Desire for Better Picture of Schools Ups N.C.E.S.'s Standing

By Robert Rothman — September 23, 1992 13 min read

WASHINGTON--Without stating so explicitly, Congress this summer gave a ringing vote of confidence to the National Center for Education Statistics.

First, in adopting a spending bill for the Education Department, the House in July voted to increase the statistics agency’s budget by 33 percent, while at the same time cutting spending for other research programs.

Then, last month, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Emerson J. Elliott, the agency’s longtime head, to be the first Presidentially appointed commissioner of education statistics.

Taken together, the two actions suggest that, like researchers and state and local officials, Congress has new-found respect for the statistics agency. Such sentiment contrasts sharply with the prevailing attitude in the mid-1980’s, when a scathing report by the National Academy of Sciences urged that the center be abolished if it were not dramatically overhauled.

The agency’s turnaround reflects, in part, a conscious effort by Congress and the Education Department to rebuild the center by improving its staff and the quality of its products.

These efforts were prompted by the growing hunger for data about education outcomes. As observers point out, all participants in education debates, regardless of their point of view, need the information the center provides.

“The mood in Congress, in particular, is that this has been an agency that has dependably produced good information,’' said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association. “They want to support it. They want more information.’'

“They have confidence in the agency and its people--particularly Emerson Elliott,’' Mr. Sroufe continued. “And the center is offering a service that is in demand.’'

Despite such confidence, officials both inside and outside the government are not completely satisfied with the agency and are demanding that the N.C.E.S. do more.

In addition to requesting that it churn out more information--demands that, if met, would require at least a fourfold increase in its budget, according to Mr. Elliott--the officials are asking it to set its own priorities, rather than respond to policymakers’ mandates, and to analyze its data, rather than simply report it.

In response to such demands, Mr. Elliott is planning this fall to produce a “strategic plan’’ for the center to guide it over the next few years.

“We should become, and can become, a statistical agency in the federal system of the first rank,’' he said.

If it does, said James W. Guthrie, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, education would benefit enormously.

“It would mean a rock-solid ability to judge the quality of schooling in the United States,’' he said. “That’s necessary for improvement, necessary to know if we’re getting our money’s worth, and necessary to know what direction we’re headed next.’'

‘Myriad, Continuing Problems’

The mission of the National Center for Education Statistics is almost as old as the federal education bureaucracy itself. The 1867 statute that established the original federal Office of Education directed it to collect information on the state of education, a charge that remains in the center’s current charter: “The purpose of the center shall be to collect, and analyze, and disseminate statistics and other data related to education in the United States and in other nations.’'

In the 1980’s, that mission almost ran aground. Budget cuts and paperwork-reduction rules hampered the agency’s ability to collect and disseminate data, observers recall. In 1984, the center’s advisory council asked the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to study the agency and recommend improvements.

The academy’s report, issued in 1986, concluded that it was “past time for those in positions of responsibility to face up to the risks and dangers of perpetuating the myriad and continuing problems’’ of the center.

Finding that the center’s data were frequently of poor quality, “archaic,’' and useless, the 12-member panel appointed by the academy urged a series of actions to improve the situation.

If such actions were not taken, the panel concluded, “serious consideration should be given to the more drastic alternatives of abolishing the center and finding other means to obtain and disseminate education data.’'

No ‘Incendiary Bombs’

The report “marked a turning point’’ for the agency, according to Mr. Elliott.

In response to the report, he said, the center moved to implement some of its recommendations, such as hiring a chief statistician and developing written statistical standards.

In addition, the Education Department applied pressure to speed up the publication of data, said Chester E. Finn Jr., who was at the time the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement.

“I pushed hard for them to get their stuff out faster, while making sure there was not a fundamental challenge to what they were publishing,’' Mr. Finn recalled. “We can’t have the agency put out data that are wrong, but we also can’t have them waiting around for three years until they are right.’'

Mr. Finn also said that the department launched a “conscious policy’’ to bolster both the center and its largest project, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and sought large boosts in funding for them.

Congress was willing to go along with the funding increases--despite their other clashes with Mr. Finn--because members agreed with him that the center’s products are essential, according to John F. Jennings, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee.

“As concern grew generally about school reform, people looked to the N.C.E.S.,’' Mr. Jennings said. “The gist of any policymaking is data. You have to know where things are if you are to have an opinion about anything.’'

