Integrated Early Childhood Data Is an Essential Tool for Advancing Racial and Ethnic Equity
Early childhood integrated data systems (ECIDS) offer policymakers a comprehensive view of early learning investments and children’s and families’ experiences with different intervention services from birth. Since 2009, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC) at Child Trends has focused on advancing policies and practices to help state leaders develop, implement, and use ECIDS. In response to the enhanced national focus on racial inequities—and the increased urgency to rebuild and strengthen early care and education systems in light of disparities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—ECDC consulted with experts in early childhood, racial equity, and early childhood data systems to assess how efforts to collect, integrate, and share data can support the creation of more equitable systems and outcomes for young children and families.
ECDC is creating a variety of resources based on insights from these experts and grounded in the wealth of resources from the field, which will highlight ways to use integrated data to drive equity. This brief first establishes the need for integrated data, and then offers three recommendations for policymakers intended to improve the collection and use of integrated data to address families’ intersecting needs and remove barriers for communities.
The Role of ECIDS in Policy Making
As early childhood state and local policy leaders seek to address existing inequities, they must have access to timely, high-quality data that describes the full scope of communities’ strengths and needs. An ECIDS coordinates information about program participation, child care supply, and workforce characteristics from multiple data systems. When combined, these data can be used to help policymakers, practitioners, and researchers understand which families have access to programs, where there are service and workforce gaps, how children fare later in their educational trajectory, and what programs best meet the needs of children and families.
Recommendations for policymakers
1. Gather and report data that can be disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Gathering, reporting, and using disaggregated data is an essential first step for assessing and informing current early childhood systems and policies that strive to be more equitable. Equity is achieved when a person’s race or ethnicity no longer predicts their educational, health, or economic outcomes. Disaggregating data by race and ethnicity helps decision makers understand where disparities exist and the degree to which certain demographics experience these disparities. This information allows for alignment of policy responses and allocation of resources toward the greatest need.
Unfortunately, many state and federal early childhood data sources lack comprehensive information about children, families, and early learning professionals’ experiences, or fail to provide data that are disaggregated by race and ethnicity or by other key demographic variables (i.e., disability, income, language status). This lack of data hinders efforts to measure and advance racial equity.
2. Include historical context when interpreting and identifying underlying causes of racial disparities. Disaggregation of data alone will not advance equity if policymakers do not understand that the racial disparities experienced by children, families, and early learning professionals within the early childhood industry are the result of discriminatory policies and practices shaped by a history of racism, sexism, and classism. This history created unequal systems, treatment, and resources for people of color—and especially women—that have had ripple effects over generations. While it is important to respond to communities’ immediate needs, policymakers must simultaneously identify and change institutional policies and practices that produce inequities. Unless they do, disparities will persist.
Data about children’s well-being and their access to resources that support their development is one tool that can help communities combat racist policies. Data must be shared broadly and regularly, with appropriate historical context to help decision makers understand why disparities exist and to elevate community strengths that can be part of proposed solutions. Sharing comprehensive, integrated data about where disparities and inequities persist—such as an analysis of program participation for low-come children, children of color, and American Indian Children in Minnesota—can equip policymakers and community leaders with the information needed to make informed decisions that reduce disparities and promote best practices for children, families, and educators. When sharing data, decision makers should provide context about the communities being served and about systemic racism so that users can understand what the data do and do not say.
3. Partner with communities at every stage of data collection and use—from prioritizing what questions to answer, to designing secure integrated data systems, to acting on data to respond to children and families’ needs. Families, early learning professionals, and community leaders must be full partners in planning, analyzing, integrating, and reporting early childhood data. At the inception of data collection, or when building a data system, families and early learning professionals can provide essential input on communities’ needs, strengths, and urgent questions, as well as practical input on data collection strategies and ways to address data privacy fears and concerns. And when decision makers analyze and report data, families and professionals can provide the context needed to understand and act. Without their insight, policy responses might miss the mark and fail to address discriminatory policies that lead to systemic barriers for families.
As states work to improve the equity of outcomes for children and families of color—and to invest in improving the early care and education workforce—integrated data are an essential tool for understanding the different experiences of groups and whether initiatives and polices are making systems more equitable over time. We hope that these recommendations, our new infographic, and our forthcoming guiding principles for data integration will build awareness of the valuable role that integrated data play in equity efforts and lead policymakers to support the use of integrated data in efforts to improve early learning systems for all children.
 Gross, E. (2019, Sep 16). Equitable Research Reporting [Webinar]. In Professional Development and Child Care and Early Childhood Education Policy and Research Analysis Workforce Workgroup Series. Adapted from Racial Equity Tools’ racial equity definition.