STARKVILLE – How can legislators, education policy makers and members of the business community use quantitative data to make decisions?

That was the question being grappled with Friday in Starkville on the campus of Mississippi State University.

Specifically, the “Data in Education and Workforce Training” panel discussed how the state uses a wide array of data from various agencies to better understand the problems facing Mississippi’s workforce and other areas.

“We’re changing the mindset on how we are spending your tax dollars — from what are we spending to what are we buying? What is the return on investment?” House Speaker Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, told the crowd of more than 100 business leaders and government workers.

Gunn went on to explain how knowing the costs of incarceration and recidivism, for example, can help the state make more cost-efficient policy decisions.

“Let’s say, for example, that someone steals your TV. They break into your house,” Gunn said. “Well, you’ve got the cost of that television that you just lost, you have to replace that. The cost of repairing the door they just kicked in. The cost of the sheriff coming out, tracking them down and arresting them. The cost of the criminal justice system prosecuting them, and if found convicted, the cost of incarceration. Now if you can stop that guy from repeating that crime again, you save all those costs.”

Dr. Laurie Smith, an education and workforce policy adviser to Gov. Phil Bryant, said Mississippi has benefited from using data at the beginning of the decision-making process not as an afterthought.

“We don’t come up with the idea and then say ‘Let’s go find the data to support what we want to do,’” she said. Rather, policymakers ask themselves: “What does the data tell us and how do we go forward?”

State officials use a web portal called LifeTracks to track the efficacy of workplace training programs and additional levels of education.

“We’re now able to connect the dots of our students’ lives,” said Shawn Mackey, deputy executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board. “We want to take stock of that individual to know what type of student we are getting on the front end and what we can do to prepare them. Now we have the ability to track students after they leave our system. Did they transfer to (a four-year college)? Did they join the workforce? Did they get a job in the field they studied?”

Rather than only speaking about the positive things in Mississippi, Mackey explained that this additional information also highlighted places for improvement in the state: “The one thing we have to address is our graduation rate is not that high. Through the use of this data we can look at our successes but more importantly look at our failures.”

The panel, which consisted of four state legislators, explained how a data-centric approach is helping them to make better decisions as they work through stacks of bills during the 90-day legislative session.

“What we need is that actionable intelligence,” said Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said as important as data may be, too much reliance on evidence- and research-based practices could impede some forms of innovation.

“What about innovative programs that nobody has tried?” Burton asked. “We don’t want to stop innovation. There are ways that we can use data to shut down innovative ideas. We have to be very careful.”

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