Taking advantage of the large amount of educational data beginning to accumulate in state databases as a byproduct of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is investing $10 million in the creation of a new research center intended to track students and teachers as they move through local school systems–from classroom to classroom and from building to building–over time.

Launched with the aid of a five-year, $10 million commitment courtesy of ED’s Institute of Educational Services, the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) will be operated by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, in conjunction with scholars at six state universities.

Researchers for the center are charged with sifting through the educational data collected in several states–including Florida, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington–for answers to such questions as what types of teachers have success with certain subgroups of students; what factors better determine teacher quality; and how each of these factors comes to bear on student achievement.

The research, which will examine data collected on teachers and students in kindergarten through 12th grade, reportedly will take into account a variety of factors, including teacher hiring practices, compensation, subject assignment, and certification; school accountability, governance, and choice; and student demographics, labor markets, and school finances.

Jane Hannaway, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center and of CALDER, said the information collected by states in the years since NCLB began represents a “treasure trove” for her research team.

“These data will allow us to address questions we’ve never been able to address before,” Hannaway said, such as: “What are the factors in schools that really promote student achievement?”

Among the most important issues Hannaway and her team hope to address is the correlation between teacher recruitment, retention, and student achievement. “Teachers are the most important factor affecting student achievement,” she explained. While particular pockets of teaching excellence can be found across the country, she said, the general consensus among educators is that “teachers in most school districts appear to be mal-distributed.”

For instance, she said, it’s not uncommon for schools with the highest poverty ratings to have “a disproportionate share of beginning teachers.”

“Education is one of the few industries where we tend to take the most inexperienced people and put them into the most challenging situations,” Hannaway said.

By using statewide databases to investigate and identify successful trends in teacher recruitment and retention, among other key success factors, the CALDER project looks to highlight “best practice”-type solutions to be replicated in other states.

The five-year project will evolve in phases. In the first year, researchers will assess the comparability of the various state databases, review past findings, and define the mechanisms for sorting teachers across districts, schools, and classrooms. In year two, the focus will shift to the consequences of teacher polices on recruitment, retention, assignment, and student achievement. Year three of the study will examine a range of topics related to accountability, including teacher labor markets and student success. Year four will focus on population and demographics and their implications for teacher policies and achievement. In the fifth and final year, researchers plan to use the information they’ve collected throughout the study to recommend new routes to the teaching profession and new jobs in the field.

At the end of each year, the CALDER group will hold a public conference where it will reveal its findings to the public and provide models and ideas for schools in other states to begin working from, Hannaway said.

Because of the sensitive nature of the data, Hannaway said, privacy is one of the center’s foremost concerns. “We are treating these data as classified data … which means they are treated with the highest security,” she explained.

While the information will allow researchers to drill down to scores and findings on an individual basis, Hannaway said, researchers will not be able to identify subjects by name–or any other personal identifier.

“We aren’t really interested in the behavior of particular individuals,” Hannaway noted; rather than exploring the habits of individuals, she said, the goal of CALDER is to identify broader trends that can lead to important reforms.

The six schools participating in the project are Duke University, Stanford University, University of Florida, University of Missouri, University of Texas at Dallas, and University of Washington.

CALDER reportedly is one of five such research centers ED plans to underwrite this summer. Details on the remaining research facilities were not immediately available at press time.