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Education, the Workforce and the Imperative to Connect the Data Dots

Disjointed data systems are failing to identify and address disparities along the pre-K-to-work continuum. Two states are leading the way in building effective systems, and a new resource can help governments use data to inform student success strategies.

Children entering school
How well are your state’s education and workforce systems performing for students, and how do you know?

These are questions that every governor, mayor, school superintendent, university chancellor, state labor secretary — any public official working at the intersection of education and workforce development — must be able to answer to ensure that every student earns a postsecondary degree of value, can get a good job and achieve their aspirations. The surprising truth is that most public officials have a difficult time answering these questions because of disjointed, siloed data systems that fail to assess and address disparities along the pre-K-to-workforce continuum.

This problem isn’t new, but the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever. Consider the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed the largest-ever recorded declines in math scores for fourth and eighth graders and the lowest reading scores in over 20 years. Another troubling indicator is the decline in college enrollment, 8 percent from 2019 to 2022.

These trends, which were undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic, will reverberate through our schools, communities and local economies for years to come. The leaders who follow the data and can understand how students are faring at each point of their education journey are best positioned to respond and reverse the tide, particularly for students who experienced disproportionate learning losses over the past few years, including those from low-income backgrounds and Black and Latino students.

It’s time for more state and local leaders to take a comprehensive, longitudinal view of the student journey from pre-K to the workforce and intervene with evidence-based strategies to stem these rippling academic declines. Knowing where and how to start, however, can be a significant hurdle.

To help, Mathematica, Mirror Group and members of the Gates Foundation’s education data team worked with researchers, policymakers, practitioners and community advocates to gather input and review more than 40 existing ed-to-workforce data frameworks. The result: a publicly available resource centered on student success called the Education-to-Workforce Indicator Framework.

Unlike any other resource, this framework helps public officials assess how their current data systems are serving all students, identify opportunities for change and present a clearer picture of ed-to-workforce performance. It focuses system leaders on a set of 20 questions they should be able to answer, providing not just indicators but sharing evidence-based practices effective in improving student outcomes.

Key questions focus on student transitions between systems, pushing leaders to ask questions such as “Do students have access to and complete rigorous and accelerated college preparatory coursework?” or “Are students gaining access to quality jobs that offer economic mobility and security after high school or postsecondary training and education?”

With this framework, policymakers and education leaders can make the connections needed between systems to support students regardless of the path they take, review recommendations on how to disaggregate data, and select practices that prioritize fairness and success for all students.

While 19 states currently have longitudinal data systems that connect student performance and other data from pre-K, K-12, postsecondary education and the workforce, this is not enough. And even states that have reached this milestone still have work to do to make that information actionable.

More states can learn from states such as Kentucky and California, which have been described by the Data Quality Campaign as leading the way in taking action to build effective data systems. The Kentucky Center for Statistics was created in 2012 to expand on earlier data-aggregation work by collecting, linking and evaluating the state’s education and workforce efforts. Kentucky’s system allows the state to better understand how high school experiences affect college-going and success rates. High schools and colleges are provided comprehensive and actionable data about college preparation, helping improve alignment between those two systems.

California has fully embraced a holistic approach with its Cradle-to-Career System, connecting data from early-learning programs, schools, colleges, financial aid providers, employers, workforce training programs and social service agencies. The goal? To better assess intervention programs and targeted resources on primary education; the effect of state financial aid on college access, completion and other long-term outcomes; and the effects of graduation from high school, community college and four-year institutions on the state’s workforce.

The Education-to-Workforce Indicator Framework can help provide a lens through which states can understand Kentucky and California’s efforts and those of other states, not reinvent the wheel, and benefit from solutions to common challenges in building these systems.

Data can be a powerful, inclusive tool when used thoughtfully, but data alone is not enough to propel a generation of students toward better economic outcomes. By working together and connecting the dots across education and workforce systems, we can achieve a greater collective impact that helps us all build a stronger economy and society.

Allan Golston is the U.S. Program president for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leading the foundation’s efforts to advance educational opportunity and economic mobility in the United States.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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