The NCES, the NIEER, and government-funded advocacy

Something unsavory is underway at the Department of Education and in the world of preschool zealotry. They seem to be merging—and in so doing, they risk the integrity of our education-data system.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, my longtime mentor, was renowned for declaring (among other things), “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Well, in the matter of preschool statistics, it appears you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

Worse, you’re going to begin to wonder whether you can trust the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to obtain its data from impartial sources of facts rather than hotbeds of passionate advocacy.

This was an issue a dozen years back when economist Michael Podgursky (and others) pointed out that NCES was getting its teacher-salary data from the unions—and publishing those numbers as reliable facts, which they may or may not have been. (Podgursky noted, for example, that they certainly didn’t take account of many noncash benefits that teachers also derive from their employment, such as shorter work years.)

NCES has since gathered its own data on teacher compensation (or relied on trustworthy government agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics), as it should.

But in the preschool realm, NCES has done something worse than it did with the salary data. It has not only outsourced the number gathering to a prominent interest group in the field but also allowed that interest group to add its own spin and then issued the results in the guise of a government statistical publication. And along the way, it subsidized that group’s ongoing advocacy work.

Check out The State of Preschool 2013. Issued the other day with the logos of IES (Institute of Education Sciences) and NCES, it was compiled and written by Steve Barnett and his colleagues at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). If you’ve been living in a cave and don’t know what that entity is, read their “vision statement” and ask yourself whether this looks like a neutral source of factual data.

Dig a little deeper and you will learn that a year ago, NCES entered into a sole-source contract with NIEER to “provide the annual ‘State of Preschool’ data collection, data sets, and reports developed by NIEER.” The explanation for this questionable act was that the federal agency had no other way to obtain information on state-funded preschool programs that operate outside the public-school orbit.

Why were these data suddenly important for NCES? Because of “the President’s call to expand preschool education access.” And turning this project over to NIEER, not surprisingly, garnered the ardent approval of sundry other advocacy groups, such as the New America Foundation, that agree with the president and strongly favor the expansion of publicly supported preschool programs, just like he does.

Fishy, yes—especially for a statistical agency that is supposed to be neutral in policy matters. Note that the same contract pays for NIEER to issue its own “preschool yearbook,” which is practically indistinguishable from the federal report also authored by Dr. Barnett and his team, save that the “yearbook” contains lots more spin and advocacy than the NCES publication—spin and advocacy underwritten by your tax dollar and mine, thanks to NCES. 

And guess who is the featured guest at next week’s briefing on the newest NIEER yearbook (a “coincidental” couple of weeks after the federal version)? None other than our friend the U.S. secretary of education, the Honorable Arne Duncan.

The 2013 NIEER yearbook was full of exhortation and Chicken Little–style warnings about the paucity of current preschool funding and so-called “quality” (mostly based on inputs and services, not school-readiness outcomes). It will, in other words, support and advance the president’s policy agenda. And will do so with your tax dollar and mine, thanks to NCES (and, presumably, hierarchs at the Institute of Education Sciences and elsewhere at ED).

The NCES version of this yearbook isn’t quite as blatant. It’s mainly numbers—numbers chosen by NIEER, to be sure, and none of them having to do with program results, just how many three- and four-year-old kids were enrolled in state-sponsored preschool programs (as defined by NIEER) in 2012–13, how much was spent on such programs, and how those figures differed from the previous year.

But the familiar NIEER spin is there, mainly in the opening paragraph of the introduction:

Participation in preschool programs has been associated with a number of positive outcomes. Evaluating data from the 40-year follow-up to the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program Study, Belfield and his colleagues show how preschool participation by low income children relates to significant economic benefits both to the children by the time they are in their 40s and to society more generally (Belfield et al. 2006).1 Summarizing over 160 studies conducted from 1960 through 2000, Camilli et al. found that preschool had a range of shorter and longer term positive relationships to cognitive gains, progression through school, and social-emotional development (Camilli et al. 2010).

No, there’s nothing new there. It’s what the preschool “juggernaut” has been asserting for years. Doesn’t matter whether Perry Preschool data—based on high-cost “boutique” programs for exceptionally disadvantaged toddlers—have any bearing on what passes for statewide preschool programs today. Doesn’t say anything about how many of the latter are skimpy offerings for four-year-olds (including many whose families don’t need state subsidies) with little or no curriculum and scant evidence of learning outcomes. Doesn’t say anything about whether whatever short-term gains they manage to produce are sustained and amplified by the elementary schools these youngsters then enter.

But it’s spin, remember, spin intended to advance a policy agenda: the juggernaut’s agenda and the president’s. It’s well and good for advocacy groups to advance agendas. But it’s questionable when the government pays for that advocacy. And it’s downright reprehensible when a federal statistical agency enables it—and then represents the fruits of it as its own.

In this brave new world of federal data, it seems, you’re entitled to your own facts, too.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Flypaper blog.

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