Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Guidebooks: A Growing Market for School Data; school guides

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'Parents don't want just test scores. They want to know what the atmosphere is like, what the teaching is like ... and how good is the principal.'

Nancy Walser author Cambridge, Mass.

To shop wisely--whether for a refrigerator, computer, or school--consumers need information. And in states or districts that allow parents some choice in selecting public schools, publishers and writers see a market in providing it.

In Cambridge, Mass., where the district requires parents to list their top three choices, families can now turn for help to an elementary school guidebook, published in December.

Journalist Nancy Walser, who wrote the book, has a daughter who will enter kindergarten in September. "I knew the school system didn't have near the amount of information I would want," she says.

The book, which covers all 25 elementary programs in the city, is intended to be "an armchair travel piece" for parents to use in deciding which schools to visit.

"Parents don't want just test scores," Walser says. "They want to know what the atmosphere is like, what the teaching is like, any particular philosophy that most teachers and principals have, and how good is the principal."

In California, where a 1984 state law allows parents to send their children to any school in the state, publisher Steve Rees has launched a series of guidebooks to allow consumers to make informed decisions.

The books, which began with San Francisco but will expand to four more counties in the fall, make comparisons among schools possible. Educators fear that test scores in parents' hands are "like giving dynamite sticks to a 13-year-old," Rees says, but he believes people often look beyond academic measures.

"What they want is the fullest body of factual information possible, so they can take into consideration their children's needs, and go look at a school," he says.

Rees has learned, however, that many parents don't know they can choose a school and that some districts don't advertise the fact. His company, Publishing 20/20, asks districts for basic data about schools--a request that is sometimes met with resistance.

"The moaning and groaning that goes on is something to behold," he says. "They behave as though they do not serve a public and do not serve customers."

Finding Good Schools

In Washington state, another state with school choice, The Seattle Times last fall published a guide to nearly 100 of the region's high schools, aimed at helping people make informed choices among both public and private schools. The newspaper billed the report as "what you need to know to choose a school or just find out how your school is doing."

The newspaper hired experts to analyze test scores to determine what individual schools contributed to students' performance, based on how their students would have been expected to fare on tests.

In New York City, journalist and mother Clara Hemphill plans to publish a book this fall identifying the 100 best elementary schools in the city. Parents in New York City theoretically have choice among schools, although overcrowding limits students' movement among buildings. Hemphill is writing "colorful, anecdotal portraits" of schools to give parents a flavor for the city's educational diversity.

"The problem is nobody knows where the good schools are, or how to evaluate a good school," she says. "It's very hard for the average parent to get their hands on information."

--ANN BRADLEY

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