Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.
It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.
“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.
“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.
North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.
That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.
It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.
“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”
Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.
North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.
That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.
“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”
Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.
In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.
When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”
That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.
It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)
A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.
The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.
“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”
Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.
“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.
Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.
In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.
“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.