Why Congress needs to get serious about K-12 and workforce data

Fully integrating education and workforce systems supports students and workers charting their path out of the pandemic.
Michele Jolin
Michele Jolinhttps://results4america.org/
Michele Jolin is CEO and co-founder at Results for America, a national nonprofit that promotes evidence-based policymaking at all levels of government.

The pandemic’s impact on the American workforce and educational system has been seismic. More than 3 million Americans have not rejoined the workforce or have delayed entering it since the crisis began in March 2020. Some are considering going back to school to gain in-demand skills. Meanwhile, millions of students across the country are playing catch-up.

Ideally, educational programs and workforce training offerings would be designed and scaled to meet students’ needs and labor market demands. But all that requires data—accurate, up-to-date education and workforce data readily available through an integrated statewide data system.

The ideal system, sometimes called a P-20W system, is the opposite of silos. Think of it as a centralized data warehouse connecting multiple agencies and sectors, enabling smooth educational and workforce journeys. Many states understand the value of such a system. Sixteen states can currently link early education, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce data.

The problem is that federal support for these leading state efforts has lagged. For state data systems to be fully operational, they need sustainable federal funding. The benefits would go far beyond allowing individuals to make better educational and career choices. Robust statewide P-20W data systems also support evidence-based budgeting by local governments. Mayors would be able to better align training programs to labor market needs. And with visibility into which courses and programs correlate to postsecondary student success, school districts could tailor offerings to address equity gaps.

A patchwork status quo

Given the current patchwork of federal funding, however, it’s hard to imagine state and local governments achieving all these benefits. Right now, there is a dedicated funding stream for K-12 data: the Department of Education’s SLDS grant program. But it has been woefully underfunded at about $34 million per year.

On the labor market front, the Workforce Data Quality Initiative (WDQI), a joint effort of the departments of labor and education, offers grantees a total of less than $10 million annually. That’s barely enough to help one state. Meanwhile, there are no dedicated postsecondary or pre-K data funding streams.

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What results from this scattershot funding environment isn’t surprising. In most states, individuals hit preventable bumps in their education and workforce journeys. For example, imagine someone ready to transition from high school to college. Typically, the information that students require resides in two separate data systems: the K-12 system (e.g., transcript, course taking, and grades) and the postsecondary system (e.g., course offerings, program cost and quality, and outcomes).

If that same person wanted to head straight into the workforce and understand average earnings for certain occupations, they’d have to access a workforce data system. Many school systems can’t offer that, leaving students without a clear picture of what jobs are available for what pay—and what credentials might be needed to be hired.

A P-20W system gives visibility in all directions, helping individuals chart their course forward with confidence. This isn’t theoretical. Both California and Kentucky show the benefits of building out a strong state P-20W data system.

California’s nascent “cradle to career” system centers on equity and inclusivity, bringing together early education, K-12, post-secondary and social service systems to improve students’ ability to reach education and career goals. For example, the system will enable data-informed tools that allow students, counselors and parents to know in real-time whether a student is taking the necessary courses to gain admission into one of the state’s colleges.

In Kentucky, the state legislature created the Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYSTATS) to act as the central body overseeing data infrastructure and integrating education and workforce data. One valuable result: high school feedback reports, which allow school staff and teachers to see former students’ postsecondary and workforce outcomes. They can then leverage those insights to better support current students’ ability to take advantage of postsecondary and work opportunities.

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Another benefit of KYSTATS is the Career Explorer tool, which provides detailed information on education and workforce program outcomes, including earnings. Among other things, that data supports better career planning.

More than just money

In terms of both educational outcomes and workforce development, the federal government has a clear interest in supporting the creation and maturation of statewide P-20W data systems. The Senate gets this. In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its proposed version of its FY23 appropriations bill, proposing $50 million. That is a significant increase and a step in the right direction and we encourage the final version of the bill to include the funding proposed by the Senate. Increases like this will help to realize the potential of a truly statewide integrated longitudinal data system.

Progress toward such systems is about much more than just adequate funding, however. The federal government must do much more to help states build unified data infrastructure and foster evidence-based decisions. Specifically, executive branch agencies should integrate data funding sources to better support the development of P-20W systems. The government should make crystal clear that state grantees can use a portion of any competitive grant to support data infrastructure, analysis, and program evaluation.

Indeed, at a recent forum co-hosted by the White House and my organization, a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation did just that. “Data infrastructure and analysis are essential supports for program performance evaluations,” said Robert Hampshire, deputy assistant secretary for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “That’s why federal grant recipients in states across the country can use a portion of the award to support these activities directly or indirectly, whether via personnel and/or equipment.”

The government should also encourage states to spend grant dollars to develop P-20W systems. Finally, it should require that all state grantees make any data developed via a federal grant easily accessible via dashboards and other user-friendly online tools.

Two and a half years into the pandemic, the country’s workforce and school systems are in significant flux. Millions of students and workers are charting uncertain futures. Now is the right time to bring modern, integrated data systems to life, supporting the health of both individuals and communities in all 50 states.

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