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Comparing Schools is Fraught with Potholes

May 10, 1997

By William L. Bainbridge

Rarely did a meeting of the school board in Newark, Ohio, go by when comparisons werenít drawn between the school district and others. The problem, as I saw it in those days as superintendent of the school system, was that the comparisons were unfair.

A "soccer mom" would suggest that perhaps we should be doing things more like the Upper Arlington schools, which had nearly twice our taxable wealth per pupil. A business leader on the board would make comparisons with a rural district that had no distinguishable disadvantaged students and bused all of its children with handicaps to our school. A board veteran would talk about a program he heard of at a convention that was then being implemented by the Columbus Public School System, which had nearly six times our student population and 10 times our central office staff.

These people were trying to improve our schools, but the comparisons of setting served only to frustrate a young "change agent" administrator: me. The teacher association would sometimes create proposals based on districts of comparable size with no regard for resources. Newark is a small industrial city district in the middle of Licking County, a rural area. Our schools had little in common with any of our neighbors, who had no understanding of the complexities caused by our rapid turnover rate, high numbers of youngsters on welfare, and free lunch program. Nor did the neighboring districts often deal with the pressures put upon us by the news media.

One of the neighboring districts had parent education levels among the highest in the country, and residents would constantly point to its high scholastic examination scores. Our central administrators frequently joked that students in nearby Granville would outscore us on the exams even if they didnít have a school.

In higher education, differences are readily understood. Everybody knows that MIT and community college have student bodies and resources that are not comparable. Even television sitcoms highlight the differences between the fictitious campuses of Minnesota State (Coach), and Hillman College (A Different World). Unfortunately, many people like to compare elementary and secondary schools, as if they could be plucked at the same time from the same apple tree. We know there are vast differences that have a lot to do with performance, economies of scale and operations in general. Even if the General Assembly manages to rectify some of the differences pointed out by the recent Ohio Supreme Court decision that the stateís system of funding schools is unconstitutional, huge differences will still exist. The greatest predictor of a childís success in school continues to be the education level of the mother. No amount of money expended by the school will quickly change the impact of nurturing by a highly educated parent.

In the late 1980s, Dr. John J. Cannell, a psychiatrist in Albuquerque, N.M., surveyed every school system in the United States and reported that more than "90 percent of the nationís school systems said their students were scoring above the national average" on standardized tests. Obviously, this finding demonstrated the fallacy of relying on self-reported school data. The Lake Wobegon study, as it came to be known, underscored the credibility problem U.S. schools have with the public they serve.

Objective, comparative information about school system performance is an elusive commodity. Although no other public sector endeavor is characterized by more record-keeping, measurement, and assessment than public schools, their efforts do not produce accurate, understandable or useful data. Research on schools data, tests results, financial and demographic information is complicated and requires significant skill on the part of the researcher. Typically, self-reported school data is unreliable.

Parents, taxpayers, business leaders and elected officials have at least two problems in making "apples to apples" school comparisons. First, they need to compare schools to ones with similar resources and student demographic characteristics. Second, it is important that independent third parties with expertise in school information periodically examine the data. Schools should be compared in terms of family incomes, parent education level, readiness scores for students in kindergarten, dollars expended per pupil on instructional materials, salaries and experience of the teachers, etc.

Pressures on administrators to provide school boards, corporate benefactors and community members with quantitative measures of comparison between districts continue to grow. People want to know how well the district is doing, and many systems have been resistant to releasing information that may show their efforts in a less than favorable light. Using comparative schools and outside auditors, schools can gain credibility and share valuable data.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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