Why are some schools were successful than others? We all think we know. But the answers from a new study may surprise you.
Study authors from the Morrison Institute and the Center for Arizona’s Future (CAF) didn’t pontificate or theorize. Instead, they found 12 schools (out of 331 eligible) with demonstrated academic achievement despite serving mostly low income Latino children. For each school they found a matching school similar in every way ’" except failing academically. Then they went to the schools to see what accounted for the differences.
The study “guru” was Jim Collins, former Stanford business professor and author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t.” It turns out that, just as for businesses, success for schools hinges on specific attitudes and practices. Successful educators, for example, use testing aggressively ’" to assess, to measure progress and to guide future instruction. You never hear them complain about having to “teach to the test.” The main point of testing for them is not to “pass” or “fail” students but to assure that each student acquires the skills and information necessary to move on and succeed at the next level.
The study, “Why Some Schools with Latino Children Beat the Odds . . . and Others Don’t,” concluded that “successful schools do things very differently than unsuccessful schools.” Six crucial elements were identified:
1) Clear bottom line. The achievement of every student in every classroom is the focus. No excuses, no blaming, just taking responsibility for making it happen.
2) Ongoing assessment to drive achievement.
3) Strong and steady principal. No surprise to find (again) that a focused, determined leader with authority is key.
4) Collaborative solutions. Teachers and staff are given real ownership in problem solving.
5) Stick with the program. Select a proven instructional program and commit to it. Tweak the program as needed but don’t bounce around.
6) Built to suit. The emphasis is not on state academic standards, district improvement plans or other mandates from above. Rather, the daily focus is on the individual student, the unending cycle of instruction, assessment and intervention that eventually allows each student to maximize their success.
The clear focus is on steady progress and internal improvements. Successful schools don’t blame demographics or lack of parental involvement or even children coming to them not ready to learn. Instead, they work hard on improving things they can actually control. On the other hand, funding levels, class size and specialized programs such as early childhood education are not seen as critical determinants of success. The study authors don’t suggest that such popular remedies don’t (or do) make any difference. But too often the public discussion of education is directed by unions and other interest groups who emphasize measures of benefit to them. This study properly redirects attention to academic outcomes.
The study, as its title suggests, addresses the educational needs of Latino children. But the lessons from “Why Some Schools . . . “ are equally applicable to students of all races. The six principles are in many ways just common sense, especially to those familiar with the principles of modern business management. Charter, private and public schools in our state and others have been using these principles for some time now to create pockets of excellence in educating low income children.
So how can we assure that the greatest number of children possible have the opportunity to attend a successful school? The more we know about how to provide educational opportunity to all, the greater is our moral obligation to see it done.
Market competition through choice is the driver that will most rapidly compel all schools to adopt the disciplines necessary for effective teaching. After all, in no other area of life are we compelled to use a service even if it doesn’t provide the products and quality we desire. Businesses constantly seek to improve, not because of bureaucratic dictates, but because it is necessary for their success ’" and, ultimately, survival. Schools, too, can flourish under conditions where their academic outcomes determine future viability.