Save Our Data! Protect the Integrity of Education Statistics

The possibility that the 113th Congress might yet reauthorize the Institute for Education Sciences (IES)—the House has passed H.R. 4366 and the Senate HELP Committee is cogitating—means it’s time once again to consider the status of the jewel in the IES crown, namely the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Before this topic elicits a yawn, kindly note that everything you may be trying to accomplish, change, or protect in American education hinges more than you might realize on the integrity of our education-data system, and that this is more vulnerable than you might think. Please do not assume that all is well and will inevitably remain that way.

NCES is today’s version of the first federal education agency, created by Congress in 1867 “for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories….” (For more on the history, see Vance Grant’s excellent four-page summary near the beginning of this useful document.) It was also the second federal statistical agency, eleven more of which followed. Today, NCES is the third largest of them, eclipsed only by Census and Labor Statistics.

The centrality of its role in American education can scarcely be exaggerated. It’s where everybody at every level of policy, analysis, and research goes for data. It’s the home of crucial longitudinal studies. It’s the home of NAEP. It’s the home of almost every education trend line that matters.

It’s not perfect (school-finance data, for instance, are still fundamentally a mess), and on several occasions I’ve faulted its handling of one thing or another. But these are the kinds of criticisms one makes of something that’s essential, not something that’s ephemeral or dispensable.

Back in the late middle ages (i.e., 1985–88)—when I was assistant secretary for “research and improvement,” the domain within the Reagan-era Education Department that roughly parallels today’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES)—Bill Bennett and I agreed that NCES needed tuning up, speeding up, and beefing up. We knew how important it is—and the National Research Council had just issued a stinging report on its inadequacies.

With the help of then-Commissioner Emerson Elliott (one of the ablest federal civil servants of the past half century), and to the dismay of other unit heads and outside constituencies, we pumped every extra available OERI dollar into it, shielded it from any number of pressures and tugs, and made many demands of it for faster, clearer data. Along the way, with the help of then-Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and former Spencer Foundation president H. Thomas James, plus a remarkable panel (including Hillary Clinton, inter alia) and bipartisan Congressional support (led by the late Ted Kennedy), we reinvented the National Assessment and created its own governing board. NAEP would thereafter operate within NCES but with its policies insulated from interference and manipulation as best one can in Washington.

By any measure, and notwithstanding its shortcomings and rare missteps, NCES has been a huge success over the past quarter century, even as its data have been more in demand and more heavily used. Such distinguished leaders as Pat Forgione, Jack Buckley, and Mark Schneider succeeded Commissioner Elliott. And the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA) reconstructed OERI into what we now know as IES, still including NCES, joined by three other “national centers.”

A key question at that time, and again today, is the extent to which IES and its component parts should be insulated from political influence and left to make their own decisions, based (presumably) on their leaders’ own expert judgments regarding what inquiries to undertake and what and how to report to the world.

The other IES centers (special ed, program evaluation, ed research) cannot avoid being tugged into the policy maelstrom, both because the work they do bears directly on policy decisions and because they have innumerable greedy grantees, contractors, and other outside constituencies that are not shy about pressing and lobbying for advantages of various kinds. The IES director, too, brilliant and independent as the two incumbents (Russ Whitehurst, John Easton) have been, is inexorably sucked into the Education Department’s policymaking and advocacy vortex. The occupant of that office cannot—and, if he’s shrewd, probably won’t want to—avoid functioning as the Secretary’s chief source of information and insight on what kinds of programs and policies work and don’t work under what circumstances. This leads to budget priorities, program regulations, speeches and writings with palpable political implications, Congressional testimony, and ultimately State of the Union messages and other White House entanglements.

Astute IES directors can navigate this stormy sea without capsizing their vessels, but that’s not good enough for a statistics agency. It needs extra stabilizers, additional protections from the president, the Secretary, Congress, and all manner of interest groups. Sometimes it even needs to be protected from the IES director.

This isn’t peculiar to education. It’s a universal requirement for federal statistical agencies to remain credible. The National Academy of Sciences’ very thorough manual of “principles and practices” for all such agencies includes this specific admonition:

To be credible and unhindered in its mission, a statistical agency must maintain a widely acknowledged position of independence from undue external influences. It must avoid even the appearance that its collection, analysis, or reporting processes might be manipulated for political purposes or that individually identifiable data collected under a pledge of confidentiality might be turned over for administrative, regulatory, or law enforcement uses. Protection from undue outside influences requires that a statistical agency have authority for professional decisions on its programs, including authority over the selection and promotion of staff, the processing, secure storage, and maintenance of data, and the timing and content of data releases, accompanying press releases, and documentation. The credibility that comes from independence is essential for users to maintain confidence in the accuracy and objectivity of a statistical agency’s data and for data providers to be willing to cooperate with agency requests.

Such protection needs to be enshrined in statute and structure—and ESRA did an imperfect job of this. While giving IES several forms of protection from shifting political winds, it didn’t give NCES enough insulation from IES or from the Education Department’s various agendas.

On the plus side, it continued the commissioner’s status as a presidential appointee, subject to Senate confirmation, and gave NCES some control over its priorities, the content of its reports, and the mechanisms by which it awarded grants and contracts. But most observers acknowledge that NCES lost more insulation in 2002 than it gained, and it’s lost more since. Some of this was just bureaucratic infighting as IES hierarchs used their authority to ride herd on NCES in every way they legally could. But the law changed, too, particularly when the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 revoked Senate confirmation of the commissioner, thus placing that crucial position into the direct chain of authority within the executive branch.

This year’s House-passed reauthorization makes that situation worse. It would make the NCES commissioner an appointee of the IES director, serving at the latter’s pleasure. It subjugates NCES’s plans and priorities more directly to those of IES and further reduces the Center’s editorial control over its reports and publications.

H.R. 4366 does some good, too, particularly by untangling the muddled relationship between the NCES commissioner and the National Assessment Governing Board—another longstanding source of tension over who’s in charge of what.

But downgrading NCES and treating it just like another unit within IES is a mistake (albeit one easily fixed with minor line-edits of the House-passed language.) As a host of social-science organizations recently wrote to Senators Harkin and Alexander, “NCES has the responsibility for collecting data and statistics on the condition of education in the U.S. and the role of providing the statistical data and resulting products that can help shape priorities for research. It is simply not possible (or advisable) for the same person (in this case, the Director of IES) to determine what data should be obtained and how that information should be used to set the research agenda. These two functions are separate and should remain separable.”

What’s at stake, ultimately, is the integrity of America’s education data. At a time when nearly everything else in the system has been politicized, it’s crucial that everybody—even when at loggerheads over policy—be able to trust the numbers.

Few people outside the wonkery are apt to regard any of this as more than a teapot tempest. But many more should. As my longtime mentor, the late Pat Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” The only way to ensure that we share the same facts is to protect their integrity. And while there’s no foolproof way to do that, the best available mechanism is to safeguard the autonomy of the agency that collects and reports them.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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

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