Why some schools with Latino children beat the odds and
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
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
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
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
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