This post was co-authored by Ruth Lett and Nancy Copa.
Answering the questions that matter often involves a lengthy data linking or integration process. Early childhood analysts frequently must conquer a blank page when figuring out how best to explore the data and display their results effectively, especially if there is limited prior work to draw from. Of course, none of this is made easier if analysts only have tools that weren’t designed for the unique context of early childhood. It’s enough to make anyone feel like they are starting construction on a building without any blueprints. Fortunately, there are a few tools that we can put in our utility belt to conquer these challenges with ease.
CHALLENGE: Linking and comparing data between early childhood programs and services is a pain.
We’ve all been there. We’re striving to respond to a question that might involve piecing together a child’s experience across half a dozen programs and funding streams or understanding many facets of a child and their family such as their cultural context, linguistic needs, performance on assessments, attendance, poverty status, and use of early childhood services. (For more information about what questions are often asked, check out DaSy Critical Questions or INQUIRE.)
Then the dreaded question comes: where are the data for all these pieces of the puzzle? The answer is rarely easy. One piece is in an Excel file on someone’s desktop. The other is in a relational data system housed by another organization. Yet another is stored in a text document.
There is no universal agency or organization that serves as a strong institutional backbone for our field of compassionate practitioners, administrators, researchers, funders, advocates, and partners. Custom solutions are the rule, not the exception when early childhood data are collected, transformed, or warehoused. So, what happens when we’re pulling together that Excel file, text document, and extract from the external data system? A costly and time-consuming headache. Even if you’re lucky enough to have it all under one roof, chances are that you’ll still need to join data across datasets that aren’t well-aligned.
Data are the building materials we need for construction. Starting with disparate datasets is a lot like having to get building materials from a bunch of different suppliers each with their own way of describing their product. To figure out whether we have everything we need for our project we need to determine how these materials fit together. Did we get two boxes of nails from different suppliers? If so, is one of them higher quality than the other?
It’s a lot easier to figure these things out once we can describe our materials with a common language, a data standard. Common Education Data Standard (CEDS) is built to do just that. CEDS helps you create data dictionaries for your source datasets. Once your datasets are mapped to a standard then the CEDS mapping tool (Align) can show you side by side views of your data dictionaries to help you more easily find overlaps and gaps.
CHALLENGE: The early childhood analytics white space can be daunting
Okay, so you’ve cleared the hurdle of figuring out what questions you need to answer and the data you need as well as how you’re going to integrate it, now you get down to the work of creating an analysis plan. Do you find yourself staring at a blank document with a cursor blinking at you? Yup. Working from an existing model for successful data analysis can be a good way to begin. If we can find the right example, we can borrow from the conceptual framework, the thoughtful analysis questions, and even the visual design of the output. Even if we don’t find just the right thing, having something to react to can help us figure out what we need for our own analysis by showing us what we don’t want.
How likely is it that you’re trying to answer a question that your organization has found answers for already? Not very, right? Perhaps, some quick Google searches might help?
If you’d like to explore the blueprints that others have used to create their early childhood analyses, then CEDS Connect can provide examples. CEDS Connect is a library with more than 25 early childhood analysis questions defined and includes information about data elements, preparations steps, and analysis recommendations. Check out this interactive tree map that shows shared connections that you can click on to learn more. These have been created by state agencies and research partners such as the Kentucky Center for Education & Workforce Statistics (KCEWS) and the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP).
CHALLENGE: Trying to use tools built for K-12 can feel like putting a round peg in a square hole
When done right, data accurately captures the reality that it represents. That’s difficult to accomplish when the tools you’re using weren’t built for the type of project you’re working on. Imagine you were trying to create a blueprint for an early childhood center using a software package made for designing a public high school building. It’s certainly a much closer fit than a skyscraper or a public library but you’re probably still going to run into trouble. For example, if you’re designing a room that can support infant care, you’d want to add a diapering station with a sink, right? A tool that was built for a public high school might have an option for restroom facilities, but it won’t be even close to what’s needed. Early learners have different age groupings of interest, early childhood educators have different credentials and qualifications, and early childhood programs have different accreditations and quality improvement systems than our K-12 counterparts.
Fortunately, all the tools in our utility belt are built with early childhood systems in mind. With more than 350 early learning elements, CEDS mapping is built to handle early learning agency, program, and providers level data. There are 110 early learning maps in CEDS mostly from early learning agencies and 18 of them are shared publicly. Click here to explore them further.
Now that you know what tools in your utility belt are best for the job, your next step is to try them out. Start by visiting the CEDS website and exploring the Align and Connect tutorials. Then, create a user account (it’s free!) and test out how easy they are to use. Or explore the Connect library without even logging in to get a feel for the robust information available.
If you’re new to CEDS, there are a couple of ways to explore; you can search online or download scripts for everything you need to quickly create new fields in your own data system such as element names, definitions, and option sets. Everything is free including getting assistance from a mapping expert which is a relief in this resource constrained field. Plus, your map remains private until you choose to share it publicly.
Once you’re ready to get started, contact the CEDS team to provide a demonstration for your group or to talk about how they can offer you free assistance.