“Data and equity have to lead to some sort of action that leads to a better outcome.”
—Iheoma U. Iruka, Ph.D., during the Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminar
On Sept. 13, 2023, Building Bright Futures Executive Director Dr. Morgan Crossman moderated the inaugural Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminar, a new series hosted by Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center to elevate and disseminate high-quality data and data-related topics that affect Vermont’s early childhood system. The seminar featured national experts Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka, Carlise King, and Dr. Shantel E. Meek discussing equity-focused early childhood data efforts. It was attended live by over 75 individuals from Vermont and across the country.
Each of the three expert panelists began by talking about some of the major topics that they and their organizations are currently tackling in the realm of equity-focused early childhood data efforts; they then shared some of the challenges they’ve experienced and the lessons they’ve learned related to equity in early childhood data.
Iheoma U. Iruka, Ph.D., is a Research Professor in the Department of Public Policy and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC Chapel Hill.
“One of the things I think about with data and equity, particularly with the work I do around the Black diaspora community, is around counternarrative,” Iruka said. “When you’re a member of a community that is often marginalized—thought of as lazy, as not valuable, as not human in many regards—you’re trying to use the data to reorient people to their humanity, to their civil rights.”
Carlise King, M.A., is a Policy Scholar and Executive Director of the Early Childhood Data Collaborative at Child Trends. King also leads the Early Childhood Systems Unit for the Early Childhood Development research area.
“As we think about the data that we have available about early learning experiences right now, we picture it as this big puzzle,” King said. “A lot of the information that we might need to take action is disconnected—housed in multiple different data systems, uncoordinated, or managed by different federal and state agencies… A child may be receiving food and nutrition services, but also eligible for public preschool or other services, and those services are not connected. When we’re not connecting these data, we don’t have [access to] the full array of the services that children are receiving in a community—and those who are not being served.”
Shantel E. Meek, Ph.D., is a Professor of Practice and the Founding Director of the Children’s Equity Project (CEP) at Arizona State University. Prior to founding the CEP, Dr. Meek served in the Obama Administration as a Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as a Senior Policy Advisor for Education in the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.
Meek described a framework for creating an equitable system through addressing Access, Experiences, and Outcomes, or AEO. Meek noted, “The ‘E’ (Experiences) [aspect] is so critical, but it is often the one that is attended to the least in data, the one that is the hardest and most complex, and the one that we’re missing most often—but it’s obviously critical to the Outcomes that we’re seeing, to the fairness and equity in the system.”
Demographic Data That Tells the Whole Story
Crossman noted that demographic data collection has arisen as one of Vermont’s key challenges in the equity data space. “How do we truly capture the experience of the people we’re trying to serve in our states and around the country?” she asked. Panelists identified a number of strategies, such as:
- Using neighborhood-level data
- Making careful choices about integrating data from multiple sources
- Aggregating data in rural communities to keep personal information secure
- Making sure that data collection participants understand why sensitive questions are being asked and why they are important
Iruka, who sits on the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee, gave an example of a proposed revision to the way the Census collects race and ethnicity data. Instead of the current method of asking separately about race (“White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”) and ethnicity (“Hispanic or Latino/Not Hispanic or Latino”), there has been a proposal to combine the two categories.
“When we’re trying to make data decisions with demographics, it may seem simple at first, but we may not understand the implications of that decision-making… It’s important that you understand from different members of your community what that data represents. Race and ethnicity are not the same thing… If you don’t talk to the diversity of your community, you may actually make decisions about your data that may have unintended consequences that are likely to harm those who may not be the majority.”
Panelists shared the most important lessons they and their teams have learned through their equity-focused data efforts.
Iruka emphasized having data that communicates clearly, doesn’t perpetuate false belief systems by failing to provide historical and contemporary context, and is accompanied by a clear narrative. “Equity is about making sure that we remove barriers for those who are furthest from opportunity… For some people, [those barriers have been there] since the inception of this country. So it’s really important that when we talk about equity in data, we don’t talk about equality in data. We are clear about the benchmarks that show who has been furthest away from opportunity, making sure that we’re not saying that there is something wrong with marginalized identities, but that there is a system that contributes to continuous disparity. Equity-focused data efforts must tell the whole story, not just show data and hope that people are able to interpret it clearly.”
King concurred. “We can’t present demographic data and just have the reader fill in the blanks about why disparities exist in our data. It’s important that we put in the context of institutional policies and discriminatory practices that have affected specific groups… Along with that, it’s important to acknowledge the potential bias and the limitations of administrative data.” She also mentioned the importance of “promoting transparency around data use and parents’ rights around their own information.”
Meek agreed with her colleagues that it is key to ensure that “data is in the context of history and that we are including an analysis of root causes of disparities whenever we talk about disparities.” She gave the example of Black children being consistently overrepresented in data about school disciplinary measures. “Not often enough do we then pair [this data] with 1) the finding that there is no research to suggest that Black children behave worse or have more frequent misbehavior, and 2) that this is just the contemporary manifestation of historical violence and systemic exclusion of Black people and Black children in educational systems.”
The event concluded with questions from attendees. Participants from across Vermont engaged with the panelists to dig into some of the details of the issues raised during the panel discussion.
Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds is a new seminar series hosted by Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center, which is operated by Building Bright Futures, Vermont’s Early Childhood State Advisory Council. Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminars provide a forum to elevate and disseminate high-quality data and data-related topics that affect Vermont’s early childhood system, as well as national best practices. Professionals can earn continuing education credits for participating in these seminars.
Building Bright Futures and Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center look forward to offering our next Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminar in Spring 2024.