offers some examples of the tools and resources that the Wisconsin team used.
  • Agree on a data governance structure: As Fox put it, “people didn’t know how to proceed until we did that.”
  • Plan for stakeholder engagement, communications, and sustainability: According to Fox, the investment of time and money is “worth it.”
  • Consider staff turnover: Fox indicated that losing institutional knowledge was a big problem, but that the group got better at onboarding people.
  • Build in a way that can accommodate future additions: Fox said ECIDS was structured so the system can support other agencies that might choose to join in the future.

Following Fox’s presentation, the group of MECERA alliance members had a robust discussion about the obstacles they have faced in implementing coordinated data systems in their own states and shared insights about how they have tackled these issues. Read our recent Q&A with three MECERA members to learn more about how the alliance is furthering members’ own efforts to improve early childhood education.

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Author(s) Information

Meredith Lukow Staff Picture

Meredith Lukow

Communications Associate | REL Midwest


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