Mr. Elliott’s reputation for nonpartisanship also helped the center in Congress, noted Mr. Sroufe of the A.E.R.A.

“You don’t see him shooting off incendiary bombs,’' Mr. Sroufe said. “He adds honor to the term ‘bureaucrat.’''

Providing Answers

The center itself also made a case for increased funding, Mr. Elliott said.

Using the same process--of seeking, in advance of data collection, advice from researchers and potential data users--that the academy panel had praised in its report, the center began planning a regular survey of a sample of schools to respond to a Congressional mandate for data on teacher supply and demand.

The survey, known as the Schools and Staffing Survey, was conducted in 1987-88; results were first released in 1990.

“We were able to say we made a sharp change in our program, go to Congress, and say, ‘This is something you asked for,’'' Mr. Elliott said. "[This showed that] we are not here to provide jobs for statisticians, but to provide answers for questions policymakers have.’'

As a result of these actions, the budget for the center--$12.2 million in 1986--tripled in real dollars between then and 1990, and has been climbing ever since. Under the appropriations bill approved by the House in July, the center would receive $63 million, along with $29.6 million for NAEP.

In addition to increasing its funding, Congress also gave the agency more independence. A 1988 law made the commissioner a Presidential appointee and authorized the agency to provide technical assistance to state and local education agencies, among other changes.

Observers in and out of the government hail the outcome.

“Of all the things I am most pleased with having been involved with in the mid-1980’s, two are the revival of the N.C.E.S. and NAEP,’' said Mr. Finn, who is now a member of the core design team for Whittle Communications’ Edison Project.

‘Much Stronger’

Anthony S. Bryk, a professor of education at the University of Chicago who was a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that criticized the agency in 1986, said it has become “much stronger’’ since that time.

“The academy report came down hard on the technical standards,’' Mr. Bryk said. “They have taken that seriously, and made a lot of progress. They’ve done a very good job of increasing the quality of their data.’'

The center has also worked to improve the data it receives from states, added Lynn Cornett, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

The 1988 legislation, she noted, created the federal-state cooperative data system, which helped states work with the center to provide comparable data.

Next spring, Ms. Cornett said, the N.C.E.S. will release for the first time comparable state-by-state data on dropouts.

“It’s become a much more cooperative system than it ever was in the past,’' she said. “Increased funding enabled the N.C.E.S. to do that.’'

But Ramsay W. Selden, the director of the state education-assessment center for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said some of the improvement has come about because the federal agency pressured states to provide data more quickly.

In the past, Mr. Selden said, the center would hold up a report if data from one state were missing. In recent years, however, Mr. Elliott served notice that he would release a report even if the data were missing.

Floraline I. Stevens, the director of the program-evaluation and assessment branch of the Los Angeles Unified School District, noted that the N.C.E.S. has also improved its relations with school districts. Such efforts have also improved the agency’s data by ensuring that districts provide needed information.

“They have made people more sensitive to why there are requests for information,’' Ms. Stevens said. "[Local officials] are less resistant, now that they know there are reasons for things.’'

Delays and Gaps

While most observers praise the improvements in the N.C.E.S., few would say it is perfect.

Despite the improvements in quality, the agency has suffered “a few setbacks,’' Mr. Guthrie of Berkeley said.

Perhaps the best known of these was an anomaly on the 1986 NAEP reading assessment, which prompted studies by the center and the Educational Testing Service, which operates NAEP under contract to the agency. The studies concluded that the “anomalous’’ steep drop in reading performance was caused by changes in test design between 1984 and 1986.

Researchers also point out that the center is often slow in releasing information, and that there are substantial gaps in its data base.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, for example, continue to publish data on teacher salaries because they can produce them more quickly than the N.C.E.S. can, according to Ronald D. Henderson, the director of the research division of the N.E.A.

“We are able to put that out in early spring, way before they do it,’' he said. “The federal government just cannot get it that fast.’'

In addition to the lack of timely teacher-salary data, there are gaps in the data on postsecondary education and on other countries, Mr. Finn noted.

“They’re skimpy in the international domain,’' he said. “It’s bloody hard to find out how the U.S. does versus other countries.’'

Mr. Sroufe of the A.E.R.A. pointed out, however, that demands for more, and more timely, data are a constant complaint among researchers.

