By Charles Barone

This blog is Part 2 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series



Of all the big changes made under No Child Left Behind in 2001, the only one that seems not to be controversial now is the requirement that states disaggregate student data for historically disadvantaged groups of students. But it wasn’t always this way. And it has been Presidents who have made the difference.

The concept of disaggregating data was first inserted into the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aka the Improving America’s Schools Act. The language in the law, however, was not tightly written. Thus, the final decision on whether states had to sort out student data separately for minorities, those from low-income families, etc. was left to the President and the U.S. Secretary of Education.

As a Congressional staffer, I was in a meeting after passage of IASA in which officials from the Clinton Administration were discussing whether or not to require states to disaggregate through regulations. Some members of Congress, including the late Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) for whom I worked at the time, as well as civil rights and advocacy groups, strongly supported doing so.

But the Administration brought in a still-prominent testing expert who argued that disaggregation would result in unreliable data because in many cases the number of children in certain subgroups would be too small (i.e., the “n size” issue). I was flabbergasted. I knew that there was an easy way to fix this that I taught to my own undergraduates in Stats 101: disaggregate up (from classroom to school or school to district) until you get a statistically reliable number of poor, black, Hispanic, (fill-in the-blank), students.

At the time, however, I was just a new legislative aide recruited from academia; neither of those factors worked in my favor. I felt like the kid in the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” When I discussed this later with the Clinton Administration’s outside expert, she acknowledged my point but said she was philosophically opposed to comparisons between student subgroups with the implication being that we should not have the same expectations for poor and minority students that we do for their more advantaged peers.

I learned two lessons from this experience:

1) Presidents have a lot of power on key education policies. We could have had disaggregation of data as early as 1994 but for the Clinton Administration’s preference not to ruffle the feathers of the education establishment; and,

2) Data is a political issue in education because it exposes things – in this case achievement gaps between historically disadvantaged groups and their more well-off peers – that many people would rather sweep under the rug.

On ESEA disaggregation of data, the next President may have a similarly important role. While there are no signs that current disaggregation requirements in ESEA will be rolled back, there are political forces at work to prevent progress forward. Right now, states only have to disaggregate for one subgroup at a time e.g., black students, students from low-income families, students with disabilities. But they don’t have to “cross-tabulate” data for those students who fall into more than one category e.g., black males and black females. Cross-tabulation is standard practice in research and polling but as with many things, policies that are de rigueur in other fields are controversial in the field of education.

Civil rights groups have made cross-tabulation a priority because demographic variables often interact in association with key outcomes. For example, black males are many times more likely to be subject to corporal punishment – in school – than black females. Averages for black students across gender hide this phenomenon. Cross-tabbing data in this example can help identify, and inform efforts to overhaul, troubling school discipline policies.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) offered an amendment to require cross-tabulation at the Committee mark-up of ESEA in April, but she withdrew it because it was not clear that it would pass – despite the fact that the amendment had the support of more than 25 civil rights and advocacy organizations. Keep in mind that nothing in the amendment would require states to collect any more data than they do now. All they would have to do is expand on what they publicly report. As with the push-back against disaggregation in 1994 as described above, it’s the additional transparency here that edu-crats seem to have a problem with.

Cross-tabulation may still wind up in the ESEA reauthorization underway now. If it does, however, the President – either Obama or his successor – will likely have the final say on whether, when and how that happens. If so, he or she will need to muster up a certain degree of political courage if changes in law are to make a real difference for students.