For the past couple of years, we’ve been working with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood to improve their systems for managing early care and education data. We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons about what it takes to achieve success. Because we’re eager to share these lessons with others, we recently launched an initiative to create a nation-wide handbook of best practices for early care and education information systems. We’ve made great progress with the handbook, including initial research findings, but could use additional research participants from state agencies in the early childhood space to help us make sure it’s as useful as possible.

An overview of our work with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood

In 2019, we began working with the State of Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood (OEC) on a number of initiatives under their Preschool Development Grant. The initial engagement began with a redesign of the OEC website — the front door of the agency that provides early care and education information to many different types of constituents including families, child care providers and educators, researchers, and more.

Throughout our first year working with OEC, we had the opportunity to do extensive research within the early care and education community in Connecticut, learning about the key pain points related to access to resources, data collection and information sharing, and state-wide collaboration. Through this research, we brought together insights to inform opportunity areas that would improve the experiences of families, child care providers, and OEC staff alike.

In the spring of 2019, we turned our focus to OEC’s data collection system — the Early Childhood Information System (ECIS). ECIS was a platform that enabled providers to submit information to OEC about children who were receiving state and federal funding. This data is critical for OEC to report on the impact and reach of those funds, identify gaps in service, and understand more about the families they serve across their state. The ECIS platform wasn’t without its challenges, as we heard from early research with child care providers. The platform wasn’t intuitive to navigate, asked for a wealth of information without clearly-defined requirements, and resulted in a frustrating user experience for providers who are already managing an enormous amount of activities as well as their own child information management systems.

Using a human-centered design approach, we conducted research with child care providers across the state around their experience with submitting data to the agency. In parallel, we worked with OEC to understand their data collection requirements and the key questions OEC needed to answer. Part of the work was helping OEC think strategically about the data it collects to answer important questions around childcare access, availability of services and resources across the state, and the impact of those resources, while also keeping providers’ needs for a user-friendly and useful process in mind.

From the research, the team decided to develop a new interface and user experience for the data collection process — renamed as ECE Reporter (Early Care and Education Reporter), prioritizing OEC’s need to have complete data collected and providers’ need to provide data efficiently. In addition to employing a user-centered design approach, the team also used software development best practices and a modern technology stack to ensure smooth maintenance and sustainability for the agency.

With the redesign, ECE Reporter provides an easy bulk upload for providers to share their monthly data to OEC using a template developed from reviewing common existing management systems and OEC’s data collection requirements. In addition, providers are able to use ECE Reporter to keep a roster of all students receiving state and federal funding, and in the near future, will be able to use the system to generate required reports.

Six stages of delivering early care and education services (discovery, intake, program delivery, reporting, monitoring, and assessment), from the perspective of families, programs, and the Office of Early Childhood.

The stages of delivering early care and education services — from the perspective of families, programs, and the Office of Early Childhood.

The challenges we heard for child enrollment data collection, such as unclear data requirements and difficult site navigation, weren’t unique to ECIS. We also learned through our research that providers interact with other data collection systems with similar challenges, such as the professional development Registry, which requires overlapping data to ECIS, but isn’t connected to it.

We found that these disparate data systems also pose challenges for OEC, making it difficult to see a holistic picture of how programs and services are provided to children and families within the state. Using ECE Reporter as a blueprint, our intent is to bring the data collection and ingestion process that we developed to other tools at the agency as well (such as the Registry). ECE Reporter data is the first of soon to be many data inputs that connect to a longitudinal data warehouse — so that OEC can aggregate, query, and monitor data that’s collected throughout the agency and answer their key questions.

Lessons learned from developing ECE Reporter for the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood

The path to the OEC’s ECE Reporter solution wasn’t an easy one. It required a lot of experiences, iterations, and pivots based on feedback and aligning around agency goals to get there. In reflection, we’ve highlighted some key takeaways or “lessons learned” from the engagement that we hope can be helpful to those embarking on, or currently exploring, similar challenges.