“Almost nothing would satisfy them,’' he said. “They want all data, and they want all of it immediately.’'

If the agency were to do all the things asked of it, Mr. Elliott said, “the President’s budget would be more like $500 million.’'

“That’s in conflict with the present budget outlook,’' he pointed out.

To ensure that the N.C.E.S. gets the most out of its resources, observers have argued that the agency should set its own priorities, rather than simply respond to mandates from Congress and the Education Department.

A 1991 report by the Special Study Panel on Education Indicators, a Congressionally mandated panel, argued that the center should be organized around six “enduring issues’'--learner outcomes, quality of educational institutions, readiness for school, societal support for learning, education and economic productivity, and equity.

Such an orientation is “quite distinct from reporting on whatever is the hot issue right now,’' said Mr. Bryk of the University of Chicago, a member of the indicators panel. “They need to be responsive to [those issues], but the agency needs the freedom to look to the longer term as well.’'

Mr. Elliott responded, however, that the agency should be responsive to policymakers and funders. And, he said, he has been able to help shape policymakers’ priorities.

Mr. Finn concurred.

“There were times I wished he’d be more attentive to things like the Administration’s priorities and [the National Assessment] Governing Board’s priorities,’' Mr. Finn said. “Because he’s as deft as he is, he tries to attend to a lot of people’s priorities.’'

“I don’t think his situation will be very much affected by removing the word ‘acting’ from his job title,’' the former assistant secretary added.

Staffing Limitations

In addition to calling for setting priorities, some members of Congress and researchers have argued that the agency should analyze data as well as collect it.

Such analyses could provide for lay persons, such as journalists, information about the state of education that is difficult to obtain by wading through the N.C.E.S.'s enormous data sets, said Mr. Henderson of the N.E.A.

“Academics love it--it’s a virtual gold mine for them,’' he said. “But what you have to do is go in, look at the massive data sets, and figure out what to do. You may not even know the question could be answered by the data sets.’'

Mr. Elliott agreed that the agency should venture into providing analysis, but he warned that it must do so cautiously.

“I don’t see us ever advocating particular actions,’' he said. “Once we take a position, people will have trouble believing our data.’'

Mr. Guthrie of Berkeley observed, however, that the center will be unable to undertake such steps until it solves what is perhaps its most pressing problem--its staffing limits.

Although Congress has urged that the N.C.E.S. have independent authority to hire staff members, the Education Department has not yet provided such authority. As a result, its staffing level has remained steady even though its budget has escalated sharply.

“They’re lucky to collect data, let alone analyze it,’' Mr. Guthrie said.

The N.C.E.S.'s staff is much smaller than that of comparable federal agencies, according to Katherine K. Wallman, the executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics.

The National Center for Health Statistics, she noted, with a fiscal 1993 budget request of $85 million, has a staff of about 500. By contrast, the N.C.E.S., with a budget request of $130 million, has 130 staff members.

The small staff means that the agency must contract out much of its work, rather than conduct it in-house, Ms. Wallman said.

“One can get high-quality work both ways,’' she said. “But I am concerned that there are not enough people in-house at N.C.E.S. involved in analyzing data, in using the findings from one survey to feed into the planning for the next.’'

“The talent is resident in contractors, who come and go,’' she said.

Mr. Guthrie also said that hiring contractors is wasteful.

“The absence of personnel has driven so many fruitless endeavors, and has limited their ability to plan,’' he said.

Strategic Planning

But despite such limitations, Mr. Elliott said the center is moving ahead with planning for the future.

Over the next few months, he said, senior staff members will cull through the various reports and suggestions the agency has received and come out with a draft document.

It is expected to incorporate the demands for new data requested by the National Education Goals Panel, the indicators panel, and other groups, including assessments of school readiness and the quality of schooling.

It will also, Mr. Elliott said, take into account the possibilities posed by new technologies, such as the ability to link various state and school-district information systems, and consider new types of reporting formats.

But despite the changes, he said, the N.C.E.S. will keep its eye on the original 1867 statute that created the statistical agency.

“People can learn from data things that other people are doing, they can compare themselves with others, they can use them to advance the cause of education,’' Mr. Elliott said. “It may sound corny, but the same is true today.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Desire for Better Picture of Schools Ups N.C.E.S.'s Standing