Why some schools with Latino children beat the odds and others don't
Arizona Republic
Apr. 9, 2006

Those that beat the odds offer real lessons, researchers find

Mary Jo Waits Principal author

Everybody agrees education is essential for the future of Arizona.

Everybody agrees many schools in Arizona just don't work for Latino children.

Everybody agrees this problem needs to be fixed - now.

Nobody agrees on how to do it. But that could change.

It's true that throughout Arizona and the Southwest the odds are against high achievement in schools with a mostly Latino, mostly poor student enrollment. But some such schools "beat the odds" and achieve consistently high results or steady gains.

Why do these schools succeed where others fail?

What is the DNA of a successful beat-the-odds school? And can the components of success be repeated elsewhere, in schools that so far have fallen victim to the odds?

Using the inspiration and methodology of business guru Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ...
and Others Don't, we found 12 elementary and middle schools in Arizona, schools whose students are mostly Latino and mostly poor, that are beating the odds on reading and math scores. And, as Collins did with successful companies, we compared them with similar schools - also with students who are mostly Latino and poor, sometimes even in the same school district - that are performing poorly.

Our comparisons yielded many insights, a number of them contrary to conventional wisdom. But one key result is the unearthing of six elements of success.

We also found that these elements of success translate into broader messages for education policy and strategy.

We found that successful schools do things very differently than unsuccessful schools. The six keys to success were usually present in the beat-the-odds schools but not in the comparison schools.

We found that the things that successful schools do are common practices for any effective organization. This is not to say it's easy to adopt and maintain these practices. But leaps in performance are neither miraculous nor accidental. They are the result of clear direction and hard work.

And finally, we found that the magic is within the school itself. Successful schools focus on improving the things they actually can control that will make a big difference in student achievement. In focusing on internal improvements, these schools neither looked to external factors such as new policies or new requirements as magic bullets nor blamed factors such as demographics and economic status of the student population.

How we did it

The seed year was 2001. That was the year the Morrison Institute for Public Policy released its report "Five Shoes Waiting To Drop on Arizona's Future,"
which identified one "shoe" as a huge hole in Arizona's educational system:
the lack of educational success of Latinos.

The report reminded Arizonans that Latinos are fast becoming the majority in public schools and that they suffer from low achievement gains and graduation rates. The report also reminded Arizonans that education is the key to prosperity for individuals, for families and for Arizona as a whole.
Without a successful turnaround in Latino education, Arizona simply will not make a successful transition to the 21st-century economy.

The implications of this problem really hit home when I, as principal author of the "Five Shoes" report, was speaking at a conference with members of Kentucky's Council on Higher Education. Another speaker, Kentucky's leading demographer, pointed to a map of the United States and said, "The Southwest will be the Appalachian region of the 21st century." Why? Because, he said, "demography is destiny."

Latinos are the fastest-growing population group in the Southwest. They will soon make up a majority of public school students. And, as with Appalachian residents in the past, they have chronically low levels of educational achievement, something that for decades has hurt the economic competitiveness of states in the Appalachian region.

I responded to the demographer's prognosis for the Southwest by pointing out that it assumes that Southwestern states such as Arizona and California won't get their education acts together, fixing the barriers to better educational outcomes for Latino children.

The demographer's response: "Like I said, the Southwest will be the Appalachian region of the 21st century." That led me and the other researchers to ask: Can schools ever be fixed? Can Arizonans ever agree on what it takes to fix Latino schools and do it?

Our research demonstrates that the Kentucky commentator was wrong.

Demography does not have to be destiny. Public schools can be fixed in a way that reverses the existing trend in Latino educational attainment. We started looking for answers and found a lot of argument about what it takes for high performance. The laundry list was long: more parental involvement, more funding, better teachers, higher pay, lower class size, and on and on.

Most of these educational bromides seemed to assume that more money is the key to higher educational attainment, and it may be true that more resources can help. But after Lattie Coor, chairman and chief executive of the Center for the Future of Arizona, and I happened to read the business book Good to Great, a book that concluded that business success wasn't due to innovative programs, higher executive compensation and other management bromides, we wondered whether the book's method could provide a way to answer the question of how to improve Latino educational attainment in Arizona.

'Good to Great'

Jim Collins knows a thing or two about the keys to high performance. His 1994 book, Built to Last, with co-author Jerry Porras, showed how great companies triumph over time and how long-term sustained performance can be engineered into the DNA of an enterprise from the beginning. He followed that with Good to Great in 2001 after five years of research into this question: Can a good company become a great company and how?

Collins' answer was yes, and the formula involved such concepts as flywheels, hedgehogs, the Stockdale principle and other essentials.

By all accounts, Good to Great raised the bar for researchers and advice givers in the business world. In it, Collins dispelled a lot of myths about success. But his real breakthrough has as much to do with his research methods as it does with his results.

Most research studies that seek to identify best practices go about this task in a surprisingly simple way: They find what the experts think are the success stories and try to identify what makes them successful. This approach has value, but especially in education, it raises a few basic but important questions.

The first has to do with standards: Successful relative to what? Most studies don't provide such a comparison. And the second has to do with natural advantages: How do you control for some pre-existing advantage, such as current market share in business or high socioeconomic status in education?

In Good to Great, Collins and his research team took a different approach that sought to address these questions and identify the components of business success in a more rigorous, yet subtle and nuanced, way.

Instead of relying on conventional wisdom about successful companies, Collins systemically analyzed 1,435 publicly traded companies over a 30-year period to find those that had made a transition from good to great.

Eventually, he identified 11 companies that had mediocre financial performance for a long time, then underwent a period of transition, shot upward and far surpassed the market and their competitors consistently for many years.

Instead of simply analyzing these companies, Collins used comparison companies to tease out lessons about what was really different about the successful companies. He found 11 other companies, one comparison for each good-to-great company, that were similarly situated in the same industries but did not shoot upward in financial performance.

He also found six companies that did shoot upward in a fashion similar to the good-to-great companies but were unable to sustain a high level of financial performance over a long period of time.

From this methodology, identifying good-to-great companies and identifying their matched comparison companies, Collins laid the foundation for identifying concepts that can help not just businesses but all organizations transform themselves from good to great.

In approaching the question of why some mostly Latino schools beat the odds, we adopted a similar methodology. The idea was not just to identify successful schools and present case studies but to identify successful, poor Latino schools, compare them to similar but less successful poor Latino schools and try to understand what sets the two groups apart.

To adapt the good-to-great method to Latino education in Arizona, Lattie Coor contacted Collins, told him about our project and asked his advice.

Collins saw great value and agreed to advise us.

Project researchers and authors include Mary Jo Waits, senior fellow, Center for the Future of Arizona; Heather E. Campbell, associate professor and director of graduate studies, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University; Rebecca Gau, president, Goal One Research; Ellen Jacobs, president, ebj Research and Market Analysis; Tom Rex, associate director, Center for Business Research, W.P. Carey School of Business, ASU; and Robert K. Hess, associate professor of measurement and evaluation, ASU West; William Fulton, Solimar Research Group