The Building Equitable Pathways project provides several important lessons about the effectiveness of data-related technical assistance offerings. While critical data-related capabilities can be built at the organizational and regional level with sufficient support, that support is most effective when delivered in the context of real-time planning and problem solving. Some challenges, however, cannot be surmounted by individual organizations acting independently. Breakthroughs in data access and agreement on key indicators will require dialogue and coordinated action.
Additional takeaways include the need for stronger federal, state, and regional data systems and a shared data culture that supports learning and improvement. Intermediary organizations need state partners to leverage useful data, as well as data-forward leadership from local employers, schools, and students. Participating organizations were more successful when they had explicit audiences in mind for their data reporting and support from not only their CEO but also from other staff and partners.
Looking forward, CREC sees a need for four improvements that will support the development of data capacity to expand education and career pathways for low-income, Black, and Latinx youth:
- State and local alignment;
- Stronger networks of data professionals;
- More effective support for intermediary organizations’ data access; and
- Programs that remove barriers to accessing employment information.
CREC and Jobs for the Future identified key “data enabling” conditions for building more equitable pathways—data inputs, data capacity (availability, access, and applications), and a data culture to leverage data as a strategic and community asset (see Figure 2 below). Individual organizations cannot solve data challenges alone. They need to engage an ecosystem of actors who are committed to evidence-based decision making. As mentioned previously, the participating organizations ran into many barriers accessing state wage data, suggesting a need for stronger relationships to ensure data systems are better funded and utilized.
Developing more extensive state and regional partnerships will be critical to effective, evidence-based regional decision-making and sustained improvements across school and employment systems. Research capacities need to increase, which will require that leaders of intermediary organizations and their funding partners understand the complexity of the work and the resources needed to staff data analysis and support data users. Capabilities need to increase across federal and state agencies as well, so that data users have support in accessing, visualizing, and interpreting survey results and administrative data. In addition to increased capabilities, a shared learning or “research” agenda and learning culture will be necessary to sustain the work.
Figure 2: Critical Data Ecosystem Conditions
Stronger Networks of Data Professionals
CREC partners with two professional networks that are key to generating and sustaining data sharing at the state and regional level: The Council for Community and Economic Research and the Labor Market Information Institute. These professional networks bolster research capacity at the organizational level and provide critical insights for designing demand-driven career pathways. Intermediaries and other organizations with limited research capacity should consider partnering with these networks to bolster both individual and organizational data-related capabilities.
CREC’s individualized assistance ensured that skills were learned on the job in context of problem solving; however, some important data-related capabilities are difficult to teach while others require additional resources and tools. Lessons learned for future program design include:
- Organizations engaged in data process improvement efforts benefited from a variety of assistance, including training and peer learning; and
- Expert-led sessions were most useful when connections were leveraged immediately to inform ongoing work with targeted applications.
Participating organizations with specific audiences and objectives in mind were better able to process new information and identify data and data infrastructure solutions that were “fit for purpose.” For some organizations, this meant working within the context of organizational challenges; for others it meant leveraging outside expertise. The peer learning sessions challenged organizations to describe and accept feedback on their approaches to building more equitable pathways in real time. This prompted some organizations to consider utilizing more disaggregated data.
CREC identified three areas where it was particularly difficult to make progress, where specific conditions had to be met: engaging other data owners effectively to share data, gaining consensus on common indicators of success, and accessing/analyzing student persistence and employment outcomes information. These challenges must be addressed through programming in collaboration with state and regional partners. For future cohorts, these partner commitments could be designed into the project with explicit shared goals for leveraging data as a strategic asset.
State and federal agencies are important but require additional infrastructure and delivery upgrades to provide relevant data to key stakeholders. These partnerships, particularly those with state agencies, will be especially important for the intermediary organizations that aim more directly for data system change at the state and regional level.
Participating organizations had difficulty accessing confidential data because they did not have the necessary funding, partnerships, and technical language, or the pre-requisite data management skills. Some are also operating in states where minimal support is provided by state agencies.
Employment information is critical for understanding the outcomes of program participants. It must be shared purposefully and securely for explicit public benefits. Organizations and state agencies are more likely to share their data if they see a clear beneficial outcome for students and job seekers. Transparent processes for data sharing and addressing privacy concerns can help to ensure buy-in from data providers, program managers, and other stakeholders. Given this persistent barrier, CREC has pivoted to exploring ways for intermediaries to access this wage data through partners such as the Coleridge Initiative. This potential partnership could be particularly helpful for states that do not have funding to improve their own data systems.
The greatest risk to this project was that the disruptions from environmental, economic, political, and social events would distract participants and partners from making incremental progress toward larger systems change goals. COVID was a pressing issue for many organizations during this initiative. Gun violence disrupted communities across the country and affected organizational priorities to varying degrees.
During this time there was also an influx of federal funding for education, economic development, and infrastructure (including funding targeted to these activities and to workforce and social services that states and localities have received through the Treasury State and Local Fiscal Relief fund) which provided the opportunity and threat of a shift in focus. In some cases, these investments added to and in others distracted from the need to target investment through evidence-based decision making. CREC’s strategy was to help organizations sustain their priority work as they pivoted to address urgent needs by providing relevant curriculum.
A final risk was that CREC might fail to identify, center, and support the expertise of individuals from participating organizations and the communities they serve. If their voices and expertise were not centered, there was a risk that our contributions could undermine rather than bolster the broader systems change work these organizations are seeking. For this reason, CREC relied on and continues to seek counsel from established intermediary organizations and leaders from Black, Latinx, and low-income backgrounds to inform necessary changes.
