AERA and ASA Jointly Raise Concerns about NCES
AERA and ASA Jointly Raise Concerns about NCES

March 2020

In a March 23 letter led by AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine and Ron Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association, House and Senate appropriators were urged to rebuild internal staff capacity at NCES, boost agency funding, and ensure that efforts that could erode the independence of NCES were scrutinized carefully. The letter addressed concerns that NCES would be further diminished if proposals related to the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) were considered as part of the appropriations process.

In addition to Levine and Wasserstein, the letter was signed by former U.S. Chief Statisticians Katherine Wallman and Nancy Potok, and former NCES Commissioners Emerson Elliott and Jack Buckley. Buckley is also current chair of the AERA Government Relations Committee.

The thrust of this letter to House and Senate appropriators was to express deep concern about the dire state of staffing, the interruption of data collections that would have long-term negative impacts, and proposed changes that would diminish the role of NCES.

The letter called for a set-aside for an additional 20 staff members to rebuild NCES capacity, as staff attrition has affected the agency and threatened survey administration. The letter noted that two surveys, the School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS) and the Fast Response Survey System, may be delayed if staffing is not addressed.

“Compared with other statistical agencies, NCES staff resources are disproportionately allocated to overseeing contractors who perform many of these essential statistical activities,” the letter stated. “We believe this shift has gone too far for NCES to be a healthy statistical organization and strongly recommend Congress take explicit actions to address this condition.”

The letter advocated at least a 5 percent budget increase for the NCES statistics account, which would partially redress its more than 20 percent loss in purchasing power since FY 2009.

The increase, the letter noted, “will help NCES’s ability to track emerging education trends, reduce respondent burden, 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.”

An important message of the letter is to be wary of proposals that were much more appropriately related to reauthorization and would diminish the efficacy of NCES.

“With respect to legislative proposals included in the FY21 request, we anticipate and hope you agree that transfer of NCES’s assessment responsibilities to a new center and removing presidential appointment status of the NCES commissioner are better suited for consideration through authorization, but we express our strong opposition to both here,” the letter stated.

A March 31 Washington Post article, “Understaffing threatens work at key U.S. education statistics agency, experts say,” cited the letter in raising the importance of having adequate staff for data collection and dissemination at NCES, particularly in understanding the impact of COVID-19 on students, teachers, and families across the nation. AERA members Larry Hedges and Jack Buckley were quoted in the article, expressing the need for trustworthy data and for compliance with laws mandating the collection of certain education indicators.

AERA’s concerns about the FY 2021 proposed budget were first reported in the February 2020 issue of AERA Highlights. Several items in the administration’s ESRA proposal contradict important longstanding recommendations that AERA has set forth over many years.