Governance, Research, State Advocacy

Time to Act 2021: Solving for Disconnects across Local, State, and Federal Priorities

Time to Act 2021: Solving for Disconnects across Local, State, and Federal Priorities

Each December, DQC looks back at our research from the year to produce Time to Act—an annual wrap-up of the current state of education data use. This year, DQC’s research included everything from public opinion research to interviews with policy leaders to national landscapes of state legislation, public reports, and plans. Across this research, one big theme emerged: disconnects. Data is a critical tool for addressing the new and persistent challenges facing the education field during the pandemic, but many key stakeholders aren’t on the same page about what information is needed and how to move forward. This three-part blog series explores three of these disconnects and how leaders might begin to mend the gaps. 

Nearly two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal, state, and local education leaders remain in uncharted waters. Despite their shared commitments to address the current and long-term impacts of the pandemic, DQC’s research this year found that decisionmakers at different levels have diverse and sometimes competing priorities. 

What We’ve Learned This Year 

While many districts are still struggling with day-to-day operations since reopening, state and federal policymakers are turning their attention to long-term recovery efforts. At the same time as local leaders work to meet immediate student needs, state policymakers must oversee system-level improvements. And federal policymakers are balancing their accountability and equity responsibilities with efforts to be responsive to state and local needs. 

DQC’s tracking of state legislation and state plans for federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds identified several ways that state policymakers plan to use data to address near-term recovery needs: 

  • Investing in early warning systems to keep individuals on track for high school graduation. 
  • Supporting students in younger grades through new targeted literacy programs. 
  • Providing resources and gathering data on students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. 
  • Protecting student data privacy while implementing online learning programs. 

Each of these short-term and student-level priorities—from using data to support students at risk of dropping out to creating entirely new evidence-based programs—are critical to supporting students and schools. But each priority requires different data and actions. 

While state policymakers are prioritizing immediate concerns about student learning and well-being, DQC’s research also found that parents and policymakers are looking to data to understand the long-term impacts of the pandemic. 

  • In DQC’s 2021 national poll, 63% of parents said that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how they think about their child’s post–high school education or career options. And 48% of parents wanted to know which postsecondary education or training programs do the best job educating students like theirs. 
  • State leaders also interested in a more complete, long-term understanding of students’ postsecondary and career journeys. This year, state legislators considered 86 bills and passed 32 new laws to govern data about postsecondary transitions. 

Likely stemming from these many short-term, long-term, individual, and system-level needs, some state policymakers have focused this year on data system governance and modernization. 

  • 192 of the 361 education data bills that state policymakers considered this year addressed the expansion, strengthening, or governance of state data systems. 
  • Over half of all states’ ESSER plans proposed using these federal funds to strengthen data systems or promote effective data use. And 29 state plans describe state efforts to create new education data systems or modernize existing ones. 

How to Mend These Gaps 

In order to reconcile these differences and help coordinate priorities across levels of government, state and district leaders can: 

  • Build or strengthen their state’s cross-agency data governance body to align disparate policy priorities and data needs. Cross-agency data governance brings together leaders from across the state to make shared decisions about how data is connected, used, accessed, and protected. Data governance unites stakeholders from education, workforce, and other sectors, and builds a process to consider different or conflicting data needs. 
  • Invest in relationships that help turn data into evidence-based practices and insights. State leaders are looking to research-practice partnerships—ongoing collaborations between education entities and research organizations—to answer new questions and find effective practices. 
  • Think creatively about funding opportunities for needed data infrastructure. As additional federal funding becomes available, state and local leaders can look to these opportunities to support, modernize, and improve their education data systems, and to support recovery efforts. 

The road to pandemic recovery requires data-informed efforts that are reflective of state and local needs and rooted in equity. By supporting data governance to bring leaders together across agencies and priorities and by finding new ways to fund and use data systems, policymakers can ensure that data works for students.