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An Interview with Former NCES Commissioner Lynn Woodworth

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An Interview with Former NCES Commissioner Lynn Woodworth

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In December, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act and related laws related to federal education research and statistical collection programs. While it is unclear whether the House of Representatives will consider a reauthorization bill, the Senate’s action suggests that there is growing interest in reforming the federal government’s approach to federal education research and statistical collection programs.

With that context, the Foundation for American Innovation is honored to interview Dr. James (Lynn) Woodworth, who recently finished a term leading the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Dr. Woodworth is now a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Dr. Woodworth, thanks for answering our questions. Can you provide some background on both your career and NCES?

NCES is one of the oldest statistical agencies in the country. In 1867, Congress tasked the early version of NCES with “collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and territories, and of diffusing such information respecting the organization and management of schools and school systems, and methods of teaching, as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems, and otherwise promote the cause of education throughout the United States.” Since that time, Congress has greatly expanded the specific data NCES is expected to collect, as well as the subpopulations by which NCES is to report the data. NCES is essentially tasked with collecting all types of data about education, public and private, at all levels from preschool to adult education.

As for my background, I started my work in education by earning a bachelor’s degree in music education through a traditional teacher preparatory program. After a short stint in the Marine Corps, I returned to teaching where I spent 11 years as a traditional public school classroom teacher. During my time in the classroom, I worked to complete my master’s degree in education leadership. In 2009, I left the classroom and entered into a PhD program in education policy. During my doctoral studies, I focused on data analysis and measurement of education outcomes as they relate to education policy. After completing my PhD, I worked with the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, where I stayed until accepting the appointment of NCES Commissioner in 2018. In 2021 at the end of my term with NCES, I returned to Stanford University as a Research Fellow in the Hoover Institution. My experience as a classroom teacher, as a researcher who uses NCES data extensively, and as a former commissioner gives me insight into the benefits of a strong NCES.

How does NCES compare to other federal statistical collection agencies? What is unique about its mission and the value that it provides to the nation?

The U.S. has 13 federal statistical agencies. Each agency focuses on a specific area of public policy. NCES is the primary agency for collecting data about all areas of education. As education is a major portion of our society, NCES has a large scope of responsibility comparable to better-known federal statistical agencies such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Education plays an important role in the development of all aspects of our society. Thus, the collection and analyses of data about education is critical to understanding all aspects of our society. Even with the critical role of education data in shaping future policy, NCES has continued to struggle with insufficient staffing and the inability to even house its data in-house in a manner appropriate to a federal statistical agency.

From your time leading NCES, what are some of the challenges that NCES faces to effectively fulfill its mission?

One of the largest challenges that NCES faces is its very limited staffing structure. Unlike other federal statistical agencies, NCES completes almost all of its work via external contractors. This is a major limitation on NCES’s ability to both achieve economies of scale by having experts work across multiple projects (each project is a separate contract) and its flexibility to adjust work assignments based on immediate needs. To be more efficient, NCES needs to have a minimum of work capacity in-house, as is required by the Evidence Act of 2018. Because of NCES’s overreliance on contracts, which can take months to years to negotiate, NCES cannot readily adjust operations to account for unexpected occurrences such as COVID. Likewise, the limitations placed on NCES by relying on multi-year external contracts to complete all work makes incremental improvements of NCES work and products almost impossible.

Institute of Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider has argued that NCES struggles with timeliness and for taking too long to report data and release statistical reports. But when you were at NCES, you actually took steps to improve the timeliness of the release of data and reports. Tell us what reforms you implemented at NCES, and whether you think timeliness remains a challenge or has largely been addressed.

There are several issues that NCES faces in releasing data in a timely manner. A major factor is that NCES is not allowed to hold individual level data as other Federal statistical agencies do. This means NCES must wait for the states’ education agencies (or for some data sets, thousands of post-secondary institutions) to collect and aggregate the data at the state level before it can be submitted to NCES. This can lead to significant delays especially since NCES has little means to compel states to meet reporting deadlines. One of the ways I sped up the release of data as Commissioner was to decide to publish some data sets without having every state’s data in cases where a state was significantly delinquent. However, since the contracts to produce the data sets did not include producing multiple iterations of the data set, this meant the delinquent state would not be included until the next data cycle.

