Cliff Notes

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Cliff Adelman passed away last week. To the uninitiated, Cliff was arguably the best data analyst on student issues that this world has ever seen. This is not an overstatement nor hyperbole. I’ve met most of them around the world at some point and he was leaps above any of them. If you don’t know Cliff, you know his data. His work was that omnipresent in the education arena.

Cliff was important to many of us data wonks. More than anything, he taught me what stories could be told from a bag full of data. He played Jeopardy with data (literally). He spoke of the “toolbox” and how students “swirled” and how business falsely used the BA as a filter, something I talk about to this day.


What separated Cliff from everyone else was his devotion to the data. He knew “the data,” of course. Perhaps he knew data more than some people. I’m not sure. I spent time with Cliff at countless conferences and meetings, and after a few beverages, he would be head back to his room and run more numbers for the next day. As others knew greatly, he was difficult to argue with—even if you were pretty sure you were right—because he had such a command with the data that you figured he had something on you. And he was confident, which totally made you feel you were doomed. Cliff and I were pretty much always on the same side of the argument, so it was never an issue that I can remember between us. He was on the students’ side. Cliff used data to tell stories of students in a hope to influence public policy and the “business” of higher education. In “Answers in the Tool Box,” his thematic piece from 1999 using data from the High School and Beyond (HS&B) database, he let us know that what mattered most with regard to higher education access and success, more than anything else, was the rigor of prior learning: enrolling and excelling in the most challenging courses during high school paved the way to future success, regardless of race/ethnicity or income. That was something that might have been inferred before, but these data, based on transcript data that he fought long and hard for at ED, told us definitively.

In 1988, not so long ago, Larry Gladieux and I had the privilege of having Cliff spend six months with us at the College Board for an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignment. We were all excited about it, and it is where he did most of the work on “Toolbox.” He also laid the groundwork for his analysis of job ads where he noted the discrepancy between the skills employers desired and the inflated level of education they required. We were all excited to have Cliff hang out with us for half a year. In reflection, however, we never really saw Cliff very much. He was always out talking to be people or doing his analysis. That, again, was Cliff. He did his work.

Many of us spoke on panels with Cliff throughout our careers. If you saw Cliff in the audience at a session, there was a question coming. And it would be a short question led by a five-minute oratorio building the foundation for the question. And if the receiver of the question wasn’t listening with intense focus, he or she was dust. Cliff took no prisoners. He wasn’t rude about it, but he would be all over someone if they gave an answer that had no credence in it from an empirical standpoint. Numbers rule (as they should), anecdote does not. But as someone said this week on Facebook, we all learned to speak before Cliff, not after him. This, of course, had a double-edged sword. If you went before Cliff, he could critique your analysis live before he even started talking about his content. If you went after, your 20-minute presentation was squashed to three due to a bit of “overtime” on his part. Cliff could talk. And talk.

When changes happened at the College Board back in 2000 in the form of Gaston Caperton, the former West Virginia governor who became the CEO at the Board that year, a bunch of us were suddenly unemployed. When the news hit the wire back in late January 2000, Cliff immediately had me meet with his wife, Nancy, over the bridge in Rosslyn at SRI International. She also was an education researcher and she hired me on the spot. So, I owe them both personally and professionally for the opportunity and don’t think I ever gave them the proper “thank you” for that. Thank You. Both.

My first boss back in Winnipeg hired me as a teacher because I was a musician. He hired almost all musicians for “shop” teachers because, as he said, “Musicians were mathematicians.” There was a connection between the music and the technical. This perfectly describes Cliff, too. He was an excellent piano player and he loved to play. He would bring his folder of music to conferences and, if there was a piano, it was to be played. As a piano player myself, I loved this about Cliff. I remember playing the grand at the San Diego Hilton at the very end of ConnectED 2000 when people were filing out, and Cliff gave me a wink. A page from his catalogue.

There is much more to tell, but this was difficult enough to write with all the “humidity” around here. I will miss Cliff. We all will, even if you never knew him. #cancersucks.



Thanks to Nick and the rest of the Adelmans for putting up the wonderful Facebook celebration. Many of us never knew Cliff had dark hair. Or the Speedos. 

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