Consumer Guide Rates Schools in 500 Districts
Next month, with the publication of Public Schools U.S.A., families moving into any of 50 metropolitan regions of the country will for the first time be able to turn to a "consumer guide'' to local schools.
The guide, which contains information on some 500 school districts, was compiled by Charles Harrison, former executive director of the Education Writers Association.
"People have had this kind of thing for years to help them decide where to send their kids to college,'' Mr. Harrison said. "Why shouldn't they have some kind of guide to schools as well?''
The guide provides a three-part evaluation: a statistical profile of each district for the 1985-86 school year, short comments about their schools from citizens in each community, and an "Effective Schools Index'' rating developed by Mr. Harrison to allow for "at a glance'' comparison.
"We have not tried to pick the so-called 'best' districts in an area,'' says the introduction to the 366-page soft-bound volume. "In the first place, what is best according to one set of standards may not be best in light of other standards. ... We believe we offer enough information about each district to allow readers to judge what schools might best serve their needs.''
'Lack of Good Information'
Real-estate officials said last week that they welcomed the guide because school quality is an extremely important factor to parents buying a new home. They also pointed out that businesses give high priority to the issue in deciding where to locate.
"There's a lack of good information out there,'' said David Hyatt, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Board of Realtors, the largest board in the country. "It is not the realtors' role to evaluate schools, but we could refer clients to a book like this to make their own determinations.''
But some superintendents whose districts were rated challenged the accuracy of the E.S.I. rating in assessing the quality of a school system, saying it could be misleading to parents.
'Where People Are Moving'
The information was collected by Mr. Harrison through a questionnaire sent last year to selected school districts.
To be included, a district had to have at least 2,500 students and be located within 25 miles of a major metropolitan area where, according to the author, "people are moving.''
The questionnaire asked for statistics in 22 categories, including enrollment, salaries for beginning and experienced teachers, average level of teacher experience, standardized-test scores, and percentage of schools built before 1955.
All the statistics used, Mr. Harrison said, are those typically collected by districts for their own use or for reports to state agencies.
Mr. Harrison said he derived the ESI by selecting 10 "key indicators'' from among the 22 statistics requested from each district and assigning to each a point value from 1 to 10, with 100 set as a perfect score.
The top 10 indicators include: average daily attendance, expense per pupil, dropout rate, college-admission-test scores, Advanced Placement courses, teacher-pupil ratios, counselor-student ratios, and number of students per music specialist in the elementary grades.
District officials who did not provide some statistics, or who misinterpreted the question Mr. Harrison asked, were assigned no points for that category.
A number of districts that fitted the author's criteria--including New York City, Boston, Detroit, and Kansas City, Mo.--did not respond at all and were not rated.
High and Low
Of those that supplied the statistics requested, the district with the highest E.S.I.--98--was Brighton, N.Y., an affluent suburb of Rochester. The lowest-rated district was in Oakland, Calif., which scored 13. The median score for the districts surveyed was 58.
Twenty of the 26 districts that scored 85 or higher were located in the Northeast. Seven of those were found in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.
"We were very pleased with the rating,'' said John R. Shafer, superintendent of the Brighton school district. "But I don't think the numbers prove that we're any better than anywhere else. In the comments, the book states that we have a lot of community involvement, and a strong community commitment to education, and I think that's more important.''
Method Said Flawed
The Randolph County district outside of Greensboro, N.C., was given an ESI rating of 12, but the book notes that some of the statistics were misinterpreted by the district officials filling out the questionnaire.
Superintendent George Fleetwood said his staff receives many questionnaires, and filled out Mr. Harrison's as a matter of "routine.'' It was not clear how Mr. Harrison intended to use the information, he added.
"I do not think [this book] is representative of the quality of our school system,'' the superintendent said. "There were several flaws in Mr. Harrison's approach.''
"It is very difficult to compare school systems across the nation,'' he added. "The conditions and economic support structures vary greatly. It takes more interpretation than is available in this guide.''
John A. Whritner, superintendent of Grosse Pointe, Mich., schools, which earned an ESI rating of 77, said, "I have no problem with comparative ratings as long as I know what I'm being judged on. I don't know if these numbers are fair or not. But there are all kinds of factors that go into schooling where we don't have numbers to show how certain things effect children.''
'Cavalier, Casual, or Sloppy'
Mr. Harrison said he expected a negative response from some districts that rated on the low end of the scale.
"Frankly, I was surprised at the cavalier, casual, or even sloppy way a number of the school districts responded to the questionnaire,'' he said, adding that a letter was included with the survey instrument clearly stating its purpose. "Maybe next time they'll be more careful.''
But he conceded that the comments by members of the school community included in the district analysis provided a "more balanced picture'' than the ESI.
Mr. Harrison said he planned to update the book's results every two years to keep statistics current.
Public Schools U.S.A. will be available by the end of April for $17.95. Its publisher is Williamson Publishing Co. of Charlotte, Vt.
The following school districts earned an "Effective School Index'' rating of 90 or above:
Brighton, N.Y. 98
Herricks, N.Y. 95
Bloomfield Hills, Mich. 93
Lynbrook, N.Y. 93
Upper Merion, Pa. 92
Fox Chapel Area,
Pittsburgh, Pa. 92
Mt. Lebanon, Pa. 92
Port Washington, N.Y. 91
Elmhurst, Ill. 91
Morris, N.J. 90
The following school districts earned an E.S.I. rating of 20 or lower:
Randolph County, N.C. 12
Oakland, Calif. 13
Hillsborough County, Fla. 14
Lincoln Park, Mich. 14
Fontana, Calif. 17
District of Columbia 17
Highland Park, Mich. 17
Chicago (K-12), Ill. 18
Baltimore, Md. 20
- Indicates district misinterpretation of one or more statistics in the E.S.I. For each misinterpreted statistic, a score of 0
- was given instead of a possible score of 0 to 10 points.