Nancy Smith earned her Ph.D. in quantitative methods from the Educational Psychology department of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin in 1997. Here, she shares how her degree in education impacted her career and has allowed her to make a difference for others.
Working with Non-Profits and Government
While in graduate school, Smith focused on program evaluation and completed her dissertation, “An Evaluation of the TASP Remediation Program,” under the direction of H. Paul Kelley. During this time, she also worked in evaluation and planning at the Texas Department of Human Services.
“State government provided me a great opportunity to use my research and evaluation skills,” says Smith. “The combination of the Quantitative Methods training I received and the practical experience I gained at two state agencies about how to conduct studies, collect data for both small pilot studies and statewide collections, and manage large-scale data systems provided me with a unique perspective on statewide data systems and a distinctive skill set for a researcher.”
By the time she defended her dissertation, she had shifted to the research and evaluation division at the Texas Education Agency. She then joined a local nonprofit organization that focused on using data to inform school improvement efforts, which gained national attention from the U.S. Department of Education (USED). Major philanthropic organizations began to invest in technology and research for state education agencies.
“Because of my training and experience, I was able to take advantage of opportunity when it arose – first to help launch a national nonprofit that advocated for longitudinal data systems, then to oversee longitudinal data systems initiatives at the USED.”
Using Her Research Post-Graduation
Smith gravitated toward the practical applications of research and evaluation rather than to the more theoretical areas of psychometrics or statistics. She still often thinks back to program evaluation, survey research, basic test and measurement and research design classes.
“It sounds simple,” she says, “but the concepts of reliability and validity remain critical. I’m not sure people always take care to ensure the data are an appropriate fit for the analysis at hand. It’s easy to run analyses and report on the findings, but I’m concerned that the field doesn’t spend enough time on data definitions and research design.”
In 2005, Smith was a co-founder of the Data Quality Campaign, a national nonprofit advocating for effective data policy and data use in education. Through the use of an annual national survey on state data systems and a lot of state site visits and focus groups, the organization educated policymakers, education agencies, and others about the power of student-level, longitudinal data to improve student outcomes and describe how state data systems could or could not be used to answer critical research and policy questions. They even partnered with USED in developing the requirements and technical assistance around their Statewide Longitudinal Data System grant program.
With the emergence of new data collection technologies and practices, researchers, state departments of education, and school districts now have a huge range of educational data available. “Yet, I think a lot of education stakeholders remain information-poor at times,” says Smith. “There is a need for educators and policymakers to receive continued training around data standards, data governance, data privacy, appropriate analyses, accurate interpretation of findings, education statistics, interpreting findings, and determining actions based on findings and how to ask for information they need to assist with decision making.”
Advice to Current and Future Students
Smith advises students to “say yes to opportunity and be flexible.”
And for those entering the workforce, “continue learning – you’ll leave UT with strong skills, but you’ll have the opportunity to adapt and expand them in new situations. Network – both to make connections for yourself, but also to help others make useful connections. Relationships and a reputation for working well with others is as or more important than knowledge and skill set.”