universities were developing a joint proposal for research into the black-white achievement gap. Realizing they would need large amounts of data, they began discussions with the Department of Public Instruction. The group succeeded in obtaining funding from the Spencer Foundation for two initial studies, for the creation of the data center, and for a colloquium series designed to bring researchers using the data together with policy makers. Although the colloquium series helped to forge ties between state education officials and the university partners, Ladd said, the researchers always emphasized to the state leaders that any research conducted through the center would be independent from the state. Following the signing of the memorandum of understanding in 2001, the Spencer Foundation provided additional support for the data center in 2003, and the memorandum of understanding was updated in 2006. Ladd described the center as a four-way partnership, including the state department of public instruction, the two universities, and the Spencer Foundation (Muschkin and Ladd, 2008).
Ladd explained that the center was initially established to assemble data from the Department of Public Instruction for two purposes—to enable the specific studies of the minority achievement gap funded by the Spencer Foundation and to make the data available to the wider research community. Both purposes have been more than achieved. To date, 93 studies have received data through the center, including 21 projects headed by researchers outside North Carolina.
Ladd argued that the data center’s greatest accomplishment has been to overcome barriers to research using the state’s education data. In addition to barriers related to compliance with FERPA, the Department of Public Instruction stored administrative data in a format that researchers could not use, and lacked resources to link data on teacher characteristics with data on student achievement, or to create longitudinally matched data over time.
The data center has overcome each of these barriers, by encrypting the data to maintain confidentiality, checking the data for consistency and accuracy, writing user-friendly code books, merging data across sets (e.g., students with teachers and longitudinally over time), and meeting with researchers to explain what data are and are not available. The data center is populated almost entirely with data from the Department of Public Instruction and does not include data from other state agencies. These data are at the district, school, teacher, and student levels. Although some student and teacher records are matched over time, and some teacher and student data are linked, most matching is done by researchers.
Returning to the issue of confidentiality, Ladd said that the memorandum of understanding is very clear on this subject, referring to FERPA and also to the state board of education policy manual. In this memorandum,