Beyond Needles: What do we know about Ohio's high-performing schools?

We know that our latest report doesn’t break new ground. There is national research going back decades on the keys to high-performing schools, and more recently there is Ohio-specific literature on the topic. We published a previous iteration of Needles in a Haystack in 2010, which looked at high-performing, high-need elementary and middles schools. Since 2002, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has identified “Schools of Promise” – high-poverty, high-achieving schools – and has published case studies of some of those schools along with Five Lessons Learned from Successful Schools. And late last year, Public Agenda – with funding from the Ohio Business Roundtable, The Ohio State University, and ODE – released Failure Is Not an Option: How Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents from Ohio’s High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools Explain Their Success.

These studies all look at schools serving a large population of economically disadvantaged (ED) students, though the specific metrics vary. Our first Needles report focused on schools in which 75 percent or more of students were ED. ODE and Public Agenda use 40 percent as the threshold. Our new report adds greater precision in defining “high need,” applying additional metrics—three, in fact: 30 percent ED and/or 50 percent ED and/or 30 percent black. Likewise, the studies vary in how they define “high-performing.” Our new Needles report focuses on schools serving poor and black students well, zeroing in on the achievement rates of those subgroups. The other studies use overall achievement of the student body, based on state tests.

These small differences aside, what do the reports’ findings have in common? What have these independent examinations of high-performing Ohio schools found, and what can be done to encourage more such schools to rise up?

Here are the common findings across the reports:

  • There are no excuses for failure. None. Zilch.
  • Expectations are high, instruction is rigorous. But along with the high bar set for them, students feel supported and respected by their teachers.
  • Teamwork and a common mindset prevail. New teachers must buy into the school’s vision and practices. Teachers work together and with students toward success. Everyone is accountable for and takes ownership of results.
  • Building leadership matters tremendously. All of these schools have top-notch teaching staff, but their vision and direction are maintained by strong leaders who have the authority to oversee their schools as they see fit. Likewise, administrative churn is discouraged.
  • Teachers use, and value data, to help individualize instruction (this is especially true at the elementary and middle school levels).
  • Success is celebrated – from small accomplishments to major milestones, yet…
  • No one rests on their laurels, not even for a day, because maintaining success requires ongoing effort (for example, Public Agenda reports that of all the schools that have been identified by ODE as Schools of Promise since 2002, three-quarters did not meet the criteria in 2010-11).

Yes, some of these findings seem like plain, old common sense. But the truth is, for too many Ohio schools they aren’t the norm; as a result, too many students aren’t realizing their full potentials. Some of the needed changes in policy and practice will have to happen at the local level, whether building or district. So, local school leaders and superintendents should take heed of the mounting “what works” evidence collected in these reports. But some change can be achieved by changes to state policy. As the General Assembly gears up for the FY2014-15 budget debate, members should look to these reports – and especially to their commonalities – for guidance on developing new state education laws.

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