As school leaders are likely to hear at almost any gathering when the burghers hold court on chamber-of-commerce night, educators “sure do have a lot to learn from the business community.”

Time was when this sort of smug assertion would steam my clams. It used to put me in mind of one of those aloha-shirted blockheads, on tour in a foreign country, speaking slowly and pumping up the volume so his non-English-speaking waiter could better understand his dinner order.

A lot to learn from business? Well, the business community could learn a thing or two from school administrators, too, I used to mutter.

Now, I’m not so sure. Our story on Page 8 about Standard & Poor’s school evaluation service got me thinking. Maybe business does have something to teach the educators after all.

The S&P 500 might be faded glory, but Standard & Poor’s latest venture in the school field looks reminiscent of Wall Street in its high-tech heyday. S&P reportedly will rake in $10 million to run an online service that rates the quality of Michigan school districts. And Michigan might be only the beginning. Pennsylvania reportedly will sign up soon, and a flock of other states are in the wings.

In fact, the online evaluation of school districts is a phenomenon spreading through the field like gossip in a rumor mill.

In this current era, what could be better than slicing, dicing, rating, and ranking school districts from here to Hinckley? Constant evaluation is uplifting, right?

On the other hand, have you notice that the successful farmer isn’t the one who yanks his carrots out of the ground every week or so to see how they’ve been growing? Who knows? Agriculture might have some lessons for education, too.

Be that as it may, online school evaluation services seem to be an emerging trend. And S&P by no means commands the field all by itself. A number of organizations got there first and remain engaged.

Among the notable is the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL). This is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping schools–and the students they serve–reach their full potential. NCREL, along with the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Business Roundtable, created the Illinois School Improvement web site <http://ilsi.isbe.net>.

According to Arie van der Ploeg, senior program associate in NCREL’s Center of Education Decision Support Systems, key differences distinguish the Illinois School Improvement site from S&P’s school evaluation site.

S&P’s focuses on return on the dollar, said van der Ploeg. “Our intent is markedly different. We set out to help schools see where they fit in the bigger picture and how they can improve. This is not S&P’s approach.”

He said S&P’s web site uses information in addition to that supplied by the Michigan Department of Education. S&P uses Census data, for instance, he said. NCREL thinks those data are too old to use, although van der Ploeg said his group might use such information once the 2000 Census data are available.

Another difference: Michigan reportedly is paying S&P $2 million per year to operate the site. Startup costs for the Illinois site built by NCREL were $140,000, according to wire service reports.

“Regarding the $140,000 figure,” van der Ploeg explained to me, ” that’s probably a rough approximation of our direct, contracted costs. But others contribute to the program in Illinois as well. The state committed $250,000 toward professional development, for instance.” In sum, he said, one could fairly estimate the total cost of the Illinois site at around $400,000.

Critics of the Michigan project argue that the $10 million would do more good for education if the money went to the schools rather than to S&P.

But look: Evaluation certainly is important; so is accountability. In five years, it would be illuminating to see which state’s schools had made the greater strides–those in Michigan, with its $10 million corporate program, or those in Illinois, with its $400,000 program designed by educators. If the outcome favors Illinois or is unclear, a valuable lesson might be learned.

In that case, when next they set their prices, the folks at NCREL probably could benefit by taking that ubiquitous advice. They might decide to learn a thing or two from business–specifically S&P.

They probably won’t, though. Educators never seem to learn.