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California Struggles with Educational Cross-Sector Data Sharing

Though some states are developing state-level data systems to link K-12 and higher education data, a report has found that California partnerships have no structure in place to track students across educational systems.

Data-sharing is an important aspect of educational partnerships that follow students across educational systems -- but it's also very challenging, according to a recent California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) report. 

The reason it's a challenge? "Because the state hasn't done a lot to facilitate cross-sector data sharing," said Colleen Moore, assistant director of the Education Insights Center at the university and co-author of Organizing for Success: California's Regional Education Partnerships.

The center interviewed 19 partnerships to understand why and how they're popping up throughout California, and about their operating environments.

"Ideally, [the partnerships] want to be able to use data so they can track how their programs are working," said Jodi Lewis, researcher at the center and co-author of the report. 

Though some states are developing state-level data systems to link K-12 and higher education data, Lewis said these California partnerships -- which have garnered support from those in all levels of education, as well as in business and civic and community organizations -- have no structure in place to track students across educational systems.  

"Some of them definitely are finding ways to do it," Moore said. "But for other ones, it's been a real, significant challenge." 

Data as a Convener: L.A. Compact

The report's authors gathered information by asking questions about partnership challenges and approaches, not specifically addressing data-sharing. Still, the importance of data and its challenges kept resurfacing, Moore said. Partnerships reported problems with convincing people and organizations to share data, and finding the technical capacity to do so.  

"It's both a set of technical issues and more than that," Moore said. " [It's] driven by people's concerns about what performance will look like or how the data will be used."  

The L.A. Compact, whose story the report highlighted, has seen this same concern come up from educational leaders worried about sharing their data because it could be used to compare programs, Lewis said. 

Still, last year, eight MOUs were signed between the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) and eight institutions of higher education to share data about district teachers and institutions' teacher preparation programs. 

"The whole goal is not to rank the institutions, but to make sure they have access to the things that they need to assess their programs and to make any improvements that might be needed," said Paola Santana, senior education and workforce manager for UNITE-LA, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Knowing the data's ultimate purpose has, over time, alleviated these worries, she said. 

After some failed attempts to share teacher program data, the compact's formation in 2010 gave the higher education institutions an organized way to meet with the district and advocate for data sharing. The higher education institutions said this data would give them insight into how students are doing after leaving teacher preparation programs in order to improve their quality. 

LAUSD also became interested in sharing data after having developed its own talent management division to improve teacher recruitment and retention. 

To start the conversation, the district developed a template agreement about what data it could share and what data it would want from the institutions. Still, it took several years before the agreements were reached in 2014.

"These things take a lot of time and resources," Santana said. "We spent time tweaking the agreement to make sure it suited both parties."

To help with this process, UNITE-LA carries out the educational work for the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, which convenes the compact and provides the necessary neutral support for its collaboration, Santana said. The nonprofit supports collaboration among the compact's 23 community stakeholders, which have the cradle-to-career goals of ensuring that students graduate from high school, are prepared for success in college and careers, and have a career pathway of their choosing.

Following the agreements last year, the compact hired a consultant to map the data -- which will be stripped of identifying markers like names -- to understand the types of data available and guide how deep the stakeholders should dive into it, and to make recommendations about an upcoming data exchange in May.

"We're really trying to calibrate [the data] at the right point," Santana said. 

Still, a major goal of the compact's teacher preparation project is not about the data itself, but fostering the necessary collaboration to get to it. "We've seen the collaboration between the school district and the teacher preparation programs really increase over the last three years," Santana said.

Data as a Tool: Fresno Area Strive

In addition to providing reason to collaborate, data can also fuel a partnership's operations.

"Data can bridge cultural gaps between education and business," Lewis said. "When you start looking at numbers, it's something that everyone can understand."

This is particularly true, Moore noted, if partnerships can find a way to measure things so everyone can buy in.

Fresno Area Strive -- also featured in the CSUS report -- uses data as a catalyst to get everyone on the same page, looking objectively at Fresno's challenges and progress on key educational indicators, according to Thomas Crow, executive director of the Fresno Compact, which coordinates Strive.

Strive is another cradle-to-career partnership that is data driven with input and action from all sectors of the community. The partnerships, Crowe said, aim to help students be successful and enter meaningful careers.

Using data makes sense for the partnership because it tells a straightforward story. "When you're using data, there's no feel good," Crow said. "You either are or you aren't."

Still, coming together with business forced the two sectors to clarify their goals, Crow added. Generally, educators wanted to focus on achieving 100-percent student success rates across indicators, while many business leaders argued that that bar is unrealistic. 

Educational leaders explained their philosophy, Crow said. "While we may not reach that goal, we are never going to give up on any student."   

Fresno Area Strive started in 2010 and is based on the StriveTogether concept, which is committed to improving and reporting on academic outcomes and building cross-sector partnerships within a data-driven infrastructure. There are 61 StriveTogether community partners nationwide and five in California.

Strive began by lumping together grade-level data from four local districts and pulling it from a neutral ground -- the county office of education. The state university and private and community colleges send their data directly to Strive.  

"We put the focus on the whole, on everybody, rather than single districts," Crow said.  

From the beginning, businesses on Strive's board called for reporting on more than test scores, and so the data is varied and organized under key indicators, which have evolved based on Strive's findings. Examples of current indicators include kindergarten readiness, eighth grade engagement and attendance rates in all grades. 

To help meet its six goals, Strive is made up of action teams, or groups of community experts, that each focus on one goal. A data committee also supports Strive with contributing research and data experts from participating districts. 

Strive's action teams use data as a springing off point, Moore explained -- they discuss data at the beginning of every meeting and take action based on the numbers. 

One win for Fresno Area Strive was driving the initiative for a common kindergarten assessment tool -- the Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile -- that revealed that 37 percent of students were ready for kindergarten on the first day of school. This prompted the action team addressing school preparedness to identify best practices in preschool and institute the state's Early Stars Quality Rating System for area early childhood programs. 

To facilitate this type of action, Crow said the partnership's annual reports are key, as they serve as "great conversation starters." Since its baseline report in 2012, Fresno Area Strive has put together two additional annual reports. 

The partnership is now evolving and diving deeper into the data, organizing it by variables like ethnicity, socio-economic level and gender, Crow said. Its leadership will also be evolving as an unnamed umbrella organization will take compact's place this year.

Even with the change, the partnership will continue its cross-sector work using data. "By coming together, we bring the strength to solve some problems and share resources," Crow said. "It forces us in a positive way to really focus on the issues."

Why They're Partnering Up 

Although partnerships like those in Fresno and L.A. have formed in response to local need and action, some have formed in the absence of one statewide data-collector -- the California Postsecondary Education Commission -- which closed its doors in late 2011.

Another reason: The state is motivating partnerships through general fund incentives and other initiatives like the California Linked Learning program, encouraging this focus on preparing students to succeed in school and beyond, Lewis said. 

"We think, and possibly the state thinks also, that these are a promising way to better coordinate higher education and workforce outcomes," she said. 

Still, many partnerships are struggling with pulling together the necessary data, and Moore reported that nearly all partnerships interviewed were interested in state-level assistance to help find and share best practices around data sharing. 

"There's a lot of reinventing the wheel going on," Lewis said, "and some are more successful than others."