Major changes are still required to sustain the data-related work of these education and workforce intermediaries. For example, state labor market information agencies could streamline data sourcing and analysis but would need more sizable funding to reverse decades of disinvestment. Without an infusion of funding, partner organizations must enable state agency leaders and analysts to introduce more innovative processes and products to serve their clients while building their reputation and credibility as trusted data providers. There is significant work to be done, and intermediary organizations have much to contribute to a more robust and collaborative research and learning agenda that engages students as well as federal and state agencies. This collaboration has the potential to deliver more effective evidence-based investments for regional economies nationwide.
For organizations and regional leaders planning to invest in data as a strategic asset, these tools can improve results.
- Learn about publicly available data & labor market information (LMI)
- Assess data management capabilities
- Connect with others to share resources and success stories
What is Labor Market Information? Where does it come from?
This LMI Primer (pdf) contains a broad view of the many sources Labor Market Information, including the agencies, data sources, and use cases. It is a resource created for Building Equitable Pathways Community of Practice and included in the Public Data for Building Equitable PathwayseLearning course.
Get familiar with LMI data sources with CREC eLearning course
Interested in learning even more about how to access and analyze any of the datasets described above (or how to use LMI to inform your pathway work more broadly)? Check out our eLearning course: Public Data for Equitable Pathways (pdf). This course may qualify for points toward a Certified Economic Research Professional certification.
Key LMI data source for building equitable pathways research: SLDS
Does your state have a State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS)? Check the status on the Education Commission of the States (ECS) SLDS State Profiles webpage. Use this website to find out if your SLDS contains information from early learning, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce systems.
Assess Data Management Capabilities
Understand your current data capabilities
Start with an activity to understand your organization’s data management and governance practices. Keep in mind your organization’s unique data needs and solutions, and work through the following questions:
- What is your data management vision – what is the purpose of the data you collect?
- Who has access to what information, when, and why?
- What tools do you have to share information about the data you collect and store?
For many organizations, developing a data dictionary is a first step to understanding and sharing information about data collected and available for analysis. Do you have a data dictionary or other inventory that is easy for data users (e.g., staff and partners) to understand?
The following resources may be useful for data-driven leaders and technical staff at your organization:
- Introduction to Data Management & Governance (pdf).
- If you work with sensitive or data that identifies individual program participants, reflect on your organization’s data security with this checklist (pdf) and check out this more comprehensive self-assessment (pdf).
- Use this worksheet (pdf) to identify who is responsible for your organization’s internal data system.
Build a strong foundation with a CREC eLearning course
Now that you have a high-level vision and issues in mind for improving your organization’s data management and governance, next comes the hard work of putting it into practice! If you are looking for a larger overview of the concepts and principles behind data management and governance, check out our eLearning course:Fundamentals of Data Management and Governance (pdf).
Join a community and share your success!
In organizations where staff and resources are focused on service provision, the operational data and research professionals are the champions for daily governance of the data used for program evaluation, advocacy, and systems change. You may be the only dedicated data or research professional at your organization, but you are not alone!
Participating in a community or joining a professional association is a great way to get inspired with new ideas, learn about evidence-based practices, collaborate with other professionals and organizations toward a common goal, and demonstrate your leadership skills.
CREC partners with two professional networks: The Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) and the Labor Market Information Institute (LMII). C2ER promotes excellence and leadership in community, economic, and workforce research through professional development and networking; unique quality products; and the availability, analysis and use of data. LMII supports and promotes the production and use of high-quality workforce and employment information by providing training and professional development to state and other LMI professionals.
Receive C2ER/LMII updates: Learn about state and federal initiatives; data systems change advocacy; cutting-edge community development research; analysis of up-to-date Cost of Living Index data; upcoming in-person and remote trainings; certification opportunities; and annual conference updates.Subscribe here.
Attend the C2ER Annual Conference/LMI Institute Annual Forum – with a Building Equitable Pathways track!
The annual C2ER conference provides economic and workforce development researchers a forum to discuss innovate ways to use data, hear about leading practices in the field, and network with a larger community.
At the 2024 conference, you will have the chance to:
- Hear from speakers and attend workshops targeted at Building Equitable Pathways organizations
- Rub shoulders with federal agency decision-makers
- Learn from the most innovative and inspiring practitioners
- Take home real, actionable steps to advance equitable pathways through data
For more information, read about a collaborator’s experience: Reimagining Data Ecosystems at the C2ER Conference. Registration and conference agenda for the 2024 conference is available here.
Meet our Partners in Building Equitable Pathways
Jobs for the Future was the convening organization of the Building Equitable Pathways Community of Practice. Their Resource Library contains resources relevant to all strands of the community of practice, including Data & Infrastructure.
Equal Measure served as the learning and evaluation partner to the BEP initiative, developing the Equitable Pathways Intermediary Framework and corresponding surveys for intermediary staff and partners. Read their report from June 2023 that describes the Equitable Pathways Intermediary Framework as it relates to the Building Equitable Pathways Community of Practice and view the framework graphic below.
Figure 3: Equitable Pathways Intermediary Framework
The Center for Innovation in Education (CIE) (a.k.a. Leading with Learning) provided education- and equity-focused technical assistance to the Community of Practice. Visit their Resources page to learn about their latest insights into the national, state, and local education landscape.
 The graphic is slightly adapted from Equal Measure’s Equitable Pathways Intermediary Framework.