"Everyone's an Expert on Education." By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. October 1993.

"EVERYONE'S AN EXPERT ON SCHOOL DATA"

by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch

Did you attend a public high school? Did your children, relatives or friends? When was the last time you had a personal experience with a public high school following up on a graduate to learn about his or her college completion, professional experience or vocational career? Probably very few times or none at all? How is it, then, that high school guidance offices report down to the decimal point the college success of their scholastic graduates? Where do they get the data that say such things as: "...68.3 percent of graduates completed a four year college degree..."?

While private schools have found it necessary to follow graduates in order to maintain endowments, few public schools have much of a track record in this area. The point is simple. Many people propagate "school data" based upon sources which are so questionable that the information can be totally unreliable - even the opposite of reality. Wealthy school districts are often reported as poor while districts with only modest success in student achievement are reported as exemplary.

A few years ago, the superintendent of one of the nation's twenty largest school systems was waxing eloquently to a local Chamber of Commerce group. He reported the students in his schools were in the 62nd percentile in their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Regretfully, he did not point out that in this "ACT predominant state", less than 5 percent of his students even took the SAT!

Research on school finance, personnel, pupil personnel, demographics, scholastic results, accreditation and related data is often complicated and confusing, requiring significant skill on the part of the researcher.

In our work managing a national database on public and private elementary and secondary schools, we see many practices which we believe are highly flawed with respect to the use of school information. Frequently, people with little or no experience in school system management set out to become experts on schools, perpetuating misinformation and disinformation. Some include:

  • Real estate agents
    In the interests of "helping" clients, homesellers often collect material from school administrative offices and then draw some of the wildest comparisons imaginable. A classic case in New Jersey involved a firm which was averaging SAT scores with ACT scores. Of course, the scales are entirely different and the results absurd. Some of these individuals are also involved in what appears to us to be violations of federal steering and copyright laws.

  • School counseling services
    Individuals calling themselves education advisers and specialists frequently have little knowledge of the operation or management of public and private elementary and secondary schools. In presentations they have been known to discount the importance of comparative data and tend to highlight individual perceptions of those schools with which they are familiar. Since a metropolitan area like Chicago has nearly 300 public school systems and 700 private schools, it's hard to imagine the number of good choices being excluded without access to good data.


    One service claims to have school data but actually calls the school after the request is made and promises information within 10 to 14 days. People end up paying for the same publications they could have received from the school community relations office at no cost.


    Some of these individuals have backgrounds as classroom teachers who generally know as little about comparative school data as the average person on the street.

  • School list brokers
    A plethora of businesses has grown up over the years selling mailing lists on schools. Some of them do a good job of keeping an accurate file of names and addresses. Many rely principally on self-reported school information. Others report "raw data" from county and state agencies without taking into account differences in individual reporting formats - - leading to mistakes such as counting bus drivers as teachers. Albuquerque psychiatrist John J. Cannell, M.D., proved the unreliability of school reported data when he surveyed schools across the country at his own expense. Cannell reported to Today Show, NBC's Newsweek and others in the national media that "...over 90 percent of the nation's school districts said their students were scoring above the national average" - - obviously mathematically impossible. Dr. Barbara Clements, in a national study for state school chiefs, pointed to the lack of comparability of graduation rates, dropout rates, etc. across school district as well as state lines.

People are hungry for comparative information about schools; but just like most consumers, people seeking school information need to be careful what they buy. Unfortunately the misconception continues that public information, publicly reported, is always accurate and can be used with confidence for decision-making purposes. Not true!

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Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.