Ed. Dept. Seeks Researchers To Explore Lonely Databases
The Department of Education is sitting on top of the research equivalent of a gold mine: more than 15 national databases on everything from children's preschool experiences to students' college course work. And it's all free for the asking.
The problem is that too few researchers are asking.
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"This is a treasure box of information and it's underutilized," said Wenfan Yan, an education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa., and a frequent user of the data.
To whip up interest in its databases, the department's National Center for Education Statistics has been working to make its collections more user-friendly and to provide training in their use.
"Collecting data is not cheap, and this is a national resource and we have an obligation to promote its use," said Samuel Peng, the director of training and customer service for the statistical agency. "Also, a lot of people don't know how to use them, and we don't want them to misuse the data."
Of the department's databases, longitudinal studies--which follow large, nationally representative groups of students over time and examine everything from their attitudes toward school to the grades they earn--have been popular bases for research. They include:
- The National Education Longitudinal Study, which has tracked 25,000 students since 1988, when they were 8th graders, and will continue to do so until 2000;
- The National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, which ended in 1986; and
- High School and Beyond, which followed students who were high school sophomores in 1980 through 1992.
- Studies such as Baccalaureate and Beyond track students in their postcollege years as well.
Beginning next year and in 2000, the department will launch two more longitudinal studies--one that follows children from birth through early elementary school and another zeroing in on kindergarten students as they make the transition to 1st grade.
The department also has statistics on every public library, public and private school, school district, and college and university in the nation. And data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the the Third International Mathematics and Science Study offer insights on student achievement in many states and around the world in some core academic subjects.
Mr. Peng estimates that each of the databases has been used for secondary analyses an average of only 300 times--far too little activity, he believes, for what amounts to the most comprehensive information available anywhere on the nation's schools and schoolchildren.
To make it easier to mine the data, the center in the early 1990s started to put some of its databases on Cd-rom disks. Also, for a few databases, the center has compiled software that allows researchers to easily extract the variables they need. Other databases can be downloaded from the center's World Wide Web site.
Mr. Peng also holds weeklong training sessions for researchers as well as shorter workshops at events such as the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Some researchers, however, worry that the outreach efforts increase the potential of misinterpreting data.
"People have the one-week courses, but if they've not had previous training in statistics and analysis it's not enough," said Valerie Lee, a University of Michigan education professor who teaches statistical research. "My own feeling is that it shouldn't be too simple because the questions aren't that simple."
But other researchers, such as Mr. Yan, who heads a national group of researchers interested in the databases, support the department's efforts and want to see more doctoral students, in particular, using the data.
Variety of Customers
There is a pressing need for analysis of these databases, said Jeffrey Beaudry, an education professor at the University of Southern Maine. "We're not going to get much understanding unless a lot of researchers look at this," he said.
The training is part of a broader effort to make the agency's products more "useful, timely, and predictable" for a wide variety of customers, said NCES Commissioner Pascal D. Forgione Jr.
A resource kit from the department, with reports and tables from the international math and science study, for example, has already sold out, he said. "To me that's usefulness--not to leave it in a database in the sky--but to bring it out in a product."
Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 29Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Ed. Dept. Seeks Researchers To Explore Lonely Databases