In The News: Who Gets Access to School Data? A Case Study in How Privacy, Politics & Budget Pressures Can Affect Education Research

In a case study for The 74, Matt Barnum tries to unpack why the Louisiana Department of Education ended its data-sharing agreement with researchers from MIT and Duke after they released a study of the Louisiana voucher program that relied on just one year of outcome data. Another research team at the University of Arkansas was simultaneously evaluating the same program and presenting early findings at academic conferences, but elected to hold off on publishing their results until they could include a second year of outcome data.

“For a program that’s ongoing, there are real issues of who gets to evaluate the program. Is it open to many teams, which I think is a good model? Or is it restricted to partners?” said MIT professor Parag Pathak, part of the team that studied Louisiana’s voucher program.

Initially released as a working paper through the National Bureau of Economic Research in December 2015 and later published in the American Economic Journal, Pathak and colleagues’ study of the program’s first-year outcome data showed significant negative impacts associated with voucher usage in Louisiana. Follow-up analyses of second and third year outcome data tell a more nuanced story, however.

In a blog post that appeared on Education Next‘s website in January 2016, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, John White, responded to the release of the first-year outcome data, saying:

“the study is based on one year’s data […] the researchers were offered two additional years of results, but turned them down because of urgency to meet their own deadlines for publishing.”

Researchers from MIT say that the additional data they were offered were incomplete.

Barnum uses this case study to raise questions about who gets access to expansive state-level datasets and if researchers feel pressure to frame their findings in a certain way in order to maintain access. Doug Harris, professor at Tulane University and director of an education research center based in New Orleans thoroughly disagrees with the premise of the question, stating:

“We feel no pressure at all,” he said. “I think that’s fairly obvious since we’ve released reports that directly conflict with LDOE’s and [the state Board of Education’s] most closely held positions, especially on vouchers.”

You can read a detailed summary of Harris’ research on post-Katrina education reforms in New Orleans in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next.

— Education Next

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