Commentary: City’s young and its families deserve a cradle-to-career data tracking system

Across the city of Boston’s agencies and departments, countless services are provided to children and families. From early childhood education through universal pre-K (UPK) and the Boston Public Schools to housing through the Boston Housing Authority, access to life-saving vaccines from the Boston Public Health Commission, and summer programs and jobs through Boston Centers for Youth & Families, Boston has all the pieces in place to support our children from cradle to career.

In spite of all of these resources, we know we must be doing more. Too many of our young people are not reaching their full potential and our safety nets miss too many young families. Many Black and Latino residents, like my constituents in District 4, lack equitable access to all the opportunities their city has to offer. Per the Uneven Path report, nearly three in every four Boston Black and Latinx students cannot read at their grade level. According to a Boston Globe report, one in four BPS valedictorians failed to get a bachelor’s degree in six years and 40 percent make less than $50,000 per year.

A 2018 report by Ernst and Young LLP found that there were more than 3,400 BPS students who were considered “off-track,” which means more than two years behind.

With a $3.99 billion budget, Boston’s services are vast, but not coordinated or targeted. This is why I, along with my Council colleagues Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy, filed a hearing order to create a cradle-to-career data tracking system.

The hearing, held recently at City Hall, revealed an obvious problem: The progress of children and the services they receive are not being monitored over time. With children and families moving within the city, changing schools, and receiving different services at different times, the city is providing its services with partial information. This makes what should be a very simple question - for example, how many school-aged children are there in the city - impossible to answer.

And without the benefit of a long view, we are unable to assess what programs and services truly work for children and families, and what don’t.

In other industries, data-driven decision-making is the standard we have come to expect. Can you imagine what sports in our Title Town would be without statistics? We would not have known just how good Bird’s shot from the 3-point line was, or Ortiz’s slugging average, or Brady’s TD/INT ratio. Data are how we should be measuring and comparing the standard so that we can continue to achieve the best results for our city. There is no reason our approach to education should not similarly utilize statistics to make the best calls for our students.

A longitudinal data system would be innovative for the city of Boston, but it is not a new idea. Similar systems have existed in Chicago and Washington, DC, for years and are often credited for improving child outcomes. The state of California, which educates nearly 20 times the number of schoolchildren as Boston, has launched its own system.

This work has also begun here in Massachusetts. A voluntary task force has linked education data to workforce data, and policymakers and researchers are already beginning to identify trends and interventions to better prepare Massachusetts high school graduates for college and career.

A longitudinal data system could unleash incredible resources and programs for our children and families. At our hearing, we heard from Harvard researchers who could partner with our schools to identify and expand best practices. We heard from policy experts and practitioners in early childhood and early college that a data system would create a foundation for the popular, effective programs they offer. We heard from trades unions how data tracking could help create a pathway for high-demand careers.

Creating this system will take time and collaboration. Departments at City Hall and state agencies will have to agree on systems and tools to make this a reality. We need not just a system, but also a culture of sharing data focused on problem solving and solutions for kids and families. This approach would be the backbone for all the resources and programs we hope to provide, and a cradle-to-career data tracking system can be the roadmap for how we close inequities and expand access to opportunity for our students.

The time to build this system is now. As we recover from a global pandemic and contend with the socio-emotional and educational setbacks it causes, we need to make sure we are leaving no student behind.

Brian Worrell represents District 4, which includes parts of Dorchester and Mattapan, on the Boston City Council.

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