Closing Education Attainment Gaps with the Power of Connected Data

A new coalition — the Hamilton Community Research Partnership — provides a model for collecting and connecting data to track and improve long-term student outcomes in Ontario.

Authors: Jackie Pichette, Director, Policy, Research and Partnerships (HEQCO) and Lorraine Valmadrid, Learning and Evaluation Lead (Hamilton Community Foundation)

The Hamilton Community Research Partnership (CRP) is a coalition of six organizations committed to supporting student achievement in Hamilton through a secure data-sharing network of institutional partners and supports. It includes K-12 school boards (the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board), postsecondary institutions (Mohawk College and McMaster University), and public organizations focused on addressing systemic issues in education (the Hamilton Community Foundation and HEQCO).

The CRP was organized to address a gap in available data about educational pathways, while being mindful of stakeholders’ privacy concerns. Despite the volume of information they collect, school boards and postsecondary institutions lack information on educational pathways before and after their students’ attendance. Researchers in higher education often have difficulty gaining access to reliable, comprehensive data on Ontario students. There is also discomfort among certain groups (for example, parents, students, civil servants and so forth) about the idea of connecting and using individual-level data for policy improvement — and most of these concerns are related to privacy.

The absence of longitudinal data makes it challenging to determine how effectively policy makers and practitioners are equalizing opportunities and outcomes for students — and especially for those who are historically underrepresented, including first-generation students (those whose parents didn’t complete postsecondary), low-income students, racialized students and students with disabilities.

Together, the CRP has created a shared, de-identified data set — in other words, free of information that could identify students — that provides insight into student pathways to and through secondary and postsecondary education in Hamilton. This work comes on the heels of another data-sharing initiative involving the Toronto District School Board, studying student transfer, debt and borrowing patterns. CRP members are currently working on a report focused on questions such as: Are graduates of Hamilton secondary schools attending postsecondary? How can school boards improve postsecondary outcomes for underrepresented groups? How are students who attend postsecondary doing once there? And how can colleges and universities better accommodate the needs of incoming students? Future work drawing on the data will focus on numeracy skills and other predictors of postsecondary access and success. All reports will be published on HEQCO’s website.

Looking ahead, members of the CRP hope the partnership can serve as a model for developing connected data in communities across Ontario. With a comprehensive data infrastructure in place, institutions and researchers can track student pathways and address barriers or inequities along the way. Ultimately, a broad provincial strategy is needed. Fortunately, a mechanism already exists in the form of the Ontario Education Number (OEN). Other Canadian jurisdictions, including British Columbia, Alberta and the Maritime provinces, are much further ahead in these efforts — although Canada as a whole still lags behind other jurisdictions, like the United States. Members of the CRP are excited to take these initial steps to help ensure student access and success in Hamilton, and we hope our work can inspire a renewed focus on the data needed to close educational gaps for all Ontario students.   

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