Three takeaways from a new survey on state preschool data capacity

Teacher teaching small children on classroom floor mat

Over the past year, I have been struck by the many challenges that pre-K leaders are facing coming out of the pandemic. I have heard stories about teachers leaving the workforce, centers that closed permanently, and statewide enrollment challenges. I have also heard stories of hope as our nation comes to appreciate more than ever the importance of quality experiences for young children, and with it, increased support for pre-K expansion.

In these conversations, one theme remains consistent – state leaders’ desires to make the best-informed decisions with the resources they are allotted. Undergirding that desire is the need for better data.

In a recent survey conducted by the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC) at Child Trends, I saw the themes I heard from state leaders illuminated. ECDC’s survey examined states' capacity to access, use, and link information on state-funded pre-K programs. They recently shared the results of this survey in a report and interactive maps that highlight each state's capacity to garner insights on children, programs, and workforce members and link those insights together to see the full picture.

Here were my biggest takeaways.

1. States have limited access to data about pre-K workforce needs

Last fall, I attended the NASLEE Roundtable, where I learned from state leaders about the immense pre-K workforce shortages that states are facing. In many cases, these shortages are limiting states’ ability to expand pre-K access. The Wall Street Journal estimated that over 300,000 teachers quit their jobs between 2020 and 2022, leaving many vacant positions across school districts. In states where the pay is substantially higher in K-5 classrooms, the pre-K teacher shortage is exacerbated as teachers leave for higher paid positions in elementary schools.

Many states have responded to these challenges by lowering pre-K workforce requirements or launching alternative certification programs, but little is known about the impact of these policies on classroom quality.

What ECDC found and why it matters:

The ECDC survey showed that roughly 1 in 4 states lack access to any workforce data compared to only 7% who don’t have access to any child-level data. Just under half of all states surveyed know how much educators are paid, while 60% of states surveyed can access data on workforce credentials. Only five states can tell you whether workforce members have access to health insurance.

Without this data, it will be hard for systems to answer: How does access to workforce benefits like health insurance impact retention and staff well-being? Where do we have enough workforce to expand programs? Are changes in workforce policies impacting children's educational experiences? Where are there bright spots for teacher recruitment, training, and retention that we should learn from?

A lack of workforce data will continue to make it hard for systems to make decisions and policies to support pre-K expansion.

Three grownups and a small child smiling for a picture
A child sits on his mother's lap during the grand opening of White Center's Educare Early Learning Center

2. States don't have enough data to understand family needs

Across the U.S., almost one-third of children served in public preschool programs are Dual Language Learners (DLLs): 29% of State Pre-K and 32% of Head Start. In some states, such as California, a majority of children ages 0-5 speak a language other than English at home. While early childhood programs are known to disproportionately benefit DLLs, programs need to meet family needs in order for children to receive these benefits. These needs may include teachers who speak children's home language or enrollment processes offered in a family’s home language.

I use Dual Language Learners as an example of why it's important for states to understand family characteristics and needs. Access is not just about whether there are available seats. It's about whether those seats meet the needs of families. If they don't, families will choose other options.

What ECDC found and why it matters:

Are programs open long enough to accommodate families' work schedules? Are workforce members receiving the professional development they need to better serve families? Are families and children receiving support in their home language? Do children see their identities and backgrounds reflected in instructional materials and educators?

At a minimum, states need to know the demographics of children, families, communities, and workforce members to answer these questions.

The ECDC survey found that less than half of survey respondents were able to report on the demographic characteristics of communities where pre-K programs are located (47%), which can be useful in outreach efforts. Even fewer states (17%) reported the ability to report on information about families’ needs. Only six states directly collect feedback from families, which limits their ability to understand whether preschools are meeting family and community needs.

Three children riding small tricycles
Children play at the Anne Arundel Community College Child Development Center

3. Antiquated data infrastructure holds states back from using available data

State agencies often face a perfect storm when it comes to data use:

  1. State agencies receive many urgent data requests, for instance, from the state legislature.
  2. State research and data teams are not well-staffed or are under-resourced.
  3. Data are stored in siloed datasets, often in data systems that are outdated. Some of these systems rely on code languages that are no longer used, meaning they are difficult, if not impossible, to update.

What ECDC found and why it matters:

The ECDC survey showed that only 49% of states store data in a central database or early childhood integrated data system (ECIDS). Those without a central database need to link data across disparate datasets just to get an unduplicated count of children served across programs. Furthermore, 69% of states reported data quality concerns related to linking data, which can require significant staff time to address, making it even more difficult to link data.

In my conversations with state leaders, I have heard that working with these data systems is so time consuming that state agencies are barely able to meet minimum data requests, let alone dig into the types of analyses they need for systems improvement. Modernized data systems can enable more seamless reporting, cleaning, linking, and secure storing of data. Without investments in data systems modernization, many state agencies will struggle to use the data that they already have.

Elliot Regenstein of Foresight Law + Policy shares a thoughtful piece on the benefits of data modernization for early childhood integrated data systems, including financial implications for the state.


“This report highlights strengths and areas for improvement in pre-K data accessibility,” shared ECDC Executive Director Carlise King. “Access to detailed data on families' experiences, workforce needs, and system outcomes is crucial for equipping leaders to make data-informed systems change that will create preschool environments where all children thrive.”

ECDC used these survey results to inform their STEP Forward with Data Framework, a new tool that helps preschool leaders assess data gaps and identify action steps for creating equitable preschool systems. We are proud to support organizations like Child Trends who are shining a light on questions that are critical to ensuring we can all deliver for children and families.