Another delay of releasing data is the report review process currently in place within IES. NCES had a policy in place that every data set needed to be accompanied by a report. However, conducting analyses, writing a report, and clearing a report through the IES review process often takes several months. I dropped the policy of releasing a report with the data set. I ordered the data set to be released as soon as it was ready. Any reports could then follow whenever possible without impacting the timely release date of the data set. Reducing bureaucratic delays of data is a critical responsibility for the head of any federal statistical agency, but can only be done if that agency head has the necessary authority over all the steps of the process.

Please describe how state education agencies factor into this effort to get data out more quickly. What should states do to improve timeliness and transparency about K-12 public schooling data? How can NCES and the Department of Education encourage them?

One major step toward speeding the release of statistical data would be for NCES to receive raw student-level data from the states and process that data once at NCES. Under the current restrictions, Congress prohibits NCES from holding student-level data. Each state agency compiles the raw data into an aggregated data set that is then sent to NCES. This means the same task is being done over 50 times (50 states, Washington, D.C., the Department of Defense Education Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools, plus the various U.S. territories).

Even more extensive is post-secondary data collection. Data for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is aggregated by the post-secondary institutions before being submitted to NCES. This means instead of NCES computing the summaries one time and then verifying those computations, the data is computed thousands of times by the individual institutions each of which must conduct their own verification processes. The aggregated data must then be further aggregated and verified by NCES contractors, with the work of the contractors being verified by NCES staff.

These are terribly designed, time-consuming processes that greatly hinder NCES’s ability to produce timely statistics. It also means that when a new statistic is desired, it can take years to implement it, as it has to be implemented into every state’s/institution’s process. Additionally, it is essentially impossible to retroactively produce a new data point on past years of data as the data resides outside of NCES’s control.

Because much of NCES’s funding is explicitly for programming, rather than for administration and staffing, NCES works extensively with contractors. How does that government-contractor relationship affect NCES’s mission?

The primary roles of the U.S. Department of Education are oversight and grantmaking. This is because the provision of a public education system is a state’s right. So, the federal government influences education policy through these two roles. From this position, the U.S. Department of Education’s structure, with minimal federal staffing making various grants (i.e. pushing the majority of money outside the department), makes logical sense.

However, NCES is charged by Congress to produce statistical products. In order to do this efficiently, NCES needs to be staffed with in-house experts (federal staff) rather than external contractors. The proper example of staffing for NCES is not the rest of the Department of Education but rather the other federal statistical agencies or even Congress. Imagine how difficult it would be for Congress to operate if congressional staff work were done by an army of external contractors with all necessary work predicted years in advance, rather than by in-house congressional staff with the ability to quickly adjust to current needs.

Because every contract includes its own provisions for data storage, NCES does not gain any economies of scale from a unified IT system. Instead each contractor has separate data servers as well as separate teams that duplicate data security operations. This also makes it difficult (or impossible) for NCES to combine data from multiple data collection operations and from data collections across multiple years. As NCES Commissioner, I pushed for personnel slots, physical resources, and equipment needed to establish an in-house NCES data system to eliminate these redundancies and improve NCES’s ability to process and manage its data. My requests were denied on all points.

Your tenure involved overseeing NCES during the pandemic. What steps did you take to improve public transparency about what was happening in American schools at that time?

