California has invested billions of dollars in public education reforms over the past decade, and student outcomes have improved in many areas. But the state can’t answer key questions about student progress because it doesn’t have comprehensive data on important transitions. For example, it can’t easily track student movement between high school and college or from college into the workforce. With new state leadership about to take over in Sacramento, the time may be right for an integrated data system that can help policymakers, educators, and students monitor educational progress and outcomes.
Last week in Sacramento, PPIC researcher Jacob Jackson outlined a new report on the need for such a system and Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC Higher Education Center, moderated a panel discussion about the benefits and challenges of creating one.
As Jackson pointed out, most other states already have integrated education data systems. Colleen Moore, assistant director of the Education Insights Center, added that California “already has four pretty good longitudinal data systems—it’s just that they’re within each of the four education segments and they’re not connected.” As a result, student demographics, coursework, grades, and degrees or certificates can be tracked within each segment but not across segments.
Natasha Collins, principle consultant on education for the Assembly Appropriations Committee, noted that it would not be technically difficult to create a repository that links data and follows student movement through the K–12 system and the three postsecondary systems. “It might make sense to move forward with those core components and then potentially add on other agencies—even things like corrections, or the Department of Rehabilitation—so we can really see student outcomes.” She added, “We could also have information on employment and earnings outcomes at least for students who go to college at some point.”
So why doesn’t California have one? Collins noted that the legislature has considered several bills that would set up a system and recently held a hearing on the topic. Moreover, technical plans to link data across the higher education systems have been drawn up in the past. The panelists agreed that the main barriers are not technical—they are political and logistical.
Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, stressed the need for an entity to oversee data collection and access: “The state needs an independent body that would be responsible for collecting, cleaning, analyzing data, and making sure it’s accessible to many other parties.” One stumbling block to creating such a body is determining its scope—should it be simply a secure data repository, or should it have the authority to coordinate segments and/or monitor their accountability?
Laura Metune, vice chancellor for external relations at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, highlighted another barrier: “One of the challenges has been direction and resources from the state level.” She noted that higher education systems have worked together on data sharing, and her own office shares a lot of data with researchers and the public. But, she added, information sharing requires resources, and “we have a really small staff.”
Ultimately, the panelists put the ball in Governor-Elect Newsom’s court. As Ajose put it, “I really do think that this issue of a data system requires gubernatorial leadership, that the governor has the unique ability to set the stage around what is important within higher education.”