Mich. Districts Get Report Card From Wall St.

By Bess Keller — May 30, 2001 7 min read

The Wall Street giant Standard & Poor’s delivered a detailed, first-of-its-kind look at Michigan’s public school districts last week, inviting anyone with an Internet hook-up to delve into troves of information, ranging from test scores to spending patterns to per-capita income.

For More Information

The Michigan analysis is available from Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services. (Requires free registration to view Michigan information.)

The company, best known for gauging the financial health of businesses and governments, hopes Michigan will be the first of many states to contract with its new school- evaluation division. So far, Pennsylvania is the only one to follow suit, with its evaluation expected to be online by this coming fall. (“New Service Will Help Compare Districts’ Spending With Results,” Feb. 16, 2000.)

In the days before the online Michigan evaluation was unveiled last Friday, many education leaders in the state were wary, even as they began to envision how they might use the information. The interactive report is a favored project of Gov. John Engler, a Republican who has often been at loggerheads with the state teachers’ union and has vigorously promoted the independent public schools known as charters.

Gov. John Engler

District superintendents in particular have felt on the hot seat, because it is districts that are object of the report’s data sets and a list of “observations"— including “strengths,” “challenges,” and “concerns"—made by Standard & Poor’s analysts. Charter schools should be added to the system in June, say company officials, who would like eventually to provide data for individual regular public schools as well.

“I’m trying to keep them positive for this week,” Michael P. Flanagan, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said of the local superintendents that his group represents. “We’re hoping this weekend when it’s live that the print media doesn’t use it as another mechanism to bash schools.”

Comprehensive Look

Michigan has a five-year, $11 million contract with Standard & Poor’s, which will add data at least annually to the Web site created for the Michigan report. The data now available cover three school years, from 1996-97 to 1998- 99. Officials hope that 1999-2000 information will be available by the end of the year.

Developed from more than three years of research, including interviews with hundreds of school leaders around the country, the Standard & Poor’s evaluation system offers data in six categories: student results, spending, return on resources, learning environment (which includes factors such as class size and available technology), finances, and demographics. The “return on resources” information links data about spending to academic results, so districts can draw conclusions about the impact that expenditures have on achievement.

Taken together, the 100 million pieces of data—1,500 rows for each district— provide the most comprehensive look at Michigan public education ever available, and the richest in context, said William J. Cox, the project manager for school evaluation services at New York City- based Standard & Poor’s, which is a division of the McGraw-Hill Cos.The Web site is interactive, allowing users to compare any particular district with the state as a whole, with the other districts in the county, or with a group of “peer” districts that match up in size and demographics.

William J. Cox

“This isn’t just an accountability and information system like a report card; it’s a management tool,” Mr. Cox argued. “What we have done is extracted the information and shed light on it, and put it into the public domain so people can make decisions with it.”

Statewide education leaders generally agreed that the system could be a powerful tool, and an improvement over existing data sets, for enhancing a district’s management and its student achievement.

“We’ve scored ourselves to death in this state,” said Justin P. King, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. “I think we need to be judging how we are doing based on a broader spectrum of data than just test scores, including demographic information.”

Informational Campaign

Mr. Flanagan, of the superintendents’ group, called the system “a tremendous vehicle for student achievement,” especially in the critical area of raising the lagging performance of children in poor neighborhoods.

He said that its power lay in the “peer” groups of districts, which can be accessed with a click of a computer mouse. If one district in that group is doing better than the others in a certain area, he said, then the improvement should be within reach for all.

“You are not being challenged to do the same thing as is being done in a very different district,” he explained. “It changes the dynamic, and it takes away inappropriate excuses.”

But a spokesman for Choices for Children, an education reform group that strongly favors charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition, questioned whether the project’s price tag was justified. “We have some concern about the cost to taxpayers, especially considering Standard & Poor’s generated no new data,” said Greg McNeilly, the spokesman.

He said he believed the system would be useful to parents as they evaluate schools, and said his group would encourage them to use it.

At the same time, “the education bureaucrats seem to have co-opted the process somewhat,” Mr. McNeilly said. He pointed to a section of the Web site called “district perspective,” which allows superintendents to rebut what they don’t like in the evaluation.

He said it would make more sense to allow parents to comment.

Michigan education leaders did have a chance to influence the project. Mr. King, Mr. Flanagan, and nine other prominent educators sit on a special advisory board.

Moreover, Standard & Poor’s has gone to considerable lengths to put educators at ease with its product and to convince them and the public that the project stands apart from any political agenda or infighting.

An extensive informational campaign, targeted largely at school superintendents, delayed the release date of the system by about a month. A week before the Web site was due to start up, superintendents were given the “observations” section of the report pertaining to their own districts so they could review it.

“We took our time,” said A. Scott Jenkins, Gov. Engler’s education policy adviser. “The rules that were laid down with both S&P and the education communities were: No surprises.”

Fear of Ratings

The most widespread fear among educators is that the system will be used to rate or rank districts, a use the company has repeatedly repudiated. Most such rankings are perceived by school leaders to be unfair because they don’t take into account the individual circumstances of a district, especially the backgrounds of the students.

“Newspapers are a focus of a lot of worry because there is a history, and not just in Michigan, of newspapers enthusiastically participating in the ratings game,” said David N. Plank, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the director of the Education Policy Center there.

At one of Detroit’s major metropolitan newspapers, an editor suggested late last week that the paper had already mined many of the statistics that appear in the report. “We’re not immediately planning an independent analysis of the numbers,” said Gary Miles, an assistant city editor at the Detroit News.

Mr. Plank said that Standard & Poor’s may have benefited not only from its own efforts but from battles this spring around two other attempts to step up the accountability for Michigan schools—one over a new accreditation system proposed by the Michigan education department; the other over a system for identifying failing school districts that is being hammered out in the legislature.

“This may turn out to be the most benign of the three, almost simultaneous attempts to define how districts are doing and may therefore turn out to be the most welcome,” Mr. Plank said.

Still, the new system is likely to get different kinds of attention in different districts.

In Bloomfield Hills, a suburban Detroit district that is among the highest-spending in the state and is therefore vulnerable to charges that it overspends, Superintendent Gary M. Doyle has been critical of some aspects of the report. He has questioned the accuracy of data—or at least whether it leaves the correct impression.

For example, said Barbara Browne, the 6,000-student district’s spokeswoman, the report’s method of measuring high school graduation rates may result in undercounting the actual number of students who graduate, because it tracks only students who stay in an individual district’s schools. In Bloomfield Hills, she said, “it’s the rare student who doesn’t finish” high school, either in the district or someplace else.

In the Lansing district, a director of communications and marketing said last week that he had not had time yet to study the section of the report sent out in advance of the full release, but that he was concerned the most recent data were from two years ago.

“There have been many changes to this district in the last two years, with a whole new leadership team this year,” said Mark Mayes, the spokesman. On state tests, he added, “we’ve increased quite significantly in our last two years.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Mich. Districts Get Report Card From Wall St.

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