Former Federal Statistical Agency Heads Urge Stronger NCES as Senate Panel Advances Bill to Weaken It

By Steve Pierson posted 01-30-2015 10:20


[2/11/15 Update: For trust in education statistics, Emerson Elliott, The Hill Congress Blog, 2/10/15.

12/18/15: Senate passes S. 227 on 12/17/15]

Twenty former federal statistical agency heads this week signed onto a letter to Congress urging Congress to "strengthen the accountability and responsibilities of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the reauthorization of the Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES)." The letter specifically urges Congress to restore Senate confirmation of the currently presidentially appointed commissioner—which was lost in 2012—and lists six other responsibilities and capabilities NCES should have.

The letter went unheeded in the Senate on Wednesday when the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee unanimously advanced S.227, the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA), without changing it in any substantive way from last Congress. SETRA changes the appointment of the NCES Commissioner from the president to the IES director. The bill also transfers NCES responsibilities to IES. The ASA has been actively working to have these provisions reversed for much of the past year, in partnership with the American Education Research Association, and welcomed the letter from the agency heads.

The former agency heads who signed onto the letter (listed below) represent 7 federal statistical agencies (BJS, Census, EIA, NASS, NCES, NCSES, and SOI) and have tenures going back to the 1970's. Emerson Elliott, who headed NCES 1984-1995, played a leading role in the letter.

The letter states, in part,

As the foundation for policy making and policy administration, objective and credible statistical data are vital to our democracy, economy, governance, and well-being. All sides of a policy debate should be able to look to the statistical data as objective and high quality. Any perception that the data have been influenced by a partisan perspective undermines the policy making and
its administration.

The independence of a federal statistical agency is a critical element in an agency producing objective and credible statistical data as pointed out in new guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget directive for federal statistical agencies ( and the National Academy of Science in its Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency. Statistical agencies should have complete control over the data collection, analysis, and publication. Such autonomy should include control over an agency’s planning, budget, press releases, and information technology.

S. 227 is expected to pass the Senate in the next several days and House action on the bill is expected next month. A major challenge to changing the bill for NCES is the hesitancy to open up a bill for changes that passed the House on a broad bipartisan basis last spring. For more on this bill, see these past ASA Community blog entries

See other ASA Science Policy blog entries. For ASA science policy updates, follow @ASA_SciPol on Twitter.

Letter signers

Vincent Barabba, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 1973-1976, 1979-1981
Jack Buckley, Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics, 2009-2013
Lynda Carlson, Director, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2000-2012
Guy Caruso, Administrator, Energy Information Administration, 2002-2008
Bruce Chapman, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 1981-1983
Cynthia Clark, Administrator, National Agricultural Statistical Service, 2008-2014
Emerson Elliott, Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics, 1984-1995
Martha Farnsworth Riche, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 1994-1998
Lawrence Greenfeld, Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002-2006
Robert Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 2009-2012
Jay Hakes, Administrator, Energy Information Administration, 1993-2000
Calvin Kent, Administrator, Energy Information Administration, 1990-1993
James Lynch, Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010-2012
Steve H. Murdock, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 2008-2009
Richard Newell, Administrator, Energy Information Administration, 2009-2011
Thomas Petska, Director, Statistics of Income, 2002-2009
Kenneth Prewitt, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, 1998-2000
Fritz Scheuren, Director, Statistics of Income, 1980-1994
Jeffrey Sedgwick, Director, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Mark Schneider, Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005-2008