Lesson #1: Start with goals and questions

  • Understanding both stakeholders and target audiences’ experiences is critical to balancing needs and requirements.
  • Learning stakeholder goals and key questions helps define data requirements, data collection processes, and aspirational data needs.
  • Having a clear strategic goal supports a near- and long-term vision, even if that long-term vision is constantly changing to reflect lessons learned throughout the process.

Lesson #2: Define collaboration and partnership relationships

  • Determining responsibilities and capacity of stakeholders is necessary for sustainability and long-term success.
  • Frequent but succinct communication with both stakeholders and a diversity of representatives from target audiences is helpful for gathering feedback and determining risks.

Lesson #3: Track decisions and important milestones

  • Due to natural busy times in the field, such as the start of the school year, legislative sessions, etc., it’s important to have a clear roadmap and decisions captured to help keep everyone informed and the work moving forward.

Lesson #4: Be adaptive and flexible within parameters

  • With expected and unexpected learnings and circumstances, such as COVID-19, following an iterative development process allows for quick change and the ability to meet new expectations.

Creating a nation-wide handbook of best practices for early care and education information systems

As we’ve engaged in this work, the researchers on the team wondered how we could share our learnings, as well as explore how other states have encountered similar (or different) challenges and approached solving them. In recent months and especially in light of the urgency the pandemic has had in the child care and education space, we’ve opened our efforts to learn more about the early care and education agencies across the country — including their programs, experiences, and pain points. Our goal is to create a handbook of early care and education best practices — specifically regarding data systems, interagency collaboration, and resourcing.

Key objectives for this research include:

  • To learn more about structures, goals, processes, and challenges of different states’ early care and education departments/agencies
  • To learn more about early care and education programs and services, and how they’re administered and evaluated
  • To understand common data goals, needs, and challenges
  • To explore common solutions, models, and/or systems for meeting programs, services and data needs, and how successful they are

As many organizations are currently capacity constrained in response to the pandemic, we’ve been able to connect with a handful of states who’ve been very willing to share their strategic agendas, lessons learned, and where they’re looking for their own support. We’ve heard an expressed interest in states desiring to know what others have tried and what’s worked. Our hope is that this handbook can aggregate the insights from states across the country, be a shared resource to draw from regarding early care and education infrastructure, and serve as the starting point for more interstate collaborations.

Early findings from our research

Although we’re still early in the research process of developing the handbook, some interesting themes have started to emerge:

Data collection and reporting

  • It’s important to get to an unduplicated child count in order to use data to determine budget requests, service gaps, and how well the department/agency’s programs and services are serving children and families.
  • Many states are currently working towards a longitudinal data system.
  • Silos between teams, unconnected data systems, and limited IT capacity leads to inefficiencies and poor experiences for both providers and staff who need to meet rules and regulations.

Interagency collaboration

  • Departments/agencies across states are structured and set up differently regarding early care and education programs and services, with some consolidating education and others consolidating child care.
  • There are many efforts to coordinate interagency collaboration and data sharing, especially around strategic goals and initiatives. This allows state departments to gain a more holistic picture of how children and families are being served.
  • State departments/agencies are at varying stages in their strategic goals and plans due to funding, capacity, and partnerships.
  • Local community networks in some states are highly active and engaged, especially regarding resource referrals, local jurisdictions, and community needs.

Improving end-user experience

  • There’s an effort by some states to create single applications (or “common apps”) to “put the burden on the system” and take the burden off of families to help them identify the best resources for their needs. However, there are significant issues regarding data sharing and privacy that restrict these efforts.

Help us create a nation-wide handbook of best practices for early care and education information systems

In our effort to produce a handbook, we’re eager to continue speaking with other states to learn about their experiences, challenges, and solutions. We’re looking for agencies who focus on early care and education to please reach out to our team and contribute to this collaborative handbook!

We know these aren’t easy times and are super appreciative of any time taken to share your experiences. Our goal is to continue our research to finalize and distribute the handbook by early 2021. As part of any conversations we have, we’d be happy to share more about our work and learnings thus far, and will be sure to follow up with any of your needs or other ways we can help.

If you or someone you know is interested in getting in touch to talk with us, please contact us at [email protected]. We look forward to learning from you all and to sharing our handbook in the coming months!