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Building a coordinated data system to support early childhood education

Midwest | July 05, 2018
Building a coordinated data system to support early childhood education

This is the third article in a series on coordinated early childhood data. Check out part 1 for an introduction to coordinated systems, and part 2 on applying the 10 data system fundamentals to state efforts.

REL Midwest supports state agency staff in researching early childhood topics that involve multiple agencies—for example, educator workforce or quality across different types of programs. The Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA) is a partnership of state agency staff, district administrators, policymakers, and REL Midwest researchers that is studying key questions and solving problems involving early childhood education. As the alliance developed its research agenda, MECERA members identified cross-agency collaboration as a key priority, since many questions about early childhood cut across education, health, and other domains.

One state effort to support cross-agency research is the Illinois Longitudinal Data System (ILDS), which was created with support from the Institute of Education Sciences’ State Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program. State agency staff and researchers can use the ILDS to link data and gain insight about student trajectories from starting early childhood education to entering the workforce. Several MECERA members use the ILDS to answer research questions about the experiences of children in different types of early childhood programs, along with questions about the early childhood educator workforce.

Establishing a data system in Illinois

In 2009, the Illinois General Assembly passed the P-20 Longitudinal Education Data System Act. The act outlines a mandate to establish a system that connects an individual’s achievement and enrollment data from preschool through early career years. Charlie Rosemond, a MECERA member, serves as the data and outcomes manager for the Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University (NIU), which staffs the ILDS governing board. Rosemond explains that the state’s efforts ramped up in 2013. "To create a cradle-to-career data system, seven state agencies and the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development were brought to the table in spring 2013 to establish the governance of the ILDS." In addition to the Governor’s Office, the Illinois state agencies participating in the ILDS are the Department of Human Services, State Board of Education, Student Assistance Commission, Board of Higher Education, Community College Board, Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, and the Department of Employment Security.

When Illinois began developing its data system, it was largely navigating uncharted territory. "At the time, a lot of states were talking about building longitudinal data systems, but there weren’t a lot of operational systems or written resources that we could reference," Rosemond says. The fact that the ILDS spans from preschool through career made it difficult to find examples. "Other states have data systems that focus on specific parts of the education pipeline," Rosemond explains. "One challenge for Illinois has been establishing buy-in from seven different agencies, because the ILDS scope is so broad." Some of the participating agencies focus primarily on education; others focus on commerce and workforce development.

Focusing on early childhood

From the beginning of the ILDS, the agencies participating in the data system have had significant input into the model and initial research projects. Early childhood quickly became a priority topic for the participating agencies, as each agency’s work touches early childhood education or care in some way. The agencies particularly wanted to learn more about the early childhood educator workforce. Participating agencies also wanted to know how many children were being served by different types of early childhood programs, including school-based programs, child care, and Head Start.

Bethany Patten, MECERA member and workforce policy director at the Governor’s Office for Early Childhood Development, notes that having baseline information is crucial to supporting the state’s youngest students. "The questions that we’re most interested in answering are, ’What is the state of early care and education in Illinois?’ and ’How can we expand access to high-quality care and education?’ To answer any questions about quality of care, you have to answer the fundamentals about the state of the system," Patten explains. "We’re working toward a cohesive picture of early childhood opportunities. Right now, we know a lot about different types of programs individually; we want to know what leads to quality across programs." REL Midwest also is working with MECERA to answer research questions about early childhood program quality, overlap between different types of programs, and promising practices to foster early childhood development.

Data system structure

The ILDS allows agencies to link data by assigning a common identifier to records about the same person or program. Having the unique identifier allows agencies to guarantee they are connecting the right data and track the same person or program through multiple data sources. For example, Patten notes, the ILDS is helpful for identifying how many early childhood educators are in Illinois.

Although the structure allows researchers to connect data across fields, the ILDS does not combine data into a central repository. Instead, the ILDS is a federated model, meaning that agencies maintain possession of their own data and use the common identifier to link records for specific interagency data requests. This model limits the potential for unauthorized data access.

Considerations for creating a data system

Rosemond shared the following helpful takeaways for creating a longitudinal data system and coordinating with multiple agencies:

  • Agree on data-sharing terms upfront.
  • At the beginning of data system planning, establish a governance structure and develop documentation for using the system.
  • Consider the state context when choosing a structure for the data system.

As Rosemond says, "Putting in the legwork from the beginning will build momentum and sustain the data system."


Cora Goldston

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