Debate Erupts on How to Pick Chief of U.S. Schools Data

By Debra Viadero — June 16, 2008 7 min read
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Advocates for researchers and statisticians are at odds with federal education officials and their advisers over the best way to shield the U.S. Department of Education’s top statistics agency from political interference.

At issue in the debate, which surfaced at an advisory-board meeting last month, is whether the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics ought to be appointed by the director of the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, or nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, which is how the selection process works now.

The split reflects long-running concerns over how best to buffer federal statistics agencies against political meddling.

“Once you’ve lost your credibility, and people think your numbers are being manipulated in some way, it’s very difficult to get that back, “ said Dixie Sommers, an assistant commissioner for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics who attends the meetings of an IES advisory board in a nonvoting capacity. “To those of us who work in this field, protecting the integrity of the data is extremely high priority.”

Advocates for national education research and statistics groups contend the current arrangement for picking the NCES chief for a fixed term better insulates the agency from political pressure and helps maintain its credibility.

But IES Director Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and the National Board for Education Sciences, the 15-member body that advises his institute, say the IES could be managed more smoothly—and without jeopardizing the NCES’ independence—if Mr. Whitehurst, or his successors, could select the statistics commissioner.

Renewing the Law

AT ISSUE: Who Selects the Head of the NCES?

• “It’s easier to manage IES if each member of the leadership team is recruited by, or appointed by, or reports to the director.”
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst
Director, Institute of Education Sciences

• “The justification for bringing NCES inside IES for management symmetry doesn’t measure up to the importance of maintaining an independent statistics agency.”
James W. Kohlmoos
President, Knowledge Alliance

The issue arose because the advisory board is crafting recommendations for the upcoming reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, the federal law that created the research institute in place of the Education Department’s old office of educational research and improvement.

The board is looking to the reauthorization as a chance to “clean up” the wording of the 6-year-old law and does not expect any major changes. Still, another proposed revision to the law has also drawn opposition from researchers and statisticians.

That proposed recommendation calls for eliminating any references to a specific number of federal research centers. The law now requires eight centers focusing on various topics, but the board favors giving the IES director more flexibility to decide how many centers are needed and how large they should be.

Advocates worry, though, that such a move could doom the research centers, which tend to take a more programmatic approach to research and have already been shrinking in size.

Collecting “statistics and facts on the condition and progress of education” was the reason that Congress created a federal education agency in 1867. But the statistics agency didn’t come into its own until the 1960s, according to federal education officials.

Now the statistics center, which is headed by Mark S. Schneider, oversees more than a dozen federal surveys and programs, including the well-known National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks student achievement in K-12 schools.

Once set apart from other major education department offices, the statistics center was placed under the research institute when the department’s research offices were reorganized in 2002.

According to Edward J. Spar, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, only a dozen federal agencies focus exclusively on statistics, as the NCES does.

Mr. Spar said the heads of five of those agencies, like the NCES commissioner, are presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed. The rest come to their posts in various ways, including through appointments by agency heads.

The commissioners of only two of the agencies—the NCES and the Bureau of Labor Statistics—also serve fixed terms, an arrangement intended to further protect the statistics office when the White House changes hands. In the case of the NCES chief, the term is six years. At the BLS, the commissioner serves for four years.

That kind of arrangement—a presidential appointment, Senate confirmation, and a fixed term—is ideal, according to a 2005 reportby a national committee of statisticians and researchers organized by the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academies, which advises the federal government on scientific matters.

Advocates for education research also prefer the arrangement because it gives them a chance to weigh in on new nominations.

At the May 21-22 meeting of the National Board for Education Sciences, however, Mr. Whitehurst argued against keeping the nomination mechanism now in the law.

He successfully urged board members to revive an earlier version of their reauthorization recommendations that would give the appointment power to the IES director, who is also presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed, and serves a six-year term.

The director is already empowered under the law to appoint the heads of the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and the National Center for Special Education Research, the other major centers under the IES umbrella.

“It’s easier to manage IES if each member of the leadership team is recruited by, or appointed by, or reports to the director,” Mr. Whitehurst said in an interview. He said the candidate pool is diminished under the presidential-appointment system because many qualified people fail—or are unwilling to undergo—the vetting process.

“The feeling was unanimous that this [a director-made appointment] was a more rational model,” said Robert C. Granger, the board’s chairman and the president of the New York City-based William T. Grant Foundation. “It felt to me, frankly, as the manager of a foundation, as a more sensible approach, as long as we could create some protections for the position.”

Toward that end, the board recommended only allowing the president to fire the commissioner or the institute director “for cause.”

Mr. Schneider, whose term expires next year, is declining to comment on the issue.

Politics as Usual

But groups such as the Washington-based American Educational Research Association and the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington group that represents research and research-and-development organizations, such as the federal regional education laboratories, view the proposal as a mistake.

If asked, Mr. Spar said, he would also oppose allowing the institute director to appoint the statistics commissioner.

“The justification for bringing NCES inside IES for management symmetry doesn’t measure up to the importance of maintaining an independent statistics agency,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance. “The center is already ambiguously under the institute.”

Recent history suggests that the NCES commissioner’s job is never far away from political controversy—even when it’s filled via a presidential nomination confirmed by the Senate.

Debate over the political independence of the statistics commissioner arose in 1999, for instance, after the Clinton administration failed to renominate Pascal D. Forgione Jr. to a second term as statistics commissioner. Republicans on Capitol Hill complained that the highly regarded commissioner was being forced out because he had criticized Vice President Al Gore, who was then running for president, for turning the release of the 1998 naep reading results into a campaign-style event.

At the time, Mr. Forgione said the White House refused to support his nomination because he had failed to meet federal income-tax deadlines for eight years.

An interim commissioner headed the agency until 2003, when President Bush tapped Robert Lerner, a Rockville, Md.-based social scientist for the job. Mr. Lerner’s conservative writings on hot-button social issues drew fierce opposition from researchers, gay-rights groups, and civil rights groups.

To avoid a confirmation battle in the Senate, Mr. Bush put Mr. Lerner on the job by means of a “recess” appointment. The Senate refused to give the appointment a more permanent status when it ran out a year later.

More recently, the statistics center was criticized for a pair of studies initiated while Mr. Lerner was commissioner. Critics, including Mr. Schneider, said the studies—one comparing academic achievement in charter schools with that of regular public schools, and another comparing public and private schools—went beyond basic data to include analyses that some might consider subjective.

Mr. Granger said the National Board for Education Sciences’ recommendations for improving the research institute and the statistics center are still a work in progress. The board plans to deliver a full report to Capitol Hill in the fall. Congress is not expected to consider reauthorizing the education-sciences law, however, until it finishes with the No Child Left Behind Act, whose renewal is widely assumed to be on hold until after a new president takes office.

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Debate Erupts on How to Pick Chief of U.S. Schools Data


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