Positive Deviance: No More Excuses for Failure – Part I

The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” -Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141), William Shakespeare

There are fewer words in the English language which, in combination, cause me more agita than “school reform”. I have been struggling to understand the school reform debate for quite a while now – almost four decades. It pains me to witness the ‘dogfight’ being played out across the country in newspapers, films and in the media as parents, politicians, teachers and educators accuse, complain, and blame.

University of Chicago professor and author Charles M. Payne expresses my frustration concisely and correctly in the title of his recent book on school reform:  So Much Reform, So Little Change: the Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. We are a ‘nation at risk’, ‘wondering why Johnny can’t read; ‘waiting for superman’; hoping to ‘leave no child behind’.  And still we leave so many children behind. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the nation’s report card, only about 40% of the nation’s school children read at proficiency levels or above in the fourth and eighth grades.

I have made the point in this space previously that our failure to teach children how to read now constitutes a public health emergency. This is no longer an issue confined to schools and the educational industry.

Who claims responsibility for the public health emergency we are now confronted with?  Why has this stunning failure to educate so many of the children in the nation been accepted for so long by so many? Why is there not a civil rights movement mounted to address the ‘achievement gap’ – the significant differences between white and minority children’s achievement levels?  What explains the disproportionate number of failing schools in economically stressed minority communities?

Adults in the debate articulate their concerns. They cite reasons (excuses for?) why we fail: poverty, lack of funding, staffing and community support; immoderate and powerful teachers’ unions; charter schools, school boards etc. In the meantime, students – particularly Hispanic and African American children – continue to languish and fall by the wayside in historic numbers.

The debate as I have followed it has had very little to do with students – except now they (and their parents) get blamed! Do we believe this?  Can we accept this? Are we going to blame the kids and their parents for our failure to teach children to read?  We are now entering our second and third generations of failed children.  The failed are now growing up and having kids who we, in turn, fail. It is a stunningly shameful situation.

What can be done?

Well, let’s start by identifying some “positive deviants”.

What on earth, you ask, are positive deviants?

In his book, Better, Dr. Atul Gawande described and defined the concept of “positive deviance” as it relates to improving outcomes in the medical profession. He tells a story about a Save the Children program designed to address malnutrition among children in poor, outlying villages in Vietnam shortly after the Vietnam War:

The anti-starvation program run by Tufts University professor Jerry Sternin and his wife, Monique, had given up on bringing outside solutions to villages with malnourished children. Over and over, that strategy had failed. Although the know-how to reduce malnutrition was long established—methods to raise more nourishing foods and effectively feed hungry children –most people proved reluctant to change…”

Does this remind of us of anyone?

Gawande goes on:

The Sternins therefore focused on finding solutions from insiders. They asked small groups of poor villagers to identify who among them had the best nourished children—who among them had demonstrated what the Sternins termed a “positive deviance” from the norm. The villagers discovered that there were well nourished children among them, despite the poverty, and that those children’s mothers were breaking with locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways—feeding their children even when they had diarrhea, for example, or giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones; adding sweet potato greens to the children’s rice despite it being considered a low class food. And the ideas began to spread. They took hold ….In two years malnutrition dropped 65-85% in every village the Sternins visited.” (page 25)

Gawande shares five suggestions for how to increase the instances of positive deviance in our communities: (See page 255 in the summary chapter of the book Better):

1. Ask an unscripted question.

The Sternins, when faced with the obstacle of the villagers’ reluctance to take suggestions from outside their culture, found a way to surface best practices by asking if there were examples of children in the face of this very impoverished community who were doing well—and then studied why.

2. Don’t complain.

To this I would add—don’t blame!  What good would it have done for the Sternins to complain of poverty in Vietnam—or to blame the villagers for their situation?

3.  Count something.

Data matters according to Gawande. Numbers begin to make sense. “If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

The data points the Sternins measured were quantity of food and frequency of feeding.  They found that by changing the frequency without adding to the quantity, nutritional results were improved.

4.  Write something.

It is important to communicate with others who struggle to solve intransigent problems, especially if you have a solution that might be generalized or even replicated in other environments.

Gawande assures his readers that it doesn’t have to be a polished article for a Journal. It can be a blog, an e-mail, a letter to your colleagues. It does not need to be perfect it simply has to communicate your view of what you are doing. Once we write our reflections, according to Gawande, our thinking becomes part of a larger context. Once part of a larger context our reflections can take on weight and power that we might not have otherwise achieved.

5. Change.

“Stop resisting,” Gawande advises. “Become an early adopter and look for opportunities to change. This does not mean to embrace every new trend that comes along but rather be willing to recognize inadequacies, problems, and to seek out solutions.”

Gawande writes, “The concept of identifying positive deviance was in itself revolutionary. It builds on capabilities that people already have rather than requiring a great deal of change.”

How does the story Gawande tells of positive deviance relate to schools, learning and school reform? Are there examples of schools that are positive deviants—schools who succeed in the same as or similar conditions others cite as reasons for their failure?

Well, I am glad you asked! There are schools across the country doing good work, providing models of “positive deviance” and – most importantly – affecting real, measurable change in a climate and under conditions that others use as an excuse to fail.

Coming Next:  Positive Deviants, Part II: The story of the Kennewick, WA public school district as detailed in the book Annual Growth for All Students; Catch-up Growth for Those Who Are Behind.


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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10 Responses to Positive Deviance: No More Excuses for Failure – Part I

  1. Carolyn Cowen says:

    Another one out of the ball park, Lou!

  2. audedu says:

    Amen! Well-said! I agree with 100% of what you posted here, especially ” Write something,” I started my own blog a few days ago because I believe it is important to communicate with others who struggle to solve the same problems my colleagues and I face every day. You may have already read about the Dufour PLC model (Professional Learning Communities). In the PLC meetings I facilitate, we track several sources of data and have set up a data wall to keep our fingers on the academic pulse of our children. We gained the ideas we employ from other people’s blogs and research articles so I treasure what you said about sharing…” especially if you have a solution that might be generalized or even replicated in other environments.” I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. audedu says:

    Reblogged this on Audacious Educationist and commented:
    I agree with 100% of this post, especially “Write something,” because it is important to communicate with others who struggle to solve the same problems. Our school district has trained us in the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). In the PLC meetings I facilitate, we track several sources of data and have set up a data wall to keep our fingers on the academic pulse of our children. Many of the ideas we employ have been inspired by blogs and research articles so I treasure what you said about sharing…”especially if you have a solution that might be generalized or even replicated in other environments.”

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thank you for the comment! It is amazing what happens when we open ourselves to sharing what is working and we keep our focus on what works best for the students who are our primary concern. Thanks for your work on their behalf!

  4. jcsprenger says:

    I love the article for its core message: let the people themselves, i.e. teachers, take care of the problem. Let the ones who have successful data or progress show the others how to do it and stop complaining. As a high school teacher, I struggle with 17 or 18 year old kids who still cannot read with 80% comprehension. But to apply changes that work I would have to fight bureaucracy..and that’s a tough proposition.

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks so much for the comment. Most important is the requirement to work together and to create a culture of collaboration in which all constituents put students first. Let me know how you feel about part two coming next week.
      My Best,

  5. Bob Baker says:

    Thanks Lou. Great opening. Part II needed badly by many!!

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Bob! Part two is almost done–the story of the Kennewick Public School District in Washington. A truly inspired story of positive deviance at its best!
      Kind Regards,

  6. click here says:

    Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking the time and actual effort to
    create a very good article… but what can I
    say… I procrastinate a lot and don’t seem to get nearly anything

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