Pitching a big tent
Inviting input from the broader community can be challenging when state longitudinal data systems have been built to serve the state agencies providing the data and a limited set of other stakeholders, such as policy makers and researchers. However, by including input from educators, social service providers, researchers, advocates, students, and parents early on, states can design tools that are more useful to a broader range of constituencies, and in the process gain insights that can help to develop stronger improvements to policy and practice (see the Data Governance section for more information on how to include community members). In addition, engaging a wide range of stakeholders in the planning process helps to enable greater awareness and ownership of the purpose and vision of the P20W+ system.
Create concrete mechanisms for public participation
The California Cradle-to-Career system planning process created several ways for community members to provide input into the design of the data system.
- Open Meetings: All planning meetings were open to the public. Because the meetings were being held during the pandemic over Zoom, dozens of community members participated in most meetings and were able to contribute their thoughts by entering comments in chat or making formal public comment. Meeting materials, notes, and recordings were posted to the project website, with frequent listserv alerts about the timing and topics for planning meetings.
- Public Participation in Planning: In the Data Governance section of this website, you can read more about two key advisory groups that supported the planning process. In addition, community members were invited to serve on the various subcommittees to help shape recommendations. For example, staff from a regional data trust joined agency representatives on the Technology & Security Subcommittee to share lessons learned about data integration and research, and advocacy organization representatives sat on the Research Agenda Subcommittee to help identify priority research questions. The Community Engagement Subcommittee included 30 advocates, educators, and community organization representatives who made recommendations on how to create strong feedback loops with data users, support evidence-based decision making and analytical capacity, and ensure equitable access to actionable information.
- Legislative Staff: The planning team also made a concerted effort to engage legislative staff throughout the process by holding quarterly updates and talking through the developing recommendations to ensure that these stakeholders understood how they would address the priorities spelled out in the legislation that shaped the planning process.
- Presentations: The planning team made dozens of presentations to community organizations and at educator and research conferences. After a set of tools had been identified through the planning process, hundreds of people attended webinars in English and Spanish that outlined the information that would be made available through the tools and provided an opportunity for feedback on ways to make the tools more effective.
You can evaluate the level of detail provided, view presentations given to community groups, and review notes and recordings from meetings to see how public participation was handled.
Expand access to strengthen data analysis
When members of the community are invited into the process of designing and refining state data systems, it also signals a shift in who is seen as a potential data consumer and interpreter. Historically, state administrators, policymakers, and researchers have played the primary roles in making meaning of administrative data sets. However, they may not be aware of critical local factors that may influence student outcomes.
Making information available to a broader range of constituents, and in a variety of formats that does not make analytical skills a requirement for participation, allows states to expand the types of expertise that can be brought to bear on advancing stronger student outcomes.
In the California planning process, dozens of experts in community engagement compiled a list of principles that support deeper and more meaningful integration of stakeholder expertise. These included:
- Tailor outreach to different types of users, with a focus on the aspects of the data system that are most relevant for common and high-priority activities
- Leverage strategic partnerships to conduct professional development activities through already-established channels
- Proactively identify structural factors that shape outcomes and aim to help the public see and understand those factors, as well as the levers they have to change structural barriers
- When developing communications and professional development, highlight the expertise held by practitioners, students, and their families that can help to contextualize outcomes available through the data system
- Communications and professional development should include metrics to evaluate their efficacy and focus the priorities for the data system, including a feedback loop for community members to inform ongoing professional development
These guidelines will be used to shape implementation plans for the data system.
Community engagement principles
You can compare the structure of your community engagement plans to these recommendations for integrating community member expertise and identify actions you may want to take.
Adapt requests for data you don’t have
Some of the challenges with inviting broader input stem from the nature of the data held in state administrative data sets. State agencies have historically focused on information necessary for accountability requirements. This means that information is largely focused on fundamentals such as enrollment and completion. State data sets rarely capture process measures that would help to evaluate all the mechanisms that foster and constrain student success. When parties like teachers, parents, and advocates are invited to the table, they often focus on information that is not available through state agencies.
The planning for California’s data system happened during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the planning team first began engaging the public about the potential focus of the data system, educators and parents were desperate for information that could help address unprecedented challenges, such as whether students had access to the internet and whether family members had contracted the disease. Inviting this input, only to be forced to clarify that this type of information was not currently available, could generate greater frustration.
Therefore, the planners listened for global themes that could be addressed through available data. For example, requests for information on internet access highlighted the importance of students’ access to fundamental resources that allow them to learn. This led to prioritizing institutional measures that could offer context about student outcomes, instead of only measures of the outcomes themselves.
For example, in order to understand college readiness measures in mathematics for foster youth at a given high school, a user would need to know the proportion of overall students at that high school who take four years of math. If math options are limited for all students, then challenges that foster youth might experience related to mastering math concepts might be a reflection of educational opportunity more than inherent ability.
Similarly, the focus on health data indicated the need to look at educational outcomes in the context of other factors. This input redoubled the planning team’s commitment to finding a way to bridge social service, health, and educational privacy frameworks so that a more comprehensive picture of student context could be provided. So while the immediate needs identified by community members could not be met, the planning team identified new approaches for combining administrative data sets to better understand the factors influencing student outcomes.