"Comparing Apples with Apples." By William L. Bainbridge. Ocala Star-Banner.
January 25, 1999.


Ocala STAR BANANER, January 25, 1999
by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Over 10 years ago, our advisory board chairman, Dr. M. Donald Thomas, highly respected former superintendent of schools in Salt Lake City, Utah, and education advisor to several governors, was making a presentation to a joint session of the South Carolina legislature. Don explained to the policy-makers that school district goals should be based on the performance of "mean-matched" schools.

When asked to define the term, "mean-matched," Don explained that schools should be compared with those schools which had similar characteristics. "We want to compare apples with apples," he said.

We commend the Marion Business/Education Professional Alliance, the Marion 20/20 Task Force, the Marion County School District, its Board of Education, Superintendent, teachers, staff and administrators for their support and cooperation in the Audit process.

Educational researchers have known for years that the best predictor of a child's success in school is the education level of that child's parents, particularly the mother. Although human beings are born with very similar ranges of intelligence, the different nurturing processes which take place in the formative years greatly impact a child's ability to learn.

Different levels of protein in the diet and stimulation in the home have a great impact on the formation of synaptic contacts in the human cerebral cortex, that is, brain development. This was recently documented again by a major study of the Departments of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Chicago. The point of all this is that children who are born with similar ranges of intelligence arrive at school with a wide range of ability.

The "Audit of Educational Effectiveness" which we just completed for the Marion County School District used a "mean-matched" process which considers socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of similar groups of students in similar school system settings throughout the country.

Since children do not start school with the same developmental levels, it is not a fair measure of the work of teachers, administrators or support personnel to compare schools unless the resources provided to the children at home are taken into account.

Irrefutable research tells us that children can learn if they are provided adequate time and resources. The "mean-matching" process is intended to only compare groups of children in school settings, and obviously should never be used as an excuse for overlooking poor group performance or not expecting outstanding individual student achievement. Clearly all children are capable of success in school, given enough time and resources. The SchoolMatch Audit of Educational Effectiveness can serve as a tool to help school districts find the most effective way of allocating time and resources.

The audit process is made possible by using the same databases through which SchoolMatch provides auditable school information to parents and corporations. SchoolMatch has developed comprehensive databases on every public school system in the country and about 14,000 private accredited schools in the U.S. and overseas.

In their missionary fashion, senior SchoolMatch consultants such as Dr. Alonzo Crim, Dr. Sherry Lahr and Dr. Steve Sundre have converted a significant number of school leaders to the "mean-matched" concept. School systems have used the methodology to identify "sister districts" with similar student populations around the country with which they can compare programs and results. In the case of the Marion County School District, such districts include those located in San Bernardino (CA), Bibb County (GA) and Springfield (MA).

It's obvious that critics can compare a district like Marion County to one like Beverly Hills, California, and say the test scores are not high enough and the dropout rate is too high. On the other hand, when one looks at the home resources of the typical Beverly Hills child as compared with those of a child in Sarasota, the inequities are painfully obvious. Our audit team, as the report attests, was genuinely pleased to examine a countywide school district which is making a great deal of progress in overcoming obstacles.

My first opportunity to meet Superintendent John Smith and Assistant Superintendent Fred Smiley was several months ago as we began the audit process. We were pleased with the willingness of the school district's leadership to put their reform efforts under our microscopes.

The Audit team which visited Marion County expressed concern for the great reliance on portable classrooms, need to update classroom technology throughout the district and need to provide improved programs for students who do not have identified special needs but are not college bound.

On the other hand, the Audit team found many features of the district worthy of commendation. For example, the team was very impressed with college entrance examination scores which are above the mean for the cohort group and the effectiveness level for the demographic group served. The district makes outstanding use of educational television and has implemented interdisciplinary technology education programs at one middle school and one high school. In addition, the quality of the principals, teachers and the staff in school buildings visited by the team reflects their dedication, enthusiasm and commitment to the educational process.

Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based research and consulting firm specializing in school evaluation.