Where Does Government Education Research Really Come From?

By 09/19/2014

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Many people tune out when education discussions turn to data and statistics. For whatever reason, some folks just don’t like numbers. So a discussion about the development of education data is likely to attract an audience rivaling that of a paint-drying contest.

But if you care about K-12, you should definitely care about the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This is the government body responsible for collecting and reporting a wealth of data on our schools—data that’s voluminous, comparable across years, and typically above reproach in terms of reliability.

I say “typically” because there is some reason for worry. Late in 2013, I scolded the federal government for massaging NAEP TUDA data, which reports on the performance of large urban districts. In short, we should’ve been deeply alarmed by the results, but the packaging gave the opposite impression.

This would’ve been troubling enough. What bothered me even more was that an advocacy organization that represents and serves large urban districts was an integral part of the release process.

But what happened next truly opened my eyes to the extent of the potential problem. The then-head of NCES quickly responded to my piece. He noted that his organization was only responsible for producing the data, which they do “free of ‘spin’ or partisan/political influence.” The National Assessments Government Board (which is in charge of NAEP), he wrote, is in charge of the public release pursuant to federal law.

He continued: “NAGB has interpreted this language as giving them authority over all aspects of the release event (in-person or webinar), including its title, format, and, perhaps most importantly, the policy guests whom they invite to present their interpretations of the findings.”

Then Mark Schneider, another former NCES Commissioner, offered a similarly disquieting assessment. He noted that NCES is responsible for the integrity of NAEP data, and that other federal agencies hold NCES to a high standard. However, in Schneider’s words, “As NAGB has claimed more and more authority to govern the initial release of NAEP data, those standards have been under a slow but steady assault.”

He concluded solemnly, “Limiting NAGB’s role is essential for preserving the integrity of the collection and release of NAEP data. This is not an inside-the-beltway issue.”

Lawrence Feinberg, an executive with NAGB, then responded that NCES was responsible for materials in the release and suggested that NAGB would’ve done things differently (for example, related to reporting on performance levels).

For those who rely on federal education data, this episode forces us to ask: Who exactly is in charge?

At a minimum, when it comes to NAEP and NAEP TUDA, there should be clarity about the roles of NCES, NAGB, advocacy groups, and others.

So is this problem isolated to NAEP?

Not at all.

This spring, Checker Finn wrote that NCES was getting its data on preschool from a preschool advocacy organization. “Not only has (NCES) outsourced the number-gathering to a prominent interest group in the field, it has allowed that interest group to add its own spin, then issued the results in the guise of a government statistical publication.” This, said Finn, was akin to NCES’s relying on teachers’ unions years ago for teacher salary data.

A little more than a month ago, Finn wrote a more general piece about NCES’s critical functions and the importance of insulating it from outside influence. A huge part of the problem, noted Finn, is that because its data is so important, NCES can be the target of political pressure. Accordingly, wrote Finn, “It needs extra stabilizers, additional protections from the president, the Secretary, Congress, and all manner of interest groups.”

These are not academic matters. Congress is currently considering the reauthorization of the U.S. Department of Education’s research duties, including the role of NCES. This summer, a number of research associations penned a letter to Congress expressing concern that the current legislation would “diminish the autonomy, authority, and stature” of NCES.

Congress is in session few days between now and the November elections, so action on such issues is not imminent. But when it convenes in lame-duck status between November and January, when partisan rancor temporarily ebbs, taking up the future of NCES would be timely.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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