The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, March 31, 2006

Jim Collins enters the fray

The Center for the Future of Arizona has just completed a three-year study of schools in the state to determine what works, and what doesn't, in teaching Latino students. They used the methodology of Jim Collins' latest book, Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap...and others don't, to examine 12 schools that are "beating the odds" on math and reading scores. In addition to inspiring the methodology, Collins played an active role in the project.

This excerpt from
an article in The Arizona Republic reveals their findings:

When it comes to helping struggling Latino kids learn, success has little to do with money, class sizes, fancy reading programs, parent involvement or tutoring, a study released Thursday concluded. Those things can be found at both good schools and bad.

The report concluded a successful school in tough circumstances is not an accident, or a flashy miracle, and doesn't require a grand change in public policy. Here is what it reported makes the difference in a successful school:

• Disciplined thought: These principals and teachers admitted failure and changed their approach. Johnny Chavez, principal of Phoenix's Larry C. Kennedy School, said he judged himself and each teacher on the daily, weekly and monthly test results of each child. If a child wasn't making progress, Chavez and the teacher worked together in the classroom and consulted other teachers until they found a better way. "You have to have honest dialogue with your staff," Chavez said. "I'm not looking to make friends."

• Disciplined people: These principals pushed ahead despite roadblocks and used their entire staff to find solutions. They fought through children suffering from poverty, drugs and crime. They fought through bad reading programs imposed by districts, oversized classes, underpaid teachers and public mandates that created mounds of paperwork. Juli Peach, principal of Yuma's Alice Byrne Elementary School, said it's not just one hurdle: "It's hurdle after hurdle." For eight years, Peach has fought to keep every adult focused on making sure each child learns reading and math. "It's not anything other schools can't do."

• Disciplined action: The principal and staff select one program or plan, stick with it and make it better and better. Frank Terbush had been principal 17 years at Phoenix's Granada East School when the state labeled his school "underperforming." It was 1997, and Terbush said to himself: Well, that's the last time that's going to happen. "It's not the (test) data that's so important," Terbush said. It's teachers taking responsibility for every one of the 28, 32 or 35 kids in their class. "It's who is using that data and how they're using it."

What's fascinating is how the evidence demonstrated that the high-profile debates in education - about class size, money, etc. - were by and large red herrings when it comes to student achievement, at least within the studied group. We distract ourselves by choosing and defending sides in these arguments without the benefit of data - we believe these things are true and go forth as if that's enough.

This kind of research is overdue - education policy is so often established by conjecture and faith/belief/philosophical leaning/ideology, and far too rarely on hard data. While NCLB is not perfect by a long shot, the fact that it's forcing data gathering and disaggregation and holding schools accountable for their results is a critical step forward. As this research demonstrates, people are now starting to ask the next logical question: why are some schools are doing better than others, and how can we replicate those successes?

Bringing Jim Collins into the mix is inspired. He is known for not pre-judging the situation: rather than come up with an idea and see if the data fits, he dives into the data without any preconceptions and follows it wherever it goes. Reminds me of a great line attributed to David Ogilvy: "most people use research the way a drunk uses a lamppost - for support, rather than for illumination."

By asking the right questions, and by using hard data to find the answers, we'll finally be taking the critical and necessary step of casting off opinion in favor of evidence in setting education policy.


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