NCES Commissioner James “Lynn” Woodworth Discusses Agency Priorities, Challenges, and Opportunities
NCES Commissioner James “Lynn” Woodworth Discusses Agency Priorities, Challenges, and Opportunities

October 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with scholars and policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research.

James “Lynn” Woodworth began his term as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the Institute of Education Sciences in March 2018. Before being appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as commissioner, Woodworth was the lead quantitative research analyst at the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.  Woodworth previously spent three years as a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, 11 years as a public school teacher, and 6 years on active duty with the United States Marine Corps.

Q. What inspired you to become involved in education as a researcher from your experience as a teacher? 

A. I loved teaching. During my time in the classroom, I worked with some highly effective principals and some ineffective principals.  Seeing the impact good principals had on students’ lives, I decided to become a school principal myself. While working toward my master’s degree in educational leadership, I began delving into the research literature and saw in research the potential to help more students as a researcher than I could as a teacher or principal. I do greatly miss working with students and seeing them gain understanding of a concept or learn to appreciate a new concept.

Q. As one of the principal federal statistical agencies, NCES collects and analyzes statistics related to education. Could you describe some of your priorities for the collection, dissemination, and use of NCES survey data?

A. NCES has a number of responsibilities relating to the collection, dissemination, and use of survey data. 

Providing data to Congress, states, schools, parents, students, and the country as a whole is a primary responsibility of NCES.  But to provide data to the American people, NCES must first collect data from the American people.  This means the majority of NCES staff’s time and NCES’s budget go toward data collection.  A critical aspect of data collection is good questionnaire design so one of my priorities will be to continue NCES’s proven track record of asking the right questions of the right people in our collections.   

Additionally, NCES must ensure the data we collect are protected in terms of privacy. To that end, NCES follows a number of procedures. NCES uses sampling whenever possible to identify who data will be collected from or about. This means NCES does not collect data on every student, faculty member, principal, dean, or educational institution in the country unless absolutely necessary.  Rather, NCES uses statistical sampling methods to collect data on a representative set of these different kinds of respondents. 

Restricting the data held by NCES to an absolute minimum helps ensure the privacy of individuals who generously share their data with NCES and reduces the burden on the population for providing data. However, sampling also means on the rare occasion when an individual dean, principal, faculty member, or student is asked to contribute their data, their cooperation is critical to NCES’s ability to produce the data needed by the country.

A primary necessity for dissemination of data is making the data reported understandable to each audience. Because NCES is charged with providing data to a number of audiences, NCES must create a number of reports around the data. 

Over the years, NCES has created reports with  differing levels of detail to meet the different needs of each audience. NCES also provides raw data to other government agencies and researchers to support new investigations into teaching, the learning process, and education outcomes.  One of my priorities will be to improve upon how NCES shares data with the wide range of audiences that rely on information from us. In particular, I want to ensure NCES provides the statistically sound data to support researchers in advancing the science of education while still providing descriptions of the data to the general public in a manner that someone without a Ph.D can understand.

Q. What has been most exciting to you so far in your role as commissioner? What has been your biggest challenge?

A. The most exciting part of being at NCES is being able to work with the amazing staff at NCES.  The staff at NCES are highly dedicated to providing the best data they can to decision makers at every level in order to achieve the best outcomes for students in the American education system.  From my own experience, I knew there were some data sets that were useful but could be improved to serve additional users. The staff at NCES has been very receptive to engaging in cooperative work with a variety of data users to improve the usability of NCES’s existing data collections.

The biggest challenge NCES faces is declining participation in our surveys. For NCES to provide aggregated data to the public,  states, schools, and members of the public must be willing to share their data with NCES.          

Q. The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) included data from the new digital-based assessments. What opportunities will this transition provide for researchers who analyze NAEP data?

A. Due to the digital platform used for the administration of the NAEP, we are able to document the steps students take as they work through the exam.  This means we can see, for instance, how long a student takes to read a certain passage during the test.  We can see if students spend more time on a particular question or type of questions.  This “process data” will allow researchers to begin to peek at the mental processes students are using to solve the problems. 

There is a great diagnostic aspect to this newly available data. Imagine being able to see if students with different levels of achievement approach questions in a different manner.  The data will allow researchers to compare practices of students by student characteristics such as state (which would impact sequence and scope of material) or educational methods used in the students’ classrooms. I think this will be a great benefit to educators’ ability to document how students think and problem solve.

Q. What are some of the recent NCES activities and opportunities that education researchers should know about?

A. In addition to the NAEP data process mentioned above, NCES is constantly developing, collecting, and releasing new and updated data collections.  NCES has made progress in collecting and reporting school-level fiscal data from across a number of states that have partnered with NCES in pilot data collections. NCES is also working to implement a series of longitudinal students (ECLS:K, MGLS, HS&B) that will follow a single-year cohort of students from kindergarten through high school and beyond with significant implications for research into student academic development. 

While each longitudinal study will not include the exact same students, all students in the studies will be selected from the same relevant cohort of students.  NCES is also working to develop an improved measure of socioeconomic status using a variety of data from multiple sources. While these projects are still in the early stages, I believe they hold promise for improving social science research, especially in education.

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