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Researchers Propose New Federal Statistics Agenda

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Washington--Prominent education researchers and groups have urged the National Center for Education Statistics to launch a major new longitudinal study of preschool children, devise a common method for measuring dropout rates, and revise its surveys to allow more accurate comparisons of public and private schools.

These and hundreds of other suggestions were gathered this summer as part of an nces project aimed at guiding the agency's collection of school data for the remainder of the century. By soliciting the recommendations, nces--the statistical arm of the Education Department--hopes to determine more exactly the kinds of data its users desire.

The agency's plans for developing a new data-collection agenda coincide with a broader effort by federal education officials to reorganize the department's research and statistical functions. At the same time, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a major study of the quality of nces's work.

Comments Invited

Last March, nces officials invited almost 100 organizations--representing public and private education, a wide array of academic disciplines, the news media, publishers, religious groups, and government agencies--to provide detailed papers outlining the data they will need in the years ahead to address emerging and continuing issues in precollegiate education.

The agency commissioned similar papers from 55 prominent education researchers, including James S. Coleman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Bernard R. Gifford, Willis D. Hawley, Allan R. Odden, and Herbert J. Walberg. (See Education Week, June 12, 1985.)

Synthesis of Comments

According to nces papers outlining the "redesign" project, the agency intends to publish a synthesis of the comments received.

The document was originally scheduled to be completed and distributed by midsummer, but delays attributed to the reorganization of nces and the National Institute of Education have pushed back the release date. Officials say the synthesis could be ready for distribution by the end of this month.

After that, the nces schedule calls for three public hearings on the project at various locations across the country this fall. A draft of the new data-collection agenda is to be completed and ready for distribution and comment by early 1986.

Agency officials have emphasized in interviews that they do not intend merely to compile the suggestions and then file them away.

"The clear intent of this exercise is to determine what the data-users want," said one official. "We fully expect that these suggestions will begin to affect our data-collection agenda as early as 1986."

Major Recommendations

To begin preparing a synthesis of the comments, nces analysts went through the responses, summarized the major recommendations, and entered these into a computer. Some of the topics and recommendations listed in the computer file include:

Early-Childhood Education. Echoing recent calls for major studies in this area, a number of respondents strongly suggested that nces initiate a major longitudinal study of students, beginning at the preschool level and continuing beyond high school. Ongoing longitudinal studies conducted by the agency have focused on high-school students.

In addition, some respondents suggested that the agency expand its examination of day-care centers and other early-childhood educational institutions.

Among the recommendations were that nces collect data on the amount and type of children's preschool education, assess the instructional quality of preschool programs, and examine the enrollment rates of minority groups in such programs.

Dropouts. nces should take the lead in developing a standardized definition of a dropout, according to several respondents. One suggested that the agency convene an advisory group to study methods for measuring dropout rates; another suggested that the agency work with the chief state school officers on such a project; and still another recommended that nces examine new methods for calculating dropout rates from such longitudinal studies as "High School and Beyond."

Private Schools. A number of respondents appeared to place heavy emphasis on efforts to compare public and private schools. One suggested that the agency "[do] as much as possible [to] collect the same data from private schools as from public schools." Another suggested that nces align data elements in its public- and private-school surveys so that the two are comparable.

A third respondent suggested that the agency initiate a series of case studies comparing public and private schools in terms of enrollment by race, indicators of educational quality, institutional objectives, value systems, and organization.

School Finance. In the opinion of one respondent, nces should initiate the development of a model state reporting system for district-level finances. Another requested that the agency publish on a regular basis the various methods and formulas used by the states in funding their schools, as well as state rules governing local education officials' power to raise revenue.

Teachers. Another suggestion was that nces conduct new national and international longitudinal studies of teachers to enable researchers to make comparisons of teachers' abilities.

Other recommendations were that the agency: add data elements to its surveys to measure effective teaching; collect more data on private-school teachers, including college credits by subject, pay-incentive plans, teacher assignments, and pupil-teacher ratios; and publish annual comparisons of the average starting salaries of teachers compared with those in other occupations.

In addition, respondents suggested that nces: initiate studies to learn more about teachers' career paths, including the reasons that veteran teachers leave the profes-sion; collect data on teachers with emergency or waiver credentials; institute an annual survey of school personnel, covering such topics as burnout and perceptions of work conditions; and refine teacher supply-and-demand surveys to make them more useful for planners.

Parents. nces should collect data on the frequency and type of contact between school officials and parents by social class and family configuration (such as single-parent and two-parent families), one respondent said. Another suggested that the agency study parental perceptions of private schools, including an examination of the criteria parents would use in selecting schools for their children.

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