Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Research + Politics = Bad News

At the Fordham's flypaper blog, Andy Smarick has some sobering news. Yes, Smarick is from the reformster camp, but what he reports this week is concerning to anybody who cares about education in this country.

Smarick is reporting about the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the government agency responsible for gathering and sorting the vast ocean of data related to American schools. Smarick, like most folks, has considered NCES a reliable source for accurate information about what's actually happening on the ground. But a series of events has given him pause.

In 2013, Smarick thought that a batch of data regarding large urban districts did not add up, and he further noted that "an advocacy organization that represents and serves large urban districts" was a big part of the data rollout. He wrote a piece chastising the feds.

But what happened next truly opened my eyes to the extent of the potential problem. The then-head of NCES quickly responded to my piece. He noted that his organization was only responsible for producing the data, which they do “free of ‘spin’ or partisan/political influence.” The National Assessments Government Board (which is in charge of NAEP), he wrote, is in charge of the public release pursuant to federal law.

He continued: “NAGB has interpreted this language as giving them authority over all aspects of the release event (in-person or webinar), including its title, format, and, perhaps most importantly, the policy guests whom they invite to present their interpretations of the findings.

Then another former NCES commissioner spoke up with similar issues. 

It's a legitimate concern. There has been plenty of concern over the past decade or two about the degree to which political concerns are allowed to influence government-funded science and the degree to which scientists are muzzled or "handled."

But if the data about schools is being tweaked, shaded, trimmed and otherwise altered, that's not good for anybody, no matter what side of the larger argument they're on. It's hard enough to handle all the differing biases, perspectives and agendas-- the last thing we need is to discover that our facts are even facts.

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