There is growing concern in the education world that a severe staff shortage at the National Center for Education Statistics will force the agency to cut back on the collection and dissemination of vital data that the public, legislators and policymakers use to make decisions.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of good data (such as how many people are infected and how many schools are closed), the primary federal agency for collecting and analyzing education data will probably have to cut back or eliminate key statistical surveys, statisticians who used to work at the center and others say.

“I’m very concerned that this is something that has the potential to erode the quality of the education system,” said Larry Hedges, a world-renowned applied statistician who is chairman of Northwestern University’s Department of Statistics. He won the $3.9 million global Yidan Prize for Education Research in 2018.

“In the case of NCES, it is a trustworthy source of evidence about American education and no place else can provide that,” he said.

Included in the data instruments that could be compromised, experts say, are the School Survey on Crime and Safety, which is the primary source of school-level data on those subjects for the Education Department; the Fast Response Survey System, which could be used to help schools recover from the covid-19 crisis; and the National Assessment of Education Progress, called “America’s report card."

Officials at the Education Department would not respond to queries about this issue, including NCES officials or Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of NCES’s Assessments Division, which is responsible for the NAEP, one of the agency’s projects that could be affected by the staffing problems.

NCES has long collected, analyzed and published objective, nonpartisan data from about 18,000 public school districts on many issues, including academic achievement, crime and school safety, school funding and spending, student and teacher demographics, and much more.

Its data is used by school boards, families and others to make individual and public decisions. For example, Daniel Elchert, a science policy fellow at the American Statistical Association, the largest community of statisticians in the world, wrote: “Imagine parents trying to make a decision about a new school district — but finding that the only available information is two years out of date. Or a local school board trying to select their curriculum and being informed that they’ll need to decide without any actual data.”

“The concerns about diminished resources for data, data reporting, and staff reductions are real and troublesome for NCES,” said Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

The agency has sustained staff cuts for decades, increasingly contracting work out to private companies, which can do some of the work to keep the statistical analyses going but not all of it.

A group of former agency commissioners and others have sent a letter (see below) to Congress to provide enough funding and guidance so that the agency can rebuild its staff, and to reject a Trump administration proposal to reduce the stature of NCES in other ways.

Levine signed the letter, along with Ron Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association; Katherine Wallman, chief statistician of the United States from 1992-2017; Emerson Elliott, NCES commissioner from 1984-1995; Jack Buckley, NCES commissioner from 2009-2013; and Nancy Potok, chief statistician of the United States, from 2017-2019.

It asks for at least a 5 percent budget increase in NCES’s statistics account, noting that it has lost more than 20 percent in purchasing power since fiscal 2009. The extra money, the letter said, would be used in part to help NCES track emerging education trends and provide more timely and regional data, “efforts that are currently taxed due to both the loss of the agency’s purchasing power and its staffing crisis.”

Contractors cannot make fundamental decisions about what data should be collected to help inform the public and policymakers, they said. The work is spread out among various contractors, and there needs to be a strong core of full-time agency employees who can look at the data collections in their entirety, statisticians say.

Currently, NCES’s $260 million statistics and assessment budget is managed by nearly 90 full-time employees — even though there is not supposed to be fewer than 95, Elchert said.

Other statistical agencies within the federal government have had more success building staff, with smaller budgets but more full-time employees. For example, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has a $170 million budget but more than 1,000 full-time employees, Elchert said. Per every $1 million in budget, the agricultural statistics service has 16 times more staff than NCES. (You can see a chart with more comparisons below.)

The letter also urges Congress to reject an effort by the Trump administration to transfer NCES’s assessment responsibilities to a new center and dropping a requirement that the commissioner of the agency by appointed by the president. Buckley said that the proposed “demotion in stature” of the agency “is particularly bad” because statistical agencies within the government are expected to ramp up efforts now to remain compliant with federal data laws.

According to Elchert and others, these are some of surveys at risk:

  • The Condition of Education, which is congressionally mandated and provides key indicators at all levels, from prekindergarten through postsecondary, as well as labor-force outcomes and international comparisons;
  • The NAEP, a national assessment known as the nation’s report card because it is the only exam that measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects across the nation, states and in some urban districts;
  • School Survey on Crime and Safety, which is the primary source of school-level data on crime and safety for the U.S. Education Department;
  • National Teacher and Principal Survey, which provides data on education workforce and teachers'/principals’ salaries as well as descriptive data on the context of elementary and secondary education, such as the characteristics of principals, teachers and students;
  • Middles Grades Longitudinal Study, which measures middle school academic achievement and student success. and is the first study to follow a nationally representative sample of students as they move through the middle grades;
  • National Household Education Survey Program, which looks at data around prekindergarten, home schooling, adult education and parent involvement, and is the flagship household survey of the NCES.

Here’s the letter sent to Congress:

And here is a table from Elchert showing how NCES is severely understaffed when compared with other principal federal statistical agencies. It does not suggest that staffing in any of the other agencies is adequate.

What the abbreviations in the chart below stand for:

BEA is Bureau of Economic Analysis, BJS is Bureau of Justice Statistics, BLS is Bureau of Labor Statistics, BTS is Bureau of Transportation Statistics, EIA is the Energy Information Administration, ERS is the Economic Research Service, NASS is the National Agricultural Statistics Service, NCHS is the National Center for Health Statistics, NCSES is the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, and ORES is Social Security’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics.