A newly published book that numerically rates the effectiveness of school districts all across the nation--suggesting that those in the Los Angeles area are relatively ineffective--has San Gabriel Valley parents, teachers and administrators hopping mad.
Only one of 14 school districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties that were rated in "Public Schools USA" by education writer Charles H. Harrison scored in the top half of the 500 districts surveyed. San Marino rated a 60 out of a possible 100 on Harrison's "effective schools index," slightly above the median of 58.
Several other San Gabriel Valley school districts ranked near the bottom, including Duarte with 30, Pomona with 29 and Pasadena with 23.
Twenty of the 26 districts that scored 85 or higher in the book, which was released Wednesday, are in the Northeast, including seven in the New York metropolitan area.
"Nonsense," fumed William Bibbiani, director of research and testing for the Pasadena Unified School District. "Flat-out nonsense." Harrison's "effective schools index," or ESI, is more a measure of relative amounts of state aid than of effectiveness, he insisted.
"It's just shoddy research," Bibbiani said. "The whole study is spurious."
Some critics contend that the book's broad-brush approach has "maligned" their school districts, publicizing districtwide statistics without acknowledging individual programs that have been singularly successful.
"It really upsets and angers me that they do this," said Jeanette (Jay) Blackshaw, president of Pasadena's Parent Teacher Council. "There's a self-fulfilling prophecy in things like this."
Harrison, reached at his home in New Jersey, said his critics are putting too much emphasis on the numbers. The initial press coverage of his book, which offers a one-page thumbnail description of each of the rated districts, mistakenly concentrated on ranking them, he said.
"This wasn't meant to be a ranking system," said Harrison, the author of four other books about education and a past president of the National Education Writers Assn. "The ESI was just one of three parts to each district's entry."
Besides the ESI, the book provides data on each district, such as total enrollment, teachers' salaries and the percentage of school buildings built before 1955. It also provides "qualitative" observations on school leadership, instruction and school "environment." The rated districts all had a minimum of 2,500 enrolled students and a full range of grades, and they were within 25 miles of a major city.
The ESI is derived from 10 statistics, including average daily attendance, spending per pupil, dropout rate, percentage of eligible students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), average combined scores on the SATs, teacher-student ratio in elementary and secondary grades, counselor-student ratio in secondary grades and number of students per music specialist in elementary grades.
Rated 0 to 10
The results for each category are weighted from 0 to 10, depending on a district's entry. For example, Pomona received 0 in one category, for its average combined SAT score of 760, while San Marino, with an average combined score of 1,012, received 10 in the same category. Pasadena, which did not submit data in that category, also received a 0.
"Some districts took it rather casually," said Harrison. "The superintendent passed it off to a subordinate who filled it out rather casually, without anyone checking or double-checking. Some districts which got zero would have gotten higher scores if they had done it more carefully."
But he insisted that the data gives parents who are moving from one metropolitan area to another a "legitimate guide" in selecting a district with an effective school system.
"It seems to me that if a parent were looking at various districts," Harrison said, "and he saw one school district where the SAT scores were 200 points above the national average and another where the scores were 200 points below the national average, he might be interested in looking at one rather than the other."
Until now, he said, parents were at a loss to find the best districts in a metropolitan area on their own. "It was shooting in the dark or else taking the word of a real estate agent."
Bibbiani contends that nine out of 10 of the ESI statistics are related either to state aid or to the socioeconomic characteristics of the district, rather than to effectiveness. "Affluent kids tend to go to college more often than poor kids. So if you're dealing with a diverse socioeconomic group (as in Pasadena), you tend to look bad," Bibbiani said.
"If he had just looked at per capita income in those 500 districts and lined them up from top to bottom, he would have gotten the same results," added Saul Glickman, president of United Teachers of Pasadena and a Pasadena High School mathematics teacher.