Strengthening Capacity of State Data Systems
State data systems can overwhelm both public and private programs and organizations, but the Center for IDEA Early Childhood Data Systems (DaSy) has developed a new framework for an effective statewide data system for early intervention and preschool special education.
According to Martha Diefendorf, co-lead of DaSy TA Planning and Coordination, helping to improve services for every child means being able to answer key questions.
“Where do kids do better?” she said. “Which children have better outcomes when they enter preschool? What are the characteristics of effective programs? What are the characteristics of the workforce that predict the best outcomes?” Diefendorf noted that with the right tools and strategies, the answers to these and many other critical questions can arise from the wide array of data compiled by state early intervention (Part C) and preschool special education programs (Section 619) supported through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“States want to improve their data sets,” said Diefendorf. “DaSy helps them focus on the quality and depth of their data and on building new linkages with data from other programs.”
The Office of Special Education Programs funded the DaSy Center, which is a multi-institutional collaborative effort to work with state Part C and 619 coordinators and data managers, local administrators, technical assistance specialists, and others. DaSy tailors its support to be responsive to needs of states of different sizes and with different structures, but the end goal always remains the same: helping to arm decision-makers with the right information to improve programs for young children with special needs.
According to Diefendorf, the quality of the data is paramount. “Data collection is an important emphasis,” she said. “A primary consideration, of course, is how useful the data will be.”
Not surprisingly, the process of building an effective statewide data system—capable of crossing agency boundaries and tracking information over several years—comes with several challenges.
“Sometimes the people who need to use the data are not necessarily the people who construct the system,” Diefendorf said. “Administrators also can face constraints due to resources and finances, as well as having to resolve issues about privacy and confidentiality and who governs the data.”
She added that some states have systems in place but don’t have the tools to tweak or overhaul them—or even to decide which course would be better. DaSy also helps states make better use of the information they already have on hand.
Despite the numerous complexities involved in building a useful data system, Diefendorf (right) said FPG’s rich history of technical assistance successes make her optimistic. “Ten years ago, we faced a similar challenge with helping states report on child and family outcomes, but thanks to the Early Childhood Outcomes Center, every state today can report on major outcomes.”
Part of Diefendorf’s optimism also comes from DaSy’s strong partnership with seven states to develop the DaSy Data System Framework. This new resource, including a corresponding self-assessment, provides a guiding structure for technical assistance and a valuable reference for states when they assess key aspects of their data system and plan for coordination. As a component of the ECTA System Framework, the Data System Framework is organized around six subcomponents: Purpose and Vision, Data Governance and Management, Stakeholder Engagement, System Design and Development, Data Use, and Sustainability.
It was a major endeavor to develop the framework, using an iterative process and involving many stakeholders. “Collaboration can slow the process, but it is essential,” Diefendorf said. “We take it seriously.”
Through numerous quality indicators across several components, the new DaSy framework conveys the characteristics and capabilities of an effective, integrated state data system. In turn, this knowledge can help decision-makers to lead or actively participate in developing their state’s data system.
As a result, new or enhanced data systems will enable states to comply with federal reporting requirements to answer important program and policy questions and inform program improvement.
“In the end, states will be able to build better systems of services and programs,” said Diefendorf. “And that can improve outcomes for young children with disabilities and for their families.”