Failure Is Not An Option

How Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents from Ohio's High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools Explain Their Success

In spite of high poverty, tight budgets, sub-optimal parent participation and ill preparation, there are schools that produce extraordinary students and remarkable stories of success. What makes these schools work so well, and can it be replicated in others?

Public Agenda spoke to principals, teachers, students and parents at nine of Ohio's high-poverty, high-achieving schools. We wanted to know:

  • How do they define the keys to success?
  • What are some specific strategies and decisions that may contribute to their success?
  • How do they sustain success?
  • What helps them weather tough times?

Our hope is that the insights and ideas that emerged from this qualitative study stimulate a fresh, open and constructive dialogue on improving K-12 education in Ohio and nationally.

The study was supported by the Ohio Business Roundtable, the Ohio Department of Education and The Ohio State University. The nine schools included primary and secondary schools and were a mix of traditional public schools, magnet schools and a charter school. Read the stories of each of the nine schools by downloading the report.

Key Attributes of High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools

A number of practices and qualities consistently stood out across the nine schools we spoke to. We heard again and again that a well-concerted interplay between these attributes contributes to high academic achievement in these schools.

This is not to say that things like adequate funding and parent involvement are not important and can be disregarded. Rather, even in the face of serious challenges, these schools demonstrated that success can still be found from within.

Here, in brief, is what we heard from administrators, teachers, parents and students in these nine successful schools:

  1. Principals 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.
  2. Teachers and administrators are dedicated to their school's success and committed to making a difference in their students' lives.
  3. School leaders provide genuine opportunities and incentives for teachers to collaborate and share best practices.
  4. Teachers regard student data as clarifying and helpful. They use it to inform instruction.
  5. Principals and teachers have high expectations for all students and reject any excuses for academic failure.
  6. School leaders and teachers set high expectations for school discipline and student behavior.
  7. Schools offer students nontraditional incentives for academic success and good behavior.
  8. Students feel valued, loved and challenged. They are confident that their teachers will help them succeed and be at their side if they hit a rough patch.
  9. Principals and teachers do not see the lack of parent and community support as an insurmountable barrier to student achievement and learning.
  10. School leaders and teachers seek continuous improvement for both their practices and student achievement. Today's success is tomorrow's starting point.
  11. Each school has its own story of change and improvement, yet some commonalities exist.

Read more about the qualities of high-poverty, high-achieving schools.

How Can It Be Sustained? Recommendations from the Research

This study also sought to explore the critical question of how successful schools sustain their achievements, even when faced with challenges. We asked principals, teachers, parents and students about what they believe is needed to help their schools maintain an upward trajectory.

Here are some important recommendations for both achieving and maintaining success.

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

Read more about these recommendations for education leaders .


A total of nine Ohio public schools participated in this study. These schools were selected to make up a geographically diverse sample (rural and urban schools from across the state) and to represent various types of both primary and secondary schools, including traditional public schools, community (charter) schools and lottery-based public schools. All schools demonstrated outstanding academic achievement.

Six of the nine schools in this study were chosen from the state of Ohioís 2010Ė11 Schools of Promise list. All six were also recognized as Schools of Promise in the previous academic year (2009Ė10) 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. You can view the list of schools on the detailed methodology page .

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 we visited, we conducted up to 10 individual in-person or telephone interviews with school leaders, support staff and community partners. In a few school districts, we were also able to speak to district office representatives.

More details are available on the methodology page.

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Download the PDF of the Report

Failure Is Not An Option

How Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents from Ohio's High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools Explain Their Success

Media Type: PDF

In spite of high poverty, tight budgets, sub-optimal parent participation and ill preparation, there are schools that produce extraordinary students and remarkable stories of success.


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