School & District Management

IES’ Next Challenge: Finding New Statistics Chief

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 27, 2013 3 min read
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The departure of Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the nation’s top federal education statistician, leaves yet another tough-to-fill hole for the nation’s education research agency, the Institute of Education Sciences, which has struggled with previous long vacancies in top posts.

Mr. Buckley will step down as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics at the end of the year to become a senior vice president of research for the College Board.

A former New York University statistician, Mr. Buckley has led the NCES since 2010, helping to guide federal grants for the massive expansions of state longitudinal student-data systems; overseeing the annual Condition of Education report’s move to a digital format; and benchmarking the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the Trends in International Science and Mathematics Study, among other accomplishments.

He has been “a creative and energetic professional who championed the rigorous and impartial approach to data collection for which NCES has justly earned a strong reputation,” said Adam Gamoran, a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, which advises the NCES, and the president of the New York-based William T. Grant Foundation.

Sean P. "Jack" Buckley will step down as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics at the end of the year to become a senior vice president of research for the College Board.

Finding a Replacement

Mr. Buckley leaves the post nearly a year and a half before his term ends, and the IES Director John Q. Easton said he could not yet comment on plans for Mr. Buckley’s successor. However, Mr. Gamoran and Mr. Buckley’s predecessor, Mark S. Schneider, said replacing the head of national education statistics will be challenging, both because of constant federal budget fights and the increasing complexity and scrutiny of federal data collection.

“The problem with keeping people is, if you’re any good at the job, you’re going to be offered much better offers outside,” said Mr. Schneider, now a vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research in Washington. “The salary [in the $175,000 range] is not at all competitive.”

Although the IES has often faced long vacancies among its top posts, NCES’ leader will be a bigger gap to fill than most, as the center administers several high-profile tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress each year.

The next commissioner must continue to link NCES survey data to other federal and state data, Mr. Gamoran said, and respond to changes in technology that affect data-collection processes and approaches to teaching and learning.The political landscape will make it that much harder to achieve those goals, Mr. Schneider added. “The burnout issue as a commissioner is, you know what has to be done, but legitimate privacy concerns can paralyze you,” he said.

Still, the next commissioner will be easier to recruit in one way: It took more than two years for the Senate to confirm Mr. Buckley as commissioner after Mr. Schneider left, but the position has since been changed to one requiring only presidential appointment. “Senate confirmation adds months to the process,” Mr. Schneider said.

Gaining Mr. Buckley is a clever move for the College Board, which lost the statistician’s predecessor, Wayne Camara, to testing competitor ACT Inc. this summer. Both testing giants have ramped up their rivalry as they position themselves in the burgeoning college-readiness and college-admissions-testing market.

The New York City-based nonprofit company reworked the SAT and the PSAT to reflect the CommonCore State Standards that most states have now adopted. That’s a move some interpreted as competitive—at least at the middle and high school level—with the two federally funded consortia developing assessments aligned with the standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

In his new role, Mr. Buckley’s areas of focus will include “long-term strategic planning for research and expanding the College Board’s strategic research partnerships,” according to College Board spokeswoman Carly Lindauer. Mr. Buckley said he is planning to “sustain and build out” the group’s research division, including measurement and validity studies of the organization’s overhaul of college-readiness and -placement tests.

“There’s a lot going on in education right now,” he said, “and I’m interested in figuring out the best way to find out what’s actually working in postsecondary education.”

Associate Editor Catherine Gewertz contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Statistics Chief Leaves Big Hole at Federal Research Agency

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