In Search of Better Data

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

My commentary today focuses on the important issue of data in education. Perhaps serendipitously, I attended two events this week in Washington, DC focusing on this issue. The first was the quarterly meeting of the Data Quality Campaign, a national, collaborative effort to encourage and support state policymakers to improve data collection efforts across the country (and of which EPI is an endorsing partner). The second event was a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) called “Fixing Failing Schools: Is the NCLB Toolkit Working?”

Truth be told, one cannot talk about data collection in the United States without talking about the legislative elephant “No Child Left Behind” Act, signed into law in January 2002. It has totally pushed the discussion and practice of states, districts, and schools on data collection at the K-12 level. There is seemingly no one left untouched by NCLB. And the impact of NCLB is not only in K-12 education. While the IPEDs debate and efforts of NCES at the U.S. Department of Education is not connected in a legislative manner to “more and better” data at the postsecondary level. And that is a good thing.

At the Data Quality Campaign event on November 29, Institute for Education Sciences (IES) director Russ Whitehurst stated that there is consensus that unit-record student data (a) provides the most accurate portrait of students, (b) is a powerful tool for improving the performance of schools, and (c) is a powerful resource for policy issues. I believe all to be true, but there seemed to be consensus at the AEI event that NCLB hasn’t done what it was originally designed to do, even through better and more data—and that’s to improve classroom practice. It has succeeded in forcing states to collect better data in a better manner, but when asked about impact on classroom, the speakers almost unanimously replied that it had done little if anything about classroom practice. And this included many right-wing commentators, including Diane Ravitch, former Assistance Secretary of Education under Bush I in the early 1990s and Checker Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution. Ravitch summarized what she read and heard suggesting that NCLB has not worked.

But NCLB has had an impact on data collection and quality in the five years that NCLB was enacted. EPI has been talking with a many state-level data people for a project we are conducting for the National Council on Disability that looks at the impact of NCLB on student achievement and data availability. Our perception, to this point, is that NCLB has definitely pushed states farther down the data line than they would have without. But true to the point of the AEI panels, there is impact evidence of an impact on classroom efforts five-years in.

This brings up an important point about to what end the federal government can go in mandating educational efforts at the state level. Through NCLB, the federal government took a large step into state jurisdiction (our Canadian friends surely can relate to the importance of provincial/state autonomy in education matters), and are using the Act as a model for conditioning-through-compliance, in a very B.F. Skinner model by punishing states who do not show “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, by students and schools.

It’s funny, in retrospect, that it took a Republican president to engage in this activity, since it is a very anti-Republican manner of public policy. President Clinton tried, unsuccessfully back in the mid-1990s, to implement “voluntary” national tests to the states. He couldn’t get Congress or the states to budge on that one, but within a few years, a Republic president came in and went far, far beyond what was suggested by Clinton.

But NCLB does two things. First is it mandates this AYP effort, forcing states to put themselves in a position to actually document progress, although the government doesn’t tell them how. And ED punishes states (or districts/schools) that do not make AYP by withholding funds. This is far different than supporting states to act in a certain way (e.g., like asking them to collect data), especially in a jurisdiction that is historically and constitutional theirs. Getting compliance with data collection is one thing—but punishing/rewarding them on actual student progress is a completely different level.

For me, I’ve changed my tune on this issue. I’ve always supported NCLB, but I found myself nodding my head in agreement with most of those at AEI yesterday that the government has gone too far and should perhaps push NCLB in a slightly different direction when it comes up for reauthorization next year. Don’t focus so much on AYP, but rather, help states put the mechanisms in place that then would allow the federal government, from the bully pulpit, to publicize the efforts of states—positive and negative. Perhaps ED could produce something like the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s Measuring Up Report Cards, which I discussed back in September. Use public pressure to push states, but don’t punish those that obviously need as much help, and funds, to make the changes necessary to assist students. I found myself in agreement with former assistant secretary of education Mike Smith, who said yesterday at AEI: “I’m much bigger on positive incentives than negative incentives.”

Of course, my viewpoint is not shared by everyone. Katie Haycock of the Education Trust thinks NCLB, while not perfect, should not let states of the hook. As she put it yesterday, she’s seen plenty of states that have lots of disaggregated data with “crappy results.” And she’s right. But if the data are better, and if they’re used by some organization, whether that be the federal government or some other organization (maybe even EPI), then the pressure will be on those states to perform or answer for their performance. At least in theory…

For those higher ed folks out there, I hope you’ve kept on reading because this is an important issue at the postsecondary level, because of a third issue. published a great article this morning (good work, Doug) on the Department of Education’s push for unit-record data through the “Huge IPEDs” mechanism. As I said earlier, while discussion of data at the postsecondary level has been an increasing issue over the past decade, NCLB has pushed the envelope. According to the article, Huge IPEDs (that’s really what they call it) is an effort to dramatically expand the data collected by institutions and report to the federal government to keep in compliance with Title IV regulations of the Higher Education Act. If institutions don’t comply, they don’t get Title IV aid, and, for intents and purposes, cease to be a postsecondary institution. It’s a heavy lever. But the article correctly surmises that Huge IPEDS IS an effort on behalf of ED to push states and institutions to unit-record data, an issue of some contention in the US at the postsecondary level, and one discussed by our colleague Alex Usher a while back.

The discussion, at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, is all moving toward unit record data, where we can track students individually across the education spectrum. Only Florida does this real well right now, but states are improving. As Timothy Webb of the Tennessee Department of Education said at the Data Quality Campaign meeting on Wednesday, through NCLB pressures, they were able to produce more dirty data, in a much faster way. But they are now moving toward quality data, which is ultimately important.

So it’s interesting to see how the federal government can flex its muscles to change practices at the state and local levels. It’s certainly creative, especially the Huge IPEDs approach, but we’ll have to see if it and NCLB ultimately meet their goals.

Enough blabbering for now. I’d invite readers to visit the Data Quality Campaign website below. I’m told the panel webcast will be available after December 12. Also visit the AEI website to download papers and video at the following address.,filter.all/event_detail.asp


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