Peggy G. Carr, Ph.D.
Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics
Sesquicentennial Celebration of NCES
November 15, 2017
The first Federal Department of Education was created in 1867 by Congress to collect "such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the states and territories...as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems."
Today, 150 years later, the National Center for Education Statistics is proud to celebrate this mission, and to continue to report on the condition of education in the United States with relevant, timely, and high-quality data.
The first Department of Education was created during a period of rapid technological, economic, and social change, coinciding with the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Industrial Revolution. The first Morrill Act of 1862 granted federally controlled land to states to establish "land-grant" colleges. Many states also greatly expanded free common schooling. The Federal Freedmen's Bureau opened publicly funded schools across the South, providing the opportunity of formal education for the first time to many former slaves. And on the same day that President Andrew Johnson signed the legislation creating our agency, Congress chartered Howard University for the purpose of educating black clergymen.
Educators had been advocating for decades for the creation of an agency to monitor and report on the condition and progress of the growing country's education systems. In 1838, Henry Barnard, a prominent Connecticut educator, proposed that the 1840 Census gather data on illiteracy and on the existence and condition of educational institutions. But the effort to create the agency did not begin in earnest until the annual meeting of the National Association of School Superintendents in Washington in 1866. The superintendents tasked a special committee with drafting the bill, and Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio, a former teacher who later became president, championed the bill in the House of Representatives. And Henry Barnard, who had advocated collection of education data in the 1840 Census, became the first Commissioner of this new Federal agency.
Over time there have been name changes; the agency has also been known as the Bureau of Education and the Office of Education. And there have been changes in Departments: the Department of the Interior; then Health, Education, and Welfare; and now the Department of Education. And, of course, changes in the structure and mission of our education system.
From its modest beginning 150 years ago, NCES is now the third-largest of the 13 primary Federal statistical agencies. It is a trusted national resource, providing credible, timely, unbiased education statistics for policymakers, researchers, educators, parents, students, and the media.
But this was not always the case. A 1986 report on the Center's operations from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) challenged the Center to become more timely, accurate, efficient, and relevant. In its sharpest criticism, the Academy took the position that if NCES did not take its role seriously, it may as well shut its doors.
The leadership of many former commissioners, particularly Emerson Elliott, has advanced NCES well beyond the many challenges outlined in the NAS report. NCES has emerged as a Federal statistical agency respected for the quality of its data; grew into a leadership role in education statistics; built a reputation as an agency true to its values of accuracy, rigor, timeliness, relevance, and objectivity, and a protector of respondent confidentiality; and built a comprehensive portfolio with numerous unique studies and methodologies.
Today, NCES provides reliable, independent benchmarks for states, localities, and institutions around the country, and provides data for international benchmarking. NCES also provides deeper insights into our education system through the lens of longitudinal surveys.
Since the early 1990s, when I first joined NCES, I have seen the Center achieve a number of major milestones that define our comprehensive portfolio today. We are particularly proud to have developed a comprehensive set of statistical standards that have become a model for the Federal statistical community. Our statistical standards grew out of recommendations from the 1986 Academy report on NCES. Over the ensuing three decades, our statistical standards have evolved from the top-down approach used in our first set of published standards in 1988 to the 2002 and 2012 collaborative effort that involved the majority of NCES staff in the formulation and revision of our standards. NCES Statistical Standards have been recognized as exemplars and served as a starting point for the Department's Information Quality Guidelines and the Office of Management and Budget's Standards and Guidelines for Statistical Data and were cited as a Federal model in the final report of the Ryan-Murray Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.
One of our most important accomplishments is our series of interconnecting longitudinal studies, from birth to postsecondary. The studies provide the basis for within-cohort comparisons by following the same individuals over time and allowing for analysis of intercohort and intracohort changes at key moments in people's lives. The longitudinal studies broke new ground in statistics by—among other things—inventing "freshening," a method for producing new nationally representative cohorts from a younger, initially sampled, cohort.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has evolved from a monitor of national progress only to one that allows every state and more than two dozen large urban school districts to monitor their progress on a common yard stick. We have led collaboration across the world to develop the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international assessments that allow countries to benchmark their progress against each other. NCES staff played crucial roles in transitioning TIMSS from a research study to a robust, reliable, truly large-scale assessment, as well as in the development of PISA. These international large-scale assessments used the NAEP matrix design and other NAEP methodological innovations, most notably groundbreaking work related to plausible values, as the foundation for their own designs. Together, these international assessments and studies provide us with a comprehensive international indicator system, and they are used in countries around the world to monitor their own educational progress. And we have been an intellectual driver behind the landmark work of DeSeCo—the OECD's Definition and Selection of Key Competencies project—which continues to guide international efforts on understanding the key competencies needed by individuals to contribute economically and socially to well-functioning societies.
Strategic thinking and technological advances have allowed us to efficiently gather a wealth of administrative data on K-12 and postsecondary schools while minimizing respondent burden. We have dramatically increased access to our data for researchers and the public with powerful online data tools and a restricted-access process that protects data confidentiality while facilitating in-depth data analytics. This includes greatly enhanced accessibility to our universe collections, such as the Common Core of Data and IPEDS, through downloadable files and curated tools like ELSi and the College Navigator—a great resource for prospective college students and their parents. It also means comprehensively inventorying the data that are collected. The ED Data Inventory describes all the data reported to the Department of Education and includes descriptive information about each data collection, along with information on the specific data elements in individual collections. We built these data inventories even before the Ryan-Murray Commission recommended the development of such inventories across all Federal statistical agencies.
The Center has also been a leader in the field of using administration data for statistical purposes and in linking administrative data to survey data. For many years, collected administrative data have been the source for our sampling frames, have been used to study national trends, and have allowed NCES to provide insight into new question and directions for ongoing study. We have expanded the integration of data collected for ED programs or management of financial aid into our statistical releases, such as The Condition of Education. Many of our sample surveys have made new use of administrative data to reduce burden on survey respondents, in alignment with the Center's long-term goals. And we're continuing work on Common Education Data Standards to ensure consistency and transparency regarding the source data being managed and how it becomes the administrative data we report.
It is important to NCES that we focus on both the collected data and the underlying systems being built and run by education agencies. For instance, the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) program has delivered guidance and technical assistance to the field and brought data system experts closer to NCES. States are using granted SLDS funds to establish research agendas and data request processes and policies. Understanding state research questions facilitates improved relationships between researchers asking for data and the states providing the data.
Similar to other statistical agencies, there are still challenges to be reckoned with: declining response rates as people are inundated with data requests; issues around personally identifiable information and data security; as well as declining human resources—fewer staff—in the face of a growing program of work.
On the other hand, several opportunities await us. We are doing pioneering work in digital data collection that is opening up a world of opportunity: producing improved accuracy in measuring constructs; allowing us to measure new constructs; and making it easier to be more inclusive for respondents with special needs—and, really, for everyone—through universal design features. We also have the capacity to collect better data on our processes and the actions that respondents take in interacting with our instruments. We are taking advantage of the emerging field of data science and analytics where IT intersects with statistics. We're also enthusiastic about data linking—opportunities for merging administrative data with survey data and with data from other statistical agencies—that will better serve our stakeholders while reducing our data collection footprint. We are looking forward to developments of new pathways in this area based on recommendations made by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.
The nation relies on the flow of objective, credible statistics provided by each part of the Federal Statistical System. The work underway at NCES will expand on the Center's founding mission: to measure and understand the condition and progress of education in America by collecting data that fully reflect the range of educational experiences of all of our nation's students.