Arizona Republic
June 16, 2006

Author: DAVID HOWELL, Special for The Republic Estimated printed pages: 2
(Phoenix, AZ)
Arizona's less than stellar education statistics have generated a lot of attention over the years. At a minimum, they tell us there is much room for improvement.

But often lost are the pockets of success that exist -- the schools and students who, to steal the title of a recent study, Beat the Odds.

The study was conducted by the Center for Arizona's Future, the "do" tank founded by former ASU President Lattie Coor and ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

The focus was Arizona's Hispanic elementary schoolchildren. The methodology was borrowed from Jim Collins, author of the business bestseller Good to Great.

Collins' approach is to identify organizations. In this study that meant schools with mostly Latino and mostly poor students that significantly and consistently outperform their peers. You then pair the successes with similar schools -- similar in location, demographics and circumstances -- and study the differences in programs, practices, leadership and culture. In the end, you have a picture of why some schools succeed and others don't.

In Beat the Odds the focus is on 12 schools where academic performance is much better than their demographic profile would predict, with students outperforming their peer schools and often the statewide averages for all students. The group is, by coincidence, an almost perfect cross section of Arizona. Some are rural; some urban. They are spread around the state. A couple use special approaches to education, but most aren't doing anything out of the mainstream.

The study found that the 12 had some things in common, traits that were not found as at their peer schools. The findings don't point to any silver bullet. No magic here. Just hard work and discipline.

As Collins puts it, "Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought who take disciplined action -- operating with freedom within a framework of responsibilities."

For Collins this is the "cornerstone of a culture that creates greatness."
And that's what Beat the Odds found in the 12 successful schools it studied.

The study did not find money to be a key to success. Resources are important, but more money alone doesn't correlate with better performance.

What sets the successful schools apart is a culture led by a strong, focused principal who commits to the success of every student and takes responsibility for that achievement. It means they set goals, work toward those goals and regularly measure their performance.

The successful schools don't make excuses or blame outside forces. They take the students they get and focus on helping them succeed. It's not about one specific program or curriculum model but about picking a good one and sticking with it. Consistency -- of the program, the measurements, the accountability, the culture and the leadership -- is what makes a difference.