In part 1 of this blog series, we highlight the benefits and advantages of using federal education data for policymaking at the federal, state, and district levels. In part 2, we will explore the challenges of and opportunities afforded by using these data.
States, districts, and schools are inundated with requests for data. To manage the volume of requests and avoid overwhelming educators, many districts have established processes to vet and limit the number of surveys allowed in their schools and administrative offices. District clearance processes are also understandably meant to make sure everyone is in compliance with data privacy laws. NCES data collections are sometimes not cleared by district offices, which then means NCES is not allowed to contact schools or educators to learn from their perspectives or experiences.
Since many state or district policymakers prioritize local survey collections, federal surveys are occasionally rejected by district offices that are striving to keep from overburdening their educators with too many survey requests. Without district permission, NCES surveys won’t include the educators in those schools, meaning that those districts’ voices will be missing from the table when decisions are made. This is problematic for the entire education system for a few reasons.
- Local data rarely reach federal policymakers. We know state and district decisionmakers derive a lot of value from state and/or district survey collections—since they’re designed to provide detailed local data—and do not always see value in federal data collection and reporting efforts. More localized data are critical to their day-to-day decisions. However, the presence of numerous state-run surveys—in addition to the myriad individualized district surveys that can exist within a single state—has begun to create a data silo where information remains frozen within a state or district system. Since NCES (and therefore the Department of Education and Congress) rarely receives data from state or local collections, these data sources cannot readily be used to generate national policies, which greatly limits opportunities for state and district systems to learn from each other. These data silos can, for example, impact the focus or breadth of federal grants or funding available for schools.
Federal, state, and district education agencies serve different roles in the education sector but have mutually beneficial responsibilities that should complement and support one another. The solution isn’t to supplant federal data collections with local ones, or vice versa, but instead to supplement local collections with federal collections like the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS) so education decisionmakers at all levels have access to necessary information to make good decisions for our schools.
- Benchmarking and comparability are limited. Without federal data collections, it can be difficult or impossible for states, districts, and local policymakers to compare their schools and educators with those in other areas because of the lack of common focus and definitions across data collections. Even if the topics being collected are similar, individualized district or state surveys can differ widely in both content and wording.
National data collections—like the NTPS—are excellent tools local policymakers should use when setting priorities on behalf of the students and staff in their state or district. Since the data from the NTPS are collected from educators in the same way across the entire country, they can be used to establish benchmarks against which local collections can measure themselves.
- Lack of participation decreases the representativeness of storytelling. If districts do not approve NCES’s survey research applications, we are unable to reach educators in certain schools, which can limit the kinds of perspectives that are included in the data. To paint a true picture of the education landscape, our survey teams select districts, schools, and/or educators that are as representative of the education field as possible.
Teachers and principals who participate in NCES studies are grouped in different ways—such as by age, race/ethnicity, or the type of school at which they work—and their information is studied to identify patterns of experiences that people in these different groups may have had. This is what makes our datasets representative, or similar enough to the demographics of the population to able to accurately reflect the characteristics of everyone (even those who aren’t sampled to participate).
For example, the NTPS is designed to support analysis of a variety of subgroups, such as those by
- school level (i.e., elementary, middle, high, and combined);
- school community type (i.e., urban, suburban, town, and rural);
- teachers’ and principals’ years of experience in the profession; and
- race/ethnicity of teachers and principals (figure 1).
These diverse subgroups are critically important for both federal and local policymakers who want to make decisions using information that truly represents everyone in the field.
Figure 1. Percentage of K–12 public and private school teachers who reported that they have any control over various areas of planning and teaching in their classrooms, by school type and selected school characteristic: 2020–21
NOTE: Data are weighted estimates of the population. Response options included “no control,” “minor control,” “moderate control,” and “a great deal of control.” Teachers who reported “minor control,” “moderate control,” or “a great deal of control” were considered to have reported having “any control.”
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS), “Public and Private School Teacher Data File,” 2020–21.
Larger datasets allow for more nuanced comparisons by school, principal, or teacher characteristics that aren’t possible in smaller datasets, allowing for more equity in national and local estimates and more distinct answers to key policy questions. But we need district-level support to provide these nuanced data.
Although the NTPS has a fairly large sample to support state representation, it still only includes a small percentage of all schools and educators in the country. Sampling is used to avoid collecting data from all systems, staff, and students, thus helping to limit overall respondent burden on our education system. For this reason, it’s important that all sampled schools and educators participate if selected. Since some districts also have formal review processes—through which a survey must be approved before any schools or educators can be contacted—it is also important that districts with sampled schools grant NCES surveys permission to collect data from their schools.
Both levels of participation will help us collect data that accurately describe a state or population. Otherwise, the story we are telling in the data is only augmenting some voices—and these are the experiences that will be reflected in federal policy and funding.
As the education sector strives to understand the needs of students and staff on the tails of the coronavirus pandemic, trustworthy data are only becoming more critical to the decisionmaking process. NCES datasets like the NTPS are critical resources that federal, state, and district policymakers can and have used for benchmarking strategic goals or conducting analyses on how a topic has (or hasn’t) changed over time.
The catch being, of course, that all data on the NTPS—and many other NCES surveys—come directly from schools, principals, and teachers themselves. These analyses and reports are not possible without district and educator participation. While it may seem counterintuitive that any one person could make such a large difference in federal education policy, the concept doesn’t differ from civic duties such as voting in federal or local elections.
Below is a visual summary of this blog post that can be used in your own professional discussions about the importance of participating in federal education surveys.
NCES would like to thank every district, school, administrator, teacher, parent, and student who has previously approved or participated in an NCES survey. We wouldn’t be able to produce our reports and data products without your participation.
We are currently conducting the 2023–24 NTPS to learn more about school and educator experiences following the pandemic. Find more information about the NTPS, including findings and details from prior collections.
By Maura Spiegelman and Julia Merlin, NCES