• from The Columbus Dispatch - "Stumbling Too Many Times."

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Stumbling Too Many Times.

August 2, 2002

By William L. Bainbridge

It is nothing short of catastrophic when a state education agency is careless with reporting its methodology and data. The most recent example is the Ohio Department of Education's July 20 report listing 415 "low-performing schools.'' Just 10 days later, department officials indicated the condemnation of 203 of those schools was a mistake. The schools were removed from the list of those with a scarlet F emblazoned on the front steps of their reputation. Of those removed from this list, 40 are in the Columbus Public School District, three in the South-Western City School District, two in the Hamilton Local School District, one in the Groveport Madison Local School District and one in the Westerville City School District.

The mistake was attributed to a "computer programming error.'' While the schools have been exonerated, the error could have caused untold damage to their reputations and could have affected the decisions of voters and parents selecting new schools and neighborhoods.

In recent years, the state education agency has been responsible for a number of so-called mistakes. It is amazing that the public was not outraged at the reported results of the fourth-grade proficiency test in mathematics a few years ago. This examination lacked effective field testing and only three of the state's 611 districts had a passing rate for more than half of their students. When the majority of students in schools in Granville, Bexley, Upper Arlington, Dublin and Worthington can't pass a test, a "reasonableness'' check would suggest the data needed to be examined before results were released to the public.

Early in my career, while assistant to then State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martin W. Essex, three admirable characteristics of his leadership stood out. These appear to be lacking in our current agency.

  • Essex and those around him would look at tables of numbers and massive databases and say things like: "Why don't we send that back to Computer Services for another run. It doesn't meet the sanity test."

  • He understood that his customers were the parents, students, taxpayers and staffs of the more than 600 school districts and the related specialized schools and service agencies. He frequently would form ad hoc committees of leaders in the field to look at data before they were released. He understood the damage bad information could cause.

  • He surrounded himself with strong-willed individuals willing to speak their minds and disagree with him. His protege, Franklin B. Walter, carried on and improved these traditions of data reporting for a dozen years after Essex's retirement.
Students who have been punished in Ohio's secondary schools for plagiarism surely must have had a difficult time when, on April 23, news reports noted that columns appearing under state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan T. Zelman's byline in newspapers throughout the state actually were written by staffers of a public-relations firm. While publishing ghost-written work technically is not plagiarism, what sort of example does the $7-per-word expenditure set for students expected to do their own work?

This example also begs a larger question: Are the decisions being made at the Ohio Department of Education always reasonable, appropriate and in the best interests of Ohioans?

Questions about the appropriateness of decision-making on the part of the leaders of the Ohio School Facilities Commission led to the resignation of its executive director. It may be time to take a careful look at decisions our education leaders have made in recent months. For example, many people probably assumed the state superintendent, as part of the three-person facilities commission governing this multibillion-dollar project, would be the watchdog representing the interests of the constituent parents, students, taxpayers and school staffs.

Records failed to document attendance of the superintendent. The representative of the Ohio Department of Education who did attend was reported to have had a background in finance rather than school-facility implementation.

All Ohioans should question the operations of this massive state agency.

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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