The NCES, NIEER, and spinning preschool data

The early-childhood folks didn’t much like it when I faulted NCES for relying on the Rutgers-based National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) as the source for federal data on “the state of preschool”—and for subsidizing the advocacy work of that organization, which just so happens to be aligned with President Obama’s preschool initiative.

NIEER’s Steve Barnett insisted that the sole-source federal contract pays only for data gathering, not advocacy. And the Department of Education noted that when it had announced its intention of awarding such a contract to NIEER, nobody objected at the time. So why, it implied, was I grumping after the fact?

Talk about splitting hairs. At the receiving end—I speak as the long-time head of a fundraising-dependent nonprofit organization not so very different from NIEER—all money is green, even federal contract dollars that must be accounted for. At minimum, they offset costs that would otherwise be borne elsewhere in one’s budget, thereby freeing up funds for other activities, in this case including advocacy, which is what NIEER is best known for. (OK, data-based advocacy, but limited to the data they want you to see because those are the data that buttress their views and advance their goals.) I don’t know what NIEER’s total budget is—we couldn’t find it in any public source—but the $1.5 million it will receive via this contract (over five years) isn’t chickenfeed. And they can charge to this contract the costs of gathering data they would otherwise have had to use other funds to pay for.

As for the government assertion that anybody with palpitations about this arrangement should have objected ahead of time, that simply fails to address the core problem, which is using an advocacy group as the source of data, analysis, and authorship for a federal report that is supposed to be policy neutral.

This, however, is a topic where the White House is far from neutral, and one must conclude that its political and policy agendas have trickled down into the Institute for Education Sciences and National Center for Education Statistics, which is precisely what isn’t supposed to happen. Imagine the ruckus if anything similar happened at the Census Bureau or Bureau of Labor Statistics. There would be an outcry over possible interest-group contamination—or at least spinning—of key government data, as there was back when NCES got its teacher-salary data from the teacher unions.

Universal preschool is a big deal for President Obama—and for NIEER. They are perfectly aligned on this topic. NIEER chief Steve Barnett is known to be a key administration advisor and strategist on this issue and has appeared with the president at public events (e.g., Decatur, Georgia) designed to advance this agenda. (He is rumored to have arrived via Air Force One, though I haven’t been able to confirm that.)

The president is entitled to his agenda, although personally I’m no fan of universal preschool. (It should be tightly targeted on school readiness for very needy kids—and the feds should start by turning Head Start into the education program that it has never been.)

NIEER is, of course, entitled to its agenda, too. The issue is whether a federal statistical agency—intended to be immune to every sort of policy agenda and political interest—should outsource its data-gathering efforts to advocacy groups.

In this case, NCES outsourced more than the gathering of data. It also hired NIEER to do some of the interpretation. Compare the almost-back-to-back reports recently issued by the two entities. You might start with the fact that both carry exactly the same title: “The State of Preschool 2013.”

Then there’s the fact that tables 1, 2, and 3 in the federal document are essentially identical to tables 1, 2 and 6 in the NIEER document, the difference being that NIEER rank-orders the states according to its advocacy priorities, whereas NCES lists them alphabetically.

True, the federal report doesn’t contain a great deal of explicit policy “spin,” save for repeating the usual stuff about the miraculous results of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, even though that differed in almost every conceivable way from the state-financed programs that are tabulated in the data tables.

But the implicit spin just happens to align, once again, with both NIEER’s and President Obama’s policy agendas.

Consider the focus of both reports on state-funded preschool. Why not all preschool? Why exclude the huge Head Start program? (Answer: it’s not an education program, even though it should be.) What about the Census Bureau–generated data on what they call “nursery school” enrollment of kids aged 3 and up? Might it weaken the Obama (and NIEER) policy argument if it were acknowledged that approximately half of American three- and four-year-olds are already enrolled in preschool or nursery school programs of some sort and that many more are in “day care” programs? In fact, in 2006, fewer than one-fifth of four-year-olds and one-third of three-year-olds were cared for solely by their parents—and today, those fractions are surely smaller.

What would it do to the Obama/NIEER policy agenda of “universality” if NCES announced that the overwhelming majority of preschool-aged kids are already participating in something of the sort? What’s the magic of “state-funded” programs? How do we know that they are true Kindergarten-readiness programs and are effectively producing the desired results for kids who need it most?

On reflection, the implicit spin is worse than the explicit kind when it comes to this collaboration between NCES and NIEER. State-funded, state-operated preschools are what President Obama and Mr. Barnett want. But they may not be what the country needs. And the job of a statistical agency is to provide people with data by which they can judge these things for themselves. On this front, NCES has let the country down—and NIEER has profited.

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