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When I was a young historian, back in the 1970s, I would occasionally search for a fact about American education in the nineteenth or early twentieth century to help me write an article or book. There was no Internet. I wasn’t sure which books had the right statistics. So I invariably called the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education (actually there was no Department of Education until 1980 [Congress passed the legislation in 1979, and the Department became operational in 1980]; the NCES was the longstanding research and statistics arm of the U.S. Office of Education). The federal role in education began in 1867 under President Andrew Johnson with the creation of a Department of Education, whose sole mission was to collect and disseminate information on the condition and progress of education in the United States. In 1868, however, due to fears that the new Department might eventually seek to exert control over state and local education policy, the Department was demoted to the U.S. Office of Education. Its central purpose, the collection and dissemination of accurate information, is today the role of the NCES.
When I called for information, there was one person who knew where to find whatever I was looking for. Not opinion or interpretation, just the facts. His name was Vance Grant. He invariably took my calls and just as invariably found the answer, if it existed in federal records.
In 1991, I became Assistant Secretary in charge of OERI (the Office of Education Research and Improvement) and NCES was part of my agency–the most important part. I met Vance Grant, and I had an idea. Why not assemble all the historical data into a publication? With the help of the very able career staff at NCES, especially Tom Snyder and Vince Grant, and with the help of historian Maris Vinovskis, who had taken a leave at my request from the University of Michigan to work with OERI staff, the publication became a reality.
I can say now in retrospect that this publication was the most useful thing I did during my two years in the federal government.
You too can browse its pages and charts and graphs via the Internet to see the growth of education in the United States.
Although not many people know of its existence, it is still the only reliable source of historical data on American education.