Texas is poised to be a national leader in early childhood data systems integration.
Generally when we think about the education in Texas, we think about grades K-12. In reality, however, education begins much earlier than kindergarten. Texas currently spends more than $1.5 billion dollars each year, both in state and federal dollars, for early childhood education and care programs. These programs serve children from infancy to five years of age in various settings including Head Start, public schools, and a broad range of community-based child care programs. With the exception of cutting edge programs like Texas School Ready, however, we know little about the effectiveness and the quality of this system, particularly the impact these programs have on young children over time.
Simple questions like, "What programs are effective?" continue to go unanswered. And, even more troubling, we struggle to answer the crucial question, "Are children entering school ready to succeed?"
One thing is certain: when children enter kindergarten, teachers and administrators know little about their previous experiences and settings (e.g. child care, public prekindergarten, Head Start, etc.). Often times, children enter kindergarten with varying levels of cognitive and social-emotional development, which then requires school districts to spend significant time and resources on remediation. Unfortunately, those remediation tactics produce mixed results: children who start school behind their peers in terms of cognitive and social-emotional development tend to remain behind throughout school and are more likely to drop out of high school.
So, what is the solution? On the one hand, it is encouraging that Texas agencies administering early childhood programs collect significant amounts of data and information related to the children they serve. In many cases, the data collected could be used to study the effectiveness and quality of the programs and then used to determine whether the children leaving those programs are adequately prepared for school. Unfortunately, current data collection habits are neither coordinated nor targeted. As is often the case, parents, schools districts, and policymakers are left to navigate a disjointed system without the crucial information they needed to make important decisions about programs that impact families across the state.
To be clear, our current early childhood system in Texas is not a system at all, but instead resembles a patchwork of programs. Among Texas agencies, consistency in data collection and reporting is lacking. Early care and education needs a common language that helps families can understand the differences and similarities among programs, ensures policymakers can make informed judgments about program efficacy, and assists schools to readily understand the needs of their incoming kindergarten students. Fortunately, over the last several years, increasing federal and state attention has been directed toward unifying historically fragmented systems. Within that push is a focus on improving data collection, reducing redundancies, and increasing efficiencies across programs. In October 2010, Texas received an $11.4 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families, in part, to do just that for the traditionally fragmented early childhood education system.
The development of a robust early childhood information exchange system is critical to reducing the effect of program silos and increasing coordination and collaboration across the early care and education spectrum in our state. When complete, the system will bring together the varied data collection systems and house pertinent early childhood data in one accessible and useable location. From this system, parents, school districts, researchers, and policymakers will have a much clearer picture of early childhood education system in Texas, particularly of the programs and services impacting our youngest Texans, and they will be better equipped to determine whether children are on-track to succeed.
Over the next three years, the Texas Early Learning Council will work with national and state experts to develop and implement a comprehensive, results-driven data collection system. The On-Track System (TOTS) will include safeguards to protect the information stored within it and will restrict access only to approved users. When complete, Texas will be one of the first states in the nation to have a fully functional early childhood information exchange system that will tie into the state's K-college/workforce data system, which is currently being revamped into the innovative Texas Student Data System.
For parents, TOTS will provide them with timely and accurate information about early care and education programs available in our state. Currently, information related to these programs is difficult to access and use. As a result, parents have the unenviable task of choosing programs and services for their children without a clear picture of whether these programs are effective. With the integrated information exchange system, however, parents will be able to access information about the effectiveness and the quality of programs and services in their area. This will support parents in making smart choices when selecting early care and education programs.
For teachers and school districts, TOTS will help them develop curricula that better addresses the needs of children entering their schools. As it stands now, if a teacher wants information about a child's enrollment in public prekindergarten or other state-funded programs including data on developmental progress or even attendance, she faces countless barriers. Either the data is held in a system inaccessible to the teacher or the information is not traceable back to the specific child. Information on enrollment in child care, in a home- or center-based setting is even more difficult to access. Clearly this inhibits a teacher's ability to develop effective teaching strategies best suited for the children in her classroom. But, with TOTS teachers will be able to access data that will describe the developmental progress of the children entering their classrooms and will outline whether the children attended public prekindergarten, child care, Head Start, or other programs offered across the state. With this information in hand, teachers and school districts will be better able to develop and implement strategies that meet the specific needs of children entering their schools, particularly those children who need remediation services.
Finally, for policymakers, TOTS will provide them with the information they need to develop and fund effective early childhood education and care programs for Texas. Currently, we spend a significant amount of state and federal dollars on a variety of early childhood programs across our state without the benefit of knowing which programs are most effective and are actually preparing our children for success in school. With an early childhood information exchange system, however, policymakers will be able to evaluate whether children have access to effective, quality programs and services prior to school entry.
As it stands now, 45 percent of children entering kindergarten are unable to demonstrate appropriate mastery of early literacy skills. Unfortunately, with our current data systems, it is impossible to know what programs and services these children may have received prior to school entry and therefore difficult to know which programs desperately need improvement. Clearly, there is a tremendous sense of urgency and importance for tackling the important challenge of developing an integrated data system.
This will not be an easy task; but, as a state, we cannot afford to maintain the status quo. Through the Texas Early Learning Council, Texas not only has the opportunity, but also the responsibility to provide parents, school districts and other community-based early childhood education stakeholders, and policymakers with the information and tools they need to ensure that children in Texas are ready for school and on-track to succeed.