Failure is Not an Option: How Ohio's High-Achieving & High-Poverty Schools Succeed

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Public Agenda
November 30, 2012
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This study from Public Agenda, a national, nonpartisan research and public engagement organization, suggests that high-poverty schools can succeed, in spite of challenges including tight budgets, sub-optimal parent participation, ill-prepared students and labor-management tensions. Findings indicate that strong and effective leadership at the school level is one of the biggest drivers of success in these schools.

The research, summarized in the report, “Failure Is Not an Option,” examined nine high-poverty, high-achieving schools in Ohio. The schools included geographically diverse primary and secondary schools and were a mix of traditional public schools, magnet schools and a charter school. The schools were identified by the Ohio Department of Education as among the highest performing high-needs schools in the state in terms of student outcomes. Each school had a student poverty level above 50 percent. The research was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio State University, and the Ohio Business Roundtable, and paid for using Race to the Top assessment funds.

Through focus groups and interviews, Public Agenda spoke with administrators, teachers, parents and students at the nine schools. Though each school is unique in many respects, the qualitative research found that all schools shared particular common themes. The report outlines key attributes of success in these schools, qualities and practices of effective leadership, and recommendations for making success sustainable. The lessons from the Ohio schools provide a roadmap for other schools to replicate their success, both in Ohio and nation-wide.

“People sometimes cite problems to excuse student failure, things like not enough money, indifferent parents, kids arriving at school not ready to learn, and bureaucracy resulting from state rules and union contracts," said Dr. Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda. “These schools were not somehow escaping these influences; instead, each has established a culture that says ‘No matter what the problems are, we still won’t allow failure.’”

Effective Leadership Qualities Include Vision, High expectations, Collaboration

At each of the nine schools, teachers, parents, students and, often, district leaders attributed a large portion of the school's success to the school leadership. Principals at the nine schools lead with a strong and clear vision for their school, engage staff in problem solving and decision making, and never lose sight of their school's goals and outcomes.

The report lists a number of qualities that constitute effective school leadership, including:

  • Building and maintaining a culture of high expectations, accountability and no excuses.
  • Connecting to teachers, students and the community on a personal level.
  • Leading by example through dedication and commitment.
  • Promoting teamwork and collaboration among staff.
  • Promoting data-driven self-evaluation among staff.
  • Giving staff autonomy to develop and implement best practices.
  • Hiring with care and strategy.

“My members believe this study sends a message of hope and optimism that with the right commitment, we can make rapid progress in education," said Richard Stoff, president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable. "More importantly, it shows that leadership makes the difference, a principle well-understood in business. Notably, the leadership qualities cited in the report are common in all great leadership, not just school leadership. Leadership establishes culture at any institution, whether school or business, and we know that culture eats strategy for lunch every day of the week.”

Attributes of Success Also Include Teamwork, Use of Student Data, Rejection of Excuses for Failure

While leadership was a key component to the success of these nine schools, principals, teachers, parents and students repeatedly emphasized other key attributes and practices. They stressed that it was the well-concerted interplay of these attributes that produces a school environment where high achievement is the norm. Some of these key attributes include:

  • Use of student data. Teachers included in the study regard student data as clarifying and helpful, and make use of it when planning instruction.
  • Teamwork and collaboration. School leaders provide genuine and varied opportunities for teachers to collaborate, and teachers say that collaboration is key to their effectiveness.
  • High expectations. Principals and teachers at each of these schools set high expectations for student achievement and behavior. They reject any excuse for academic failure or misbehavior.
  • Students feel loved, valued and challenged. While expectations are high, schools also nurture a personal connection with students and let them know there is help when they are challenged. Schools also offer nontraditional incentives to encourage good behavior and academic success.

While parent involvement and community support are seen as an asset, none of the schools reported lack of support as an insurmountable problem.

“This report shows that when we care enough, when we put our minds to it and our hearts in it, we can make progress on even our most stubborn problems. We hope the study helps to refresh the dialogue on how to help kids succeed in school, in Ohio and across the nation,” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda.

Recommendations for Sustaining Success

Principals and teachers at the schools did not take success as a given. The research also illuminates recommendations that may help high-poverty, high-achieving schools not only find but sustain success over time.

  • Plan for smooth principal transitions.
  • Engage teachers.
  • When hiring, make sure incoming teachers endorse the school's vision and practices.
  • Leverage a great reputation.
  • Celebrate success.

"Any challenge is best met by first looking at who is doing the enterprise well," said Dr. Herb Asher, special assistant to the President of The Ohio State University. "By focusing on these high performing schools, we learn both that we can be hopeful of progress, and that there are steps that can be followed to maximize our chances for both success and sustainability."

Find Out More

Read the success stories of each of the nine schools by downloading the report. Join the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #NoFailure.

Methodology

Schools studied included: East Garfield Elementary School in Steubenville, Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati, Northwest High School in McDermott, River Valley Middle School in Bidwell, Citizens Academy in Cleveland, Hannah J. Ashton Middle School in Reynoldsburg, Grove Patterson Academy Elementary School in Toledo, and MC^2 STEM High School in Cleveland.

Six of the nine schools were chosen from the state of Ohio’s 2010–11 Schools of Promise list. All six were also recognized as Schools of Promise in the previous academic year (2009–10) and at least one additional year. The three remaining schools chosen for this study have never been on the Schools of Promise list; however, they are all high-needs schools with exceptional academic reputations.

A two-person research team visited each participating school for two to three days in May 2012. The team conducted in-school focus groups with teachers, parents and students, respectively. In addition, across the schools visited, the team conducted up to 10 individual in-person or telephone interviews with school leaders, support staff and community partners. In a few school districts, the team was also able to speak to district office representatives.

More details are available on the report methodology page.


Public Agenda is a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening democracy and improving people’s lives. Through research and public engagement, we give divided citizens and leaders the means to build common ground and make progress on critical issues, including education reform, the environment and healthcare. Public Agenda was founded in 1975 by the social scientist and public opinion expert Dan Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and is based in New York City.

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