Michigan is paying Wall Street’s Standard & Poor’s (S&P) $10 million to run an online service that rates the state’s school districts. Pennsylvania and other states are expected to follow Michigan’s lead. Critics say it would be better to spend those millions directly on education.

S&P has been providing investors with information about the credit-worthiness of businesses and governments for more than 85 years. On May 25, S&P debuted an online school evaluation system that provides up to 1,500 items of information for each Michigan school district, as well as 12- to 15-page summaries of each district’s strengths and weaknesses.

The idea is to use the internet to make school systems more accountable to their stakeholders by showing the “return on investment” for tax dollars spent on education, measured in terms of test scores and other raw data.

The S&P web site isn’t the first of its kind. But the participation of a well-respected financial analysis firm lends a high profile to the endeavor, and the site also marks the first attempt by a major corporation to cash in on the drive for school accountability.

William Cox, director of school evaluation services for S&P, said that response to the system had been “overwhelmingly positive.” He wouldn’t say how many hits the company’s web site had received, but he described it as “a substantial amount of traffic.”

“The largest number of comments have come from districts who found that they have perhaps sent in some information incorrectly to the state,” Cox said. “So already the service is helping people improve their data quality.”

Michigan plans to pay S&P $10 million over the next five years to maintain the site. State officials say it’s worth the money, because the company can provide objective analysis and has the capacity to run the site.

But Choices for Children, a group that advocates charter schools and vouchers, questioned the cost of the program, especially since the state already had the data being presented.

“Particularly during a down economy, this is money that could have been spent developing new standardized tests or raising teachers’ salaries, things that would have an immediate benefit for children,” spokesman Greg McNeilly said.

McNeilly also criticized the site because it posts explanations of the data from superintendents, but it doesn’t post comments from parents.

“We spend $14 billion a year on education in Michigan, and parents and taxpayers are the primary stakeholders,” he said.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins praised the system, saying it will help districts make the most of their resources by allowing them to compare themselves to others. This information “helps public education do right by our children,” he said.

An evaluation of Pennsylvania school districts reportedly will go online later this summer, and S&P says it is negotiating with other states as well.

In Lansing, Mich., administrators spent the day of the site’s debut checking it for accuracy. Spokesman Mark Mayes said once the district is comfortable the data are correct, the system can be a valuable tool.

“It’s becoming more and more important for educators to put on that business hat and run the district more like a business,” he said. “The more data we have, the more areas we can pinpoint, the more areas we can improve on.”

New Hampshire and Illinois are among the states that already provide web-based school evaluation services. The Illinois School Improvement site, for example, built with $140,000 from the federally funded North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Ill., includes charts comparing the state’s schools with each other.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit site GreatSchools.net has been supplying educators and parents with information about California and Arizona schools since September 1999, providing school profiles that include information on enrollment, facilities, teacher qualifications, student demographics, and test scores.

Making information about schools public is part of the Bush administration’s strategy for improving accountability, said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Links:

Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services
http://www.ses.standardandpoors.com

Illinois School Improvement web site
http://ilsi.isbe.net

GreatSchools.net
http://www.greatschools.net