The Learning Curve: San Diego Could Help the State Reach Its Preschool Data Dreams

Education

The Learning Curve: San Diego Could Help the State Reach Its Preschool Data Dreams

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to create a cradle-to-career data system that will track outcomes for California’s children. San Diego has a head start on creating such a system, but the state has denied it access to information that would make it far more valuable.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom – in what is perhaps one of the wonkiest signature initiatives of all time – has placed a huge emphasis on creating a cradle-to-career data system that will track outcomes for California’s children.

I say wonky but, as Newsom apparently knows, such a system could be extremely valuable in creating a more just society. It would tell us about people who access state social services from preschool to Medi-Cal, and give us information about whether that service changed the trajectory of their life. Did they go to college at a California State University system school? Did they get a job? What happened to the children who didn’t receive those services?

In theory, creating such a system shouldn’t be that difficult. But in practice, Newsom’s work appears as if it is going to take years. 

Meanwhile, a small team at the San Diego County Office of Education has created a breakthrough method for linking data from preschool to the K-12 system. What’s unclear is whether it will catch on – and whether anyone will ever be able to use it to study the efficacy of early childhood education. 

“There was no infrastructural investment. It is very scalable.” said Lucia Garay, the director of early education programs for the County Office of Education.

Garay works with a team of four people. And their work is fairly simple. The four-person team spends three weeks each year matching together two different databases. On the one end, Garay’s team created a preschool database with the help of quality-rated local child care providers. That database then gets linked to California’s CALPADS system, which tracks students from kindergarten to 12th grade. 

And that is incredibly exciting. That’s because it makes it possible to see how well children who went to quality-rated preschools did in reading and math, compared to those who didn’t. California taxpayers, in other words, get to see how well their investment in preschool is going. 

Only, they don’t. 

Garay and her team asked the California Department of Education to provide anonymized information about test scores that they might be able to link to their database. 

“Unfortunately, that request was denied,” said Garay. 

Meditate on that for a moment. Newsom wants to link up the state’s data systems so we can better track outcomes. One government agency in San Diego found a way to do it. But when it asked for the simple information it needed, it was blocked by a state government agency.  

The CALPADS system tracks all kinds of interesting information from suspension to absenteeism and, yes, test scores. Garay and her team members have access to CALPADS but they only see a relatively small amount of information. They can see a student’s name and date of birth and where they are enrolled in school. 

That’s the information they use in order to link up the two databases. (Most of the process is automated. But when a student doesn’t have an exact match in the database, a real human tries to match the files.) But since they can’t see the rest of the CALPADS information – and have been denied access to it – they are effectively blocked from tracking a whole host of interesting outcomes. Do students who went to quality-rated preschools miss school less often? Do Black students who attended quality preschools perform better than those who don’t?

For now, Garay’s work has only tracked a small percentage of students in San Diego County. In recent years, she tracked anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 students. And she has typically been able to link more than 90 percent of the preschool students to the CALPADS database. (Students who move out of state or attend private school don’t show up in CALPADS.)

Garay’s team has, so far, only tracked students who went to quality-rated child care centers. That includes Head Start programs, state-funded preschools and some others. But it doesn’t include all preschool programs in San Diego County. 

Garay believes with more funding her team could easily create a more comprehensive preschool and childcare database. They’re currently in the process of adding children who receive childcare vouchers to the database, and she believes they could also add just about every preschool in the county by working with agencies like the YMCA. 

Currently, the work is funded by a county organization known as First 5 San Diego. It receives no state funding. 

It’s not just the state Department of Education that has been cagey with its data. Garay sought data-sharing agreements with all 36 elementary school districts in the county. Instead, the county managed to get 12. Among those 12, five districts – South Bay Union, Cajon Valley, Vista Unified, San Ysidro and La Mesa-Spring Valley – agreed to work closely with the County Office of Education.

Analyzing how well your school district is running can be scary, said Garay. For instance, a school district might find that students who went to a quality-rated preschool performed better in kindergarten than their peers. But then the gains might disappear by first grade, which could indicate the school district isn’t doing a good job educating its students. 

“When you want to clean out your closet, you don’t invite your neighbors over,” she said. 

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