Keeping the National Center for Education Statistics independent

Much attention is appropriately devoted to the critical role that the federal government plays in improving the educational attainment of the U.S. population by authorizing and funding various educational policies and programs. Also important — but less frequently discussed — is the essential role that the federal government plays in advancing the production of high-quality data that reliably and objectively identify the status of education in the United States. Such data are critical to determining whether and how particular policies and practices are achieving their goals as well as how available fiscal resources should be invested in order to best promote the educational achievement of all students.

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With the goal of promoting high-quality education research, in May 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4366, The Strengthening Education through Research Act. Among other provisions, this legislation would reauthorize the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the entity within the U.S. Department of Education that is charged with conducting research on all levels of education, from early childhood through higher education. The legislation now sits with the U.S. Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

One particularly important aspect of the proposed legislation pertains to the treatment of one center within the IES: the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Although IES has other units that are also labeled "centers," the role and functions of NCES are distinct from those of other units. Because of these differences, NCES should be treated differently.

As stated on its website, NCES "is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education." The data that NCES collects and publishes (through the Digest of Education Statistics, Condition of Education and many other publications and data products) are widely used by policymakers, educational leaders, researchers and the public. One reason for this widespread use is that such data are understood to be of high integrity — they are believed to credible, reliable and politically objective.

To fully achieve its mission of providing credible, reliable and objective data, NCES must be an independent and autonomous entity. In a July 9, 2014, letter to the majority and minority leaders of the HELP Committee, Chairman Tom HarkinTom HarkinDo candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? The Hill's 12:30 Report Mark Mellman: Parsing the primary processes MORE (D-Iowa) and Ranking Member Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAmerican technology leadership: We can't take it for granted GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video MORE (R-Tenn.), the American Education Research Association and a number of other scientific associations specified several ways the legislation passed by the House should be amended to preserve the independence and autonomy of NCES. In its current form, the legislation will pass powers that should be maintained by the NCES commissioner to the IES director.

While it deliberates and takes action on this important legislation, the Senate should make a few modest but critical changes pertaining to NCES.

First, the final legislation should establish that NCES has full and final authority over its publications. Without this authority, NCES — and the data that it publishes — cannot be considered politically independent.

Second, the final legislation should ensure that NCES is led by a commissioner who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, not someone who is appointed by the IES director. Having the IES director appoint the NCES commissioner creates the risk that decisions about the data that are collected (a primary responsibility of the NCES commissioner) are influenced by a particular research agenda (an agenda that is the responsibility of the IES director). Determinations of the statistics and data that our country needs should be made independently of any research priorities; statistics and data should influence IES's research agenda, not vice versa. Having the IES director appoint the NCES commissioner also reduces the stature of this important position and limits direct communication between the NCES commissioner and the secretary of the Department of Education.

As Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of Education, argued in his July 31, 2014 commentary, we must "be able to trust the numbers." By passing legislation that not only reauthorizes IES but also ensures the independence and autonomy of NCES, Congress will advance the continued production of the credible, reliable and objective data needed by policymakers, educational leaders and researchers.

Perna is executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the James S. Riepe Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. She is the author, with Joni Finney, of The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

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