Governor Newsom has taken a strong step to modernize public education by proposing funding for a longitudinal data system that connects student information from cradle to career.
Currently, without such a system in place, the state has limited ability to diagnose its challenges in education, invest wisely in solutions and then assess the impact of those investments. Further, the public lacks a mechanism to understand how students can equitably access quality postsecondary opportunities statewide.
Fortunately, many of our elected leaders now agree that this transparency will only come from a comprehensive data system, ideally one spanning preschool to workforce. Yet, the policy conversation often falls short on who will oversee and manage that system.
Adding another component to strengthen California’s multibillion-dollar public education operation with data, while necessary, should be done only with clear direction on leadership and oversight. The state must house the data system in an independent agency to ensure that it successfully serves its intended purpose. This entity must have enough autonomy to prioritize the needs of students, workers and the state’s economy across sectors rather than in fragments. California already spends too much on inefficient, siloed initiatives without clear goals for improving outcomes for students and the state. The new data system must not become another casualty.
As California’s leaders move toward overhauling the state’s approach to education data, another policy conversation is underway around the need for an impartial entity that can improve coordination and planning among the three segments of public higher education in California: community colleges, CSU and UC. In fact, Governor Newsom proposed during his campaign to create such a coordinating body.
These ideas — the need for a data system and a coordinating body for higher education — should not be treated as parallel proposals, as they very much intersect and reinforce one another. California is one of only two states without a body to articulate and coordinate a public agenda for higher education, and similarly, one of only a handful of states without a statewide longitudinal data system. How often is an organization or initiative criticized because “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing?” Coordination and transparency are inextricably linked and it’s nearly impossible to achieve one without the other.
In my view, a comprehensive education data system would best be housed in the coordinating entity for higher education Gov. Newsom envisaged during his campaign because the state’s public colleges and universities comprise the most interconnected sector along the education-to-employment pipeline. Higher education outcomes frequently reflect preparedness during K-12 and predict workforce success. Higher education is also the most permeable point in the pipeline in terms of students moving in and out of college while also being employed. Today, Californians straddle both higher education and the workforce more than ever in the struggle to stay afloat amidst the state’s exploding cost of living.
The years since California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was published in 1960 have been defined by volatile economic changes and burgeoning student enrollment, stretching California’s higher education system beyond its capacity. California now faces critical higher education challenges including rising costs and inequitable student completion rates. As a result, college is more expensive and less accessible for millions of Californians.
Rather than illuminate how we got here, several existing partial data systems leave us in the dark— operating in vacuums of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Because each public education sector sets the narrative of its students’ outcomes, it’s nearly impossible to gain a coordinated understanding of students’ successes and challenges as they move from preschool, through K-12, higher education and into the workforce. An independent and coordinated statewide education data system could alleviate this challenge.
Beyond managing the new data system, a well-constructed coordinating entity — strengthened by what we have learned from previous iterations like the California Postsecondary Education Commission that was defunded in 2011 — would allow the state to function nimbly across higher education segments, advocate for students independently and more efficiently and equitably promote degree attainment.
Here’s one example. Armed with the right data, a higher education coordinating entity could approach college capacity comprehensively across community colleges, CSU and UC. It could help California make good on the promise it made nearly 60 years ago to every Californian with a high school diploma — a guaranteed spot in the state’s higher education system.
It is time for public education in California to re-embrace its core values and operate more like a system than a collection of parts. The solution is a coordinated approach to collecting, analyzing and being responsive to students’ diverse experiences told through data.
With world-class institutions that train the workforce to fuel its $2.7 trillion innovation economy, California is well-positioned right now to change the course of education from opaque and siloed to transparent and coordinated.
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