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Data-Driven Decisionmaking and the Department of Education

1 August 2009 No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org

Contributing Editor

Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the Physics Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society.

In my July column, I highlighted Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Peter Orszag’s call for data on what works and what doesn’t as an example of the Obama Administration’s emphasis on data-driven decisionmaking. Orszag focused on health care and education as two areas where more data is needed. While all eyes are on health care this summer, I thought it would be helpful to look forward to one of the next debates: education. Therefore, I’m spotlighting the administration’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, this month.

As the new administration examines and sets its education policies, there are ample opportunities for statisticians to influence those policies. One vehicle will be the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which Congress is expected to undertake in the next year—most likely under its previous name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Our opportunities are to provide or highlight the data on which the administration will base its new policies, help the public (and policymakers) understand the data, and encourage the inclusion of statistical literacy in any new legislation. As you may know, 60 ASA members will take advantage of one of these opportunities by promoting statistical literacy during the ASA congressional visits during JSM.

Secretary Duncan’s ‘Data Challenges’

In a recent address during the annual Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Research Conference, Duncan made it clear that he shares President Barack Obama’s emphasis on data-driven decisionmaking when he said, “I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions. Data gives us the road map to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.” Duncan’s speech, provides insight into his vision for heading the Education Department as it relates to data.

Duncan identified three general data needs or challenges, the first being an area in which I think statisticians can be of great service: helping the public understand data. Referring to his experience as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, he noted how sad it was that parents didn’t know how far behind their children’s schools were because they couldn’t understand the data. Making sure the public can understand the data driving the policies, Duncan says, “is the only way that good ideas can lead to action and not just remain on a shelf somewhere.”

In noting the need for higher education standards, Duncan identified a second data challenge: determining a better means to compare the performance of students. He used the “staggering[ly] large” disparities between most state tests and NAEP results as an example. Calling it a “huge step in the right direction,” he noted the work led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which have agreed to devise a set of voluntary national standards in math and language arts.

Here, too, is an opportunity for statisticians to make sure statistics is part of the voluntary standards. ASA President Sally C. Morton recently took advantage of this opportunity when she wrote a letter to Representative Vernon Ehlers and Senator Chris Dodd in support of their bill (H.R. 2790) to create, adopt, and implement voluntary core American education content standards in math and science. For more on the bill, visit Ehler’s web page.

Duncan’s third data challenge is, in my opinion, a clear call to statisticians: make sure we “drive a national conversation that is above partisan policy disputes, beyond wars on math and reading, and instead focuses on the facts.” Referring to President Harry Truman’s famous lament that every economist would always say, “on the one hand, things might get better, and on the other hand, things might not” (and suggestion that he’d only consult one-handed economists in the future), Duncan expressed the opinion that, “to some extent, the education community suffers from that same dynamic” and cited the debate about charter schools as an example.

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