The onset of the pandemic left education leaders, families, and communities with more questions than answers. More than two years after the first school closures, many questions remain. It’s worth examining states’ best tool for analyzing questions and answering them: state education data systems. In fall and winter 2021, DQC worked with DataSmith Solutions and Education Commission of the States to survey state education agency leaders and staff to better understand the impact of the pandemic on these systems. We found that the pandemic highlighted existing shortcomings in systems, and presented opportunities for agency leaders to think differently about how to collect and use data.
State Data Systems Could Not Answer Pressing Questions
- Between the media, federal government, and other state agencies, education leaders received many requests for information during the pandemic. Respondents indicated that, when they were unable to fulfill these requests, it was often because existing data was not available or they did not have the capacity to quickly collect new data. When confusion is at an all-time high, officials engender trust when they are responsive to pressing needs. State leaders must do more to ensure that data systems are useful for answering critical questions.
- Many states relied on surveys and spreadsheets to collect new information about attendance, student health and wellbeing, and access to online learning. Though onerous, this type of data collection produced valuable insights. However, states can set themselves up for success by building capacity to leverage student information systems to quickly answer pressing questions.
States Are Recognizing the Urgent Need to Modernize Data Systems and Governance Policies
- Federal recovery funds provide states with an opportunity to address fundamental problems within their data systems. When asked how they intend to use relief funds, most respondents indicated that they aim to develop and improve public data tools, followed by modernizing data infrastructure generally. Without information that is easy to access and understand, members of the public are being kept out of the loop in a rapidly changing landscape—which ultimately erodes trust and makes it more difficult for officials to share information. Public data tools are crucial for building trust and keeping communities safe.
- Nearly half of respondents said that they intend to use federal funds to build or improve P–20W systems. This work is essential for addressing disrupted transitions, including how students move from high school to postsecondary and/or into the workforce. People don’t exist in siloes—agency leaders throughout the P–20W continuum need secure access to support individuals as they move throughout their education journey and beyond. The president’s proposed budget request includes programs that support college and career pathways—and state data systems are key to making this vision a reality.
- In addition to creating tools and investing in infrastructure, respondents addressed the need to update governance policies to support data work. When asked about challenges using data during the pandemic, respondents often cited problems related to data governance and confusion about privacy. Addressing staffing needs, strengthening governance protocols, and clarifying federal and local privacy requirements are essential for ensuring that data can be accessed securely and used responsibly.
States Expanded Research Agendas and Partnerships
- States indicated that they expanded their research agendas to answer pressing questions. Over two-thirds of the respondents listed measuring learning loss and digital equity as topics that were added to their research agendas due to the pandemic. Fewer respondents—less than a quarter—indicated that their agendas will expand to include questions about workforce transitions or postsecondary pathways.
- Research partnerships are a valuable tool for answering questions, especially in a time of crisis. These partnerships are built for flexibility and are especially valuable for addressing emerging concerns. Half of respondents said they expanded their research agendas and partnerships to address new pandemic demands.
- Beyond research partnerships, respondents indicated that they were turning to other collaborations via cross-agency agreements. When agency leaders share information, they can better coordinate to ensure students are receiving services they need during recovery and beyond. The pandemic highlighted the fact that many students rely on several social services for support. States must ensure that agencies can share data to get on the same page.
Though the pandemic created confusion and limited the ability of state education agency leaders and staff to collect and use data, many of the problems they faced predated the COVID-19 crisis. The lessons of the pandemic, along with new and ongoing federal funding, provide an opportunity for every state to strengthen their data systems. States should not wait for the next crisis to address these shortcomings. From early childhood to the workforce, everyone will benefit when agency leaders are able to securely access and use data.