The COVID pandemic was a great challenge to NCES. On Thursday, March 12, 2020, Ohio announced that it would physically shut down its schools. By Friday, March 13, 15 other states had made similar announcements. The remaining states quickly followed. It was clear COVID was going to have a major impact on the nation’s education system. However, since NCES does not have any in-house staff who do direct data collection or analytic work, it could not simply retask internal assets to collect this data. The only way NCES could collect data on the closures was through an external contract. Renegotiating a contract to collect data on school operations would take at least six months. At the time, the prevailing logic was that the schools would reopen in the fall of 2020. As schools were expected to reopen before the needed time to renegotiate a contract to collect data on closures, NCES would be able to collect data on closures only after the fact. Fortunately, because they have a high amount of in-house capacity, the Census Bureau was able to pull in-house staff to put together a new data collection related to COVID impacts. NCES was able to add a limited number of critical education items to that Census data collection. As time proved the COVID impact to be longer lasting, NCES continued to work with Census to gather data as well as implementing some contract modifications to finally begin collecting data on the COVID impact. But described limitations on NCES operations caused too long a delay in collecting too little data to give policy makers the information they needed on the impacts of COVID on education.

Congress is considering reauthorizing the Education Sciences Reform Act and related laws. The Senate HELP Committee recently approved the Advancing Research in Education Act. Do you have any feedback about the bill?

There are several policies in the reauthorization language which will diminish NCES’s ability to carry out its mission. Even though a number of recognized statistical experts such as the National Academies of Sciences, the American Statistical Association, and the Office of the Chief Statistician of the United States, among others, recommended improving NCES’s timeliness and data security by increasing the professional autonomy of NCES and the Commissioner, the HELP Committee’s staff seem to have gone in the opposite direction by placing more authority with the IES Director. This is in my opinion a grave error which will not only not improve timeliness of NCES data, but may endanger the independence and along with it the reliability and trustworthiness of NCES statistical data. The changes proposed by the HELP staff also seem to run afoul of many elements of the Evidence Act of 2018.

Since the House Education and Workforce Committee has not yet introduced a bill, the outlook for the ESRA reauthorization is uncertain. But Congress could also reform NCES through the appropriations process. What are your recommendations for the Appropriations Committees?

I would suggest that Congress authorize NCES to use all of its budget as needed for hiring federal staff, for purchasing federally owned equipment such as data servers, and for providing necessary facilities. This would put NCES’s appropriations language in alignment with that of the other federal statistical agencies. Currently the appropriations language greatly restricts how much funding can be spent on federal staffing, which is in alignment with the rest of the Department of Education. But as I stated above, NCES’s congressionally mandated mission is very different from the rest of the Department of Education.

Given the challenging fiscal environment, congressional appropriators will face difficult decisions about how to fund federal education research programs. If NCES needs additional resources, do you have any ideas for how Congress can reprioritize funding within IES or the Department of Education’s research programs generally

Much of the improvement to NCES’s operations I have described will not require additional funding. It will simply require a reallocation of NCES’s current program funds for in-house use. The computer system I described above is an example. Under the current appropriation language, program dollars cannot be used to create or staff an in-house data system. However, those program dollars can be sent out to contractors to operate multiple external data systems or provided to other Federal agencies, such as Census, who can then use those same program dollars to hire Federal staff and purchase IT equipment. Of course, sending the program dollars to contractors or other Federal agencies incurs additional expenses of contract/interagency agreement processing fees and expenses diminishing the purchasing power of those dollars. This is a case where a small expense to modify in-house office space, purchase of a relatively small amount of IT equipment, and the hiring of a few additional federal staff by NCES with program money could save the taxpayers a significant amount of money and improve the timeliness of NCES’s data operations without an increase in appropriations. Unfortunately, political resistance to such changes has resulted in continuation of the inefficient status quo.

Are there ways that NCES could improve the way that its data and reports are published to improve accessibility for the public and research community?

NCES has to move forward with modernizing its data processes and access methods. Steps such as development of APIs, secure data access by users, and use of secure multiparty computing could improve both timeliness and access. However, there is zero incentive for current contractors to contribute to such activities since more efficient processes would reduce the value of their contracts and/or require them to invest in new technologies. And since NCES has no in-house capacity for research and development with its current staffing limitations due to the appropriations language and historical practices within the Department of Education and IES, there is little chance those improvements will occur. The capacity to improve requires enough flexibility in the workforce to allow knowledgeable staff to have time to innovate on current operations. That flexibility does not exist within NCES and will not exist as long as all the actual data collection, analysis work, and development work of NCES is contracted out to external entities.

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