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From band director to chief data cruncher: Trump’s choice to lead U.S. education statistics agency raises eyebrows

The people appointed to lead the flagship U.S. agency that collects and vets education statistics typically have spent many years working for the federal government or a university and have managed large organizations before taking the job. But James “Lynn” Woodworth, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), doesn’t fit that mold. And researchers are divided over what his unusual background could mean for an agency responsible for analyzing education data both domestically and around the world.

Woodworth, whose appointment the White House announced last week, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after college and spent 6 years as an intelligence officer monitoring communications in Arabic. He then spent a decade as a high school music teacher and band director in rural Arkansas before returning to school for a Ph.D. in education reform from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (UAF). For the past 5 years he’s been a research analyst at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Some researchers are worried that those jobs aren’t sufficient training to run the agency, a part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education. “We have long sought the appointment [to NCES] of a highly experienced leader and expert in this field,” says Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association based in Washington. D.C. “Dr. James Woodworth is relatively new to and not well known in the research, statistics, and data community,” she notes.

But others see his diverse experiences as an asset. “He’s got three things in his favor,” says Sean “Jack” Buckley, who served 3 years as NCES commissioner under former President Barack Obama and now works at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. “He was a teacher, and that’s seriously important, especially being at the K-12 level. He’s been in the military, so he knows what it’s like to be part of a big bureaucracy. And he’s worked with longitudinal student unit record systems and appreciates their value.”

NCES may be unfamiliar to the public, but last year it celebrated its 150th anniversary. Its most visible product is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), billed as the nation’s report card, which measures what U.S. students know in reading, math, and other subjects. It also conducts the U.S. component of various international assessments and a range of other domestic surveys.

Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), where Woodworth now works, has built a reputation for high-quality analysis of various characteristics of charter schools, including how well their students do compared with those attending traditional public schools. The impact of charter schools on the U.S. education system is part of the highly charged political debate over what’s known as school choice: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and most Republicans advocate greater parental control over education through mechanisms such as vouchers that allow parents to use public funds to pay for private schools, whereas many Democrats believe those policies will inevitably weaken public schools and reduce opportunities for poor and minority students.

CREDO’s director, Margaret Raymond, and the Hoover Institute are major players on the Republican side of that debate, although Raymond has occasionally questioned some aspects of the dogma, notably the benefits of for-profit charter organizations. The UAF program that Woodworth attended is run by education professor Jay Greene, another major figure in the charter schools movement.

As a statistical agency, however, NCES is supposed to remain above the political fray. The results of its surveys are meant to help policymakers make informed choices, not to sway discussions by tinkering with the ways information is gathered, assessed, and presented.

Previous commissioners have walked that fine line and defended the agency’s independence, say both Buckley and Greene, even to the point of self-criticism. In 2006, then-Commissioner Mark Schneider faulted his staff for its analysis of the results of a study, begun before he became commissioner, comparing the academic performance of students at public and private schools. That’s not what NCES should be doing, he told the trade publication Education Week.

“Our job is to collect the data and get it out the door” to researchers, Schneider said at the time. “What you do with it is your business.” Schneider left NCES in 2008, but his view of the agency still matters: In late November 2017, he was nominated to become IES director, that is, Woodworth’s boss, and is awaiting confirmation by the Senate.

Buckley says he doesn’t know Woodworth’s personal views on charter schools and other topics. But he thinks it would be wrong to assume that they would shape his actions as NCES commissioner. Woodworth declined a request from ScienceInsider to comment on his appointment.

Ideology aside, Buckley says one big challenge for Woodworth will be figuring out how school districts around the country can make NAEP a totally digital exercise using their own computer systems. Another item on Woodworth’s to-do list is how to broaden access to education data collected by other entities, including local and state governments.

Some in the statistical community point to Woodworth’s lack of management experience as a potentially major impediment to tackling those and other issues. “He doesn’t fit the profile” for the position spelled out in federal statutes, says Kitty Smith Evans, head of the Washington, D.C.–based government affairs office for the American Economic Association. She is past executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of stakeholders. Specifically, she notes that the law stipulates the NCES commissioner “shall be highly qualified and have substantial knowledge of statistical methodologies and activities undertaken by the center.”

Smith also worries that Woodworth may not have the breadth of statistical knowledge needed to fill another role at NCES—as “the last point of quality control” for studies before they go out the door. “Someone else may have to do that technical clearance,” she speculates.

In Woodworth’s defense, UAF’s Greene says Woodworth is very skilled in managing the type of large databases that NCES produces. His doctoral thesis on school financing formulas relied on his piecing together vast amounts of data from many sources, Greene notes, “and that ability got him hired at CREDO.”

Several education researchers declined to comment on his appointment, saying they were not familiar with his work in the field. But they won’t have to wait long to see him in action. The job of NCES commissioner no longer requires Senate confirmation, and Woodworth is expected to take up his position shortly.