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Interview: Filling the Gaps in California’s Education Data

Vicki Hsieh June 20, 2019
photo - Elementary School Students Dressed up in Future Job Costumes

California is one of only a few states without a database showing how students advance from K–12 schools to college and into the workforce. As part of his “cradle to career” initiative, Governor Newsom has proposed $10 million to develop such a system.

photo - Dr. Jessica CunninghamWe talked to Dr. Jessica Cunningham, interim executive director of the Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYSTATS), about Kentucky’s preschool-to-workforce data system and what California can learn from their experiences.

PPIC: What are the benefits of an integrated student database?

Jessica Cunningham: One major benefit is improving current programs and education-to-career pathways. We work with K–12 career technical education (CTE) programs to provide them with better labor market data to guide their offerings. We’ve also evaluated the impact of expanding work-ready scholarships for students earning high-demand associate degrees at community colleges.

Our research helps policymakers, practitioners, agencies, and the public make more informed decisions. We recently showed that students who completed K–12 CTE programs earned more than their peers. This information contributed to the state’s decision to include CTE pathways as an alternative to the standard high school equivalency test.

PPIC: What hurdles did you encounter establishing the system?

JC: Funding is an ongoing challenge. We’re 85% funded by federal grants, so we face some financial uncertainty year to year. We’re currently looking at the potential for state appropriations as a more sustainable funding source.

More broadly, managing the data system is like working on a puzzle. Sometimes there are missing pieces, since you’re only able to report on the data you have. For example, we don’t have data on private K–12 schools or on children’s experiences prior to preschool or Head Start, so we need to be mindful of those gaps.

Also, some benefits of a data system take time and it’s important to set expectations accordingly. When we published our very first report on high school graduates, readers were eager for information on college completion rates and earnings. But we needed many more years of data before we could examine those long-term outcomes.

PPIC: What recommendations do you have for California?

JC: In Kentucky, we’re legislatively authorized to receive education and workforce data. A governance structure that includes different stakeholder groups (K–12, higher education, workforce development, financial aid) is also critical.

In the early stages, it’s necessary to figure out the key questions for the state—and to determine who should be engaged in that process. Those questions will drive decisions about the data you collect. You won’t be able to do everything at once, so developing a strong research agenda is essential.

Setting up a centralized system makes things easier. This way, no one has to recreate all the necessary data connections for every report or request. Our reporting data warehouse has zero personally identifiable information. We do everything in house—we don’t have to send data back and forth to a vendor and we know that we’re maintaining confidentiality and following the rigorous rules outlined in our data use and access policy.

We also emphasize that we’re nonpartisan. We provide data and results, but policymakers and other leaders are the ones driving the conversation about how to use this information to improve programs and policies.

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