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Essential Questions In Depth

What are Essential Questions? 

Data systems should provide information decision makers can use to advance educational and economic opportunity for all. When deciding what to prioritize for data collection and analysis, states and localities must start with essential questions about students’ journeys and experiences. Every state and locality should be able to ask and answer questions about how their students are performing and progressing throughout their education journeys from pre-K into the workforce. 

 Education and workforce data systems must identify and answer essential questions to understand how students are progressing on their journeys from early education through their careers.

For example: "Do students have access to and complete rigorous and accelerated college preparatory coursework?"

The E-W Framework can help decision makers approach policy and practice through the lens of essential questions—ultimately leading to more actionable data and positive outcomes for students in their journeys from pre-K to the workforce.

Why Lead With Essential Questions?

In many instances, decision makers already have access to a lot of data, but the data may not always be what’s needed to answer the questions that matter most. Approaching data through the lens of essential questions can support a culture of continuous improvement and promote data-informed decision making. For example, research shows that when school leaders use essential questions to guide collaborative data use in their schools, staff become more engaged with the process and quickly learn how to identify and analyze different types of data to answer those questions (Lachat et al., 2006).

“We need to ask the right questions to get the information we want to look at.”
– Community advocate  

The E-W Framework offers 20 essential questions as a starting point for conversations around data and equity. Each question can be mapped back to framework indicators of individual outcomes and milestones as well as system conditions. Some questions may receive more or less attention in a specific community depending on local priorities and needs, but all 20 are critical for understanding disparities along the pre-K-to-workforce continuum and guiding action to ensure all individuals can achieve economic mobility and security. 

The framework’s essential questions can help system leaders identify opportunities to gain greater insights from the data they already have (for example, by linking data across systems or creating new data dashboards or reports to help answer essential questions) and identify new data they may need to collect to shed light on critical issues. The questions can also help system leaders and other actors track trends in localities over time and track which schools and institutions are serving their students well—and which are not—to better understand how to address disparities and improve student outcomes. To spark meaningful action, data used to answer these questions should be disaggregated by race, income, gender, and other characteristics to reveal disparities that may be masked when data are viewed in aggregate or as a combined total. Our Essential Questions Guide can support anyone interested in taking an essential questions-based approach within their education or workforce organization or network. 

This website was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.