About “Incorrect” Data

What makes data “incorrect,” and what’s to be done about it?

If you believe some of the data presented on this website is incorrect, here are some realities relating to the NCES data which may explain these inconsistencies or perceived errors.

First and foremost, the data available via this website was not collected by the SLIDE project.  The data are collected from local school districts by state departments of education each year, compiled and reviewed, and passed on to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education.  NCES releases state and district level data files for the whole nation annually.  In a few states where there were known large-scale data problems, we obtained data from the state education departments directly. We then corrected what we could for those states for school years 2015-16 through 2018-19. That is the data on which our Perspectives report was based. While we have already added 2019-20 NCES data to the interactive data tools on this website—and will continue to update it annually—no editing of the data released by NCES for 2019-20 forward will occur.  

Secondly, responsibility for the accuracy of these data lies with local school districts, state education departments, and NCES.  The data collection process is theirs, and it includes—or, at least, is supposed to include—vetting of the data as it moves from local to state and state to federal level.  Nobody other than these government agencies—including this project—has the resources to collect such data from all school districts and states nationwide every year.

Thirdly, there is no process for correcting these data after-the-fact.  Like U.S. Census data, once these data are created and attested to by local, state, and federal agencies, it is not possible to change them.  In short, there are no “do-overs.”  

Realize that what you may believe to be the “correct” data may not be the same data the states and NCES are collecting.  There are at least three major issues to be aware of:

  1. When most of us count librarians, we count individuals or at least positions.  Often, we don’t distinguish between full- and part-time workers.  NCES does.  It does not ask for “head counts;” it asks for “full-time equivalents,” and how FTEs are counted is something that can even vary slightly from district to district.  
  • In NCES’s data collection about school staffing, the issue of state certification is ignored. Staff serving as school librarians, whether certified or not, are likely reported to NCES and that can differ from a count of only state-certified librarians.    
  • NCES also gathers employment data on library support staff. In some cases, library support staff (aides, classified staff, or paraprofessionals) may be reported as “librarians.” Vice versa, a certified school librarian who is being paid as a library paraprofessional may be reported as a librarian and not a library support staff.

The two major non-compliance issues in NCES data are failure to report the data at all (missing data) and misreported data—which is happening deliberately in some cases though not in others.  High levels of missing data as well as extreme year-to-year changes raise profound questions about data validity and are going unchallenged, in some cases, by both state and federal agencies.

So, what can district and state school library leaders do to help improve national data?

  1. Identify who in your district is actually reporting librarian FTEs to your state education department.  Be sure that you supply them with the correct FTE count of librarians in your district or ensure that they know how to get the correct number.
  • Ask your state library association to work with your state education department official who reports librarian FTEs to NCES and encourage them to follow protocols and require districts to supply information—specifically, not leaving school librarian FTEs unreported.  
  • If your state’s data appears frequently to be incorrectly reported, ask your state library association to contact NCES via its website and ask for more attention to the data reported by your state education department.  If you feel it’s warranted, you might contact your state’s representatives in Washington, D.C., to ask them to require better data collection practices about school librarians.

It is in the interest of the school library community to improve NCES’s data collection about school librarian employment via its Common Core of Data.  For most states and districts, this is the most comprehensive and detailed national source of such data reported on an annual basis.  While some states collect and report their own data independently, such states are few, such surveys are rarely sustained, and participation in those surveys is entirely voluntary—so almost always incomplete. From a national perspective, NCES’s data are worth the effort to improve them.

Keith Curry Lance, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator

SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution?

For more information about NCES’s Common Core of Data project, see: https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/aboutccd.asp.