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How Cross-Sector Partnerships Use Data to Improve Rural Career Pathways

December 2020

Author: Pamela Fong, REL West

In rural areas of California with high unemployment rates, opportunities for students to gain knowledge and proficiency through career pathways is key for leading them to middle-skills jobs—the kinds of jobs that pay a living wage and can be attained without a four-year college degree. Yet, for leaders in rural areas, building partnerships between the education and industry sectors, that help support such career pathways, can be especially challenging. Rural leaders face barriers of geographic isolation, expansive service areas, and a small number of industries. However, when rural education and industry leaders collaborate, the partnership can yield benefits to their region’s students and local economy.

“With limited industries in rural regions, educators often ask, ‘What are the career pathways that can lead students to jobs?’” – Mary Rauner, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West California Rural Partnerships Alliance leader

REL West’s California Rural Partnerships (CRP) Alliance

Cross-sector collaboratives comprise leaders and representatives from across the K–12 and higher education sectors as well as from industry and workforce development programs who are committed to improving education and career opportunities in the region. To overcome some of the challenges that rural education and industry leaders face, three rural cross-sector collaboratives in California—Growing Inland Achievement (GIA), North Lake Education Partnership (NLEP), and Tulare-Kings College and Career Collaborative (TKCCC)—are deepening their data-based decisionmaking practices to improve regional career pathways. Through participation in the California Rural Partnerships (CRP) Alliance, and with the support of REL West, each collaborative has been increasing its capacity to share and use data between partners from K–12 education, postsecondary education, local industry, and economic development. The ultimate goals of the CRP Alliance are to develop better alignment of middle-skill occupation supply and demand in California’s rural regions, and to increase the percentage of students who enter and complete a career pathway in each rural region.

Through the CRP Alliance, REL West has provided in-depth support through tailored, context-specific coaching and training for the three leaders of each collaborative—helping them focus on examining and using data with their cross-sector partners, especially those less familiar with data-based decisionmaking. To determine the data needs of each collaborative and to customize coaching for each site’s needs, REL West conducted site visits and observed meetings. REL West coaches then helped identify useful research, resources, and tools for each collaborative and introduced data-oriented skills and processes.

Participants in the CRP Alliance have increased their data knowledge and capacity to improve rural career pathways. Over time, the partners in each collaborative have learned, for example, where and how to access data from each sector, how to use labor market information to align career pathways to regional labor needs, and how to examine data across sectors to develop and strengthen rural career pathways. CRP Alliance participants have also gained access to a small learning community. In this community, leaders of the collaboratives build collegiality with other rural leaders as they share their local struggles with peers who are familiar with the rural context of their work. REL West data coach Alice Rice notes, “Having a regional mirror that reflects familiar characteristics and behaviors is reaffirming and challenges them to think about rurality.”

Although the collaboratives had worked on career pathways prior to joining the CRP Alliance, the participants soon recognized that working through a data-focused lens required even deeper levels of engagement, commitment, and trust than those already established. Prior to working in the alliance, the partners within each collaborative did not have common ways of talking about or using data. REL West coaches helped the partners create a common language by providing tools for examining data together and facilitation protocols for ensuring that all voices are heard.

Shifts in data-oriented practices

REL West coaches emphasized to the collaboratives’ leaders the importance of practice, patience, and persistence related to data use. Over time the leaders of the collaboratives began to recognize noticeable shifts in the partners’ behavior and communication. These shifts include increased engagement, as seen in the regular attendance and active participation at meetings and trainings; increased levels of commitment and comfort, reflected in partners’ willingness to fully participate in finding solutions to problems; and a shift in perspective from an institutional focus (“How will this benefit my organization?”) to a regional focus (“Together we will improve regional outcomes”). The partners also have developed shared goals and objectives, common metrics to measure progress, and agreements to share data between sector partners.

REL West staff also coached the leaders of the collaboratives to center their work on equity. At the start of the CRP Alliance, the participants were not emphasizing the importance of using data to identify inequities and close equity gaps. The collaboratives now are more intentionally disaggregating the data, incorporating this information into planning for career pathways, and ensuring that materials are translated into non-English languages for broader access, for example.

Advancing data efforts

Overall, the leaders of all three collaboratives have shown a deep commitment to building the data capacity of their cross-sector partnerships. REL West has helped each of the collaboratives achieve its intermediate goals, and plan for next steps.

  • GIA, with REL West support, has developed a four-part workshop series focused on building regional data capacity, planned for fall 2020. GIA will continue to develop regional workshops, lead partnering organizations in using evidence-based tools for career pathway planning, and expand its Data Design Team—responsible for collecting, sharing, and validating data across the region and partners—to include a broader range of cross-sector leaders committed to collaboration and strengthening the education and workforce goals of the Inland Empire region.
  • NLEP has focused on refining the goals and metrics for its career pathways program. With REL West’s help, NLEP identified a key question for its work: Do our career pathways equitably support all students’ transition to and completion of postsecondary degrees and certificates? NLEP plans to answer this question by looking at disaggregated data, comparing the high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates of pathway participants and non-pathway participants, while using evidence-based tools and protocols as part of its data-based decisionmaking practices.
  • TKCCC has strengthened its data infrastructure, adopted data-inquiry practices, and increased buy-in from its partners to share sector-specific data for improving career pathways. Its director has reported that with the TKCCC’s increased confidence in its cross-sector partnerships and increased capacity to measure data-driven work, the collaborative plans to continue articulating its progress, grounded in student success and career pathways data, to potential funders who are interested in supporting the region’s goals.

“Four Pillars for Sustaining Rural Cross-Sector Data-Driven Decisionmaking” webinar

In May 2020, REL West hosted a webinar, “Four Pillars for Sustaining Rural Cross-Sector Data-Driven Decisionmaking.” During the webinar, the three leaders of the collaboratives participating in the CRP Alliance discussed how cross-sector, data-use work has been critical to achieving their regional goals for strengthening career pathways for students. The panelists presented research-based tools and strategies they have used to support the four pillars of cross-sector data-driven decisionmaking: building a data infrastructure, increasing technical capacity with data, using data-driven processes, and establishing a data culture.[1], [2]

The four pillars of sustainable, rural cross-sector data-driven decisionmaking are infrastructure, tecnical capacity, process, and culture.

To illustrate the ways the collaboratives have increased their data capacity, the panelists shared examples from their work, including creating a data collection plan for rural areas with limited broadband, storing collected data on a secure server, accessing data from existing databases and data clearinghouses, understanding data from different sectors, using data to inform decisions about career pathways, and fostering a safe environment for examining data.

The panelists also shared a few examples of how their increased data knowledge, skills, and trust within their partnership enabled their ability to quickly respond to the sudden disruption to districts and schools due to COVID-19 with needed support to the community and the ability to sustain their collaborative decisionmaking virtually.

Interested in learning more?

[1] Dougherty, V., Long, M., & Singer, S. (2009, July). Using data to drive change: A guide for college access and success stakeholders (Community Partnerships Issue Brief). Philadelphia, PA: OMG Center for Collaborative Learning.

[2] Gill, B., Borden, B., & Hallgren, K. (2014, June). A conceptual framework for data-driven decision making. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.