Positive Deviance: No More Excuses for Failure – Part II

“Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted, counts.”   – Attributed to Albert Einstein

“Becoming a Positive Deviant, Rule # 3: Count something!” –Atul Gawande, Better

I have been wondering and worrying about our public schools and the stunning failure to teach children to read. I wonder what level of failure will be required to move this conversation from a sometimes acrimonious public policy debate about education reform and teachers unions to full blown public health crisis management.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is the birthright of every child in these United States. Yet we have clearly failed to make good on this promise to our children, our communities and to our nation.


In my last blog, I spoke about the concept of “positive deviance” as explained in Better, the book by Dr. Atul Gawande that discusses improving outcomes in medical practice.

A positive deviant is an example of accomplishment or achievement in conditions that others use as an excuse for failure. A positive deviant defies the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles that are used to deflect responsibility, to excuse failure. A positive deviant in any field piques curiosity, and pricks the conscience.

I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a positive deviant that made the hairs on the back of my head stand straight up. Now I realize that I am a bit of a reading wonk—and I don’t get out much—but I would storm the gates of Hades for the children in my school. So, when I had an opportunity to read a book about a school district that is doing the type of work that seemingly flies in the face of convention and makes a real difference in the lives of the students they serve, I armed myself with highlighters and post-it notes and dove right in.

Hold on tight to your hand-held devices and read on!

This book was recommended by my dear friend and close colleague, Earl Oremus. Earl has been the headmaster of Marburn Academy in Columbus Ohio for 25 years. Marburn serves children with learning differences—particularly those with reading and writing difficulties caused by dyslexia. Earl is a master at applying research to practice and is unmatched when it comes to teaching children to read in a learning environment that is conducive to their unique styles and aptitudes.

Earl and I have been friends and co-conspirators since graduate school. When Earl suggests I read anything in our chosen field, my next call is to the bookstore. So, within a week, I was the proud owner of a book with a very bland cover and even less catchy title: Annual Growth for all Students; Catch-Up Growth for Those Who are Behind.

I thought I would have to slog through this book but as I read the first chapter my pulse started to quicken and I was shifting in my chair; eventually I had to get up and walk around.  It was like reading a murder mystery—and on each page were quantifiable data and clues to solve the mystery.

As I read further, I got so excited that my blood pressure medication stopped working. I ordered a dozen copies. I started encouraging anyone who asks me how I am on any day to read this book (“I am fine, thanks for asking! By the way, have you read AGFASCUGFTWAB?”  I use an acronym for the title of the book, of course.)

So here’s the scoop: There’s a school district in the southeastern part of Washington State that does for its children in 13 elementary schools what everybody else in the country is arguing about.  Kennewick, Washington has nearly 23 square miles and a diverse population of around 55,000 – with 30% of the population under the age of 18. The average household income is a little over $41,000. Almost 19% of all children under 18 are living below the poverty line. (Data from the 2000 Census).

Kennewick started with the same class sizes and structures that most general education public schools have. It has an active teacher’s union. A majority of children in seven of their 13 elementary schools are on free and reduced lunch and four schools have a majority of non-Caucasian students.

In 1995, (before the No Child Left Behind mandates) the Kennewick school board and principals decided to set a goal to have 90% of all the third graders in their 13 elementary schools achieve grade level reading skills in three years. Of course, once this goal was articulated, voices rose from predictable places to protest.

“Most of our educators viewed the goal as impossible. No school district of significant size had ever achieved it. Our teachers were stunned and skeptical. School administrators were concerned that it would make us look bad.” (page 17)

Furthermore, parents and community members expressed surprise: “I thought our third graders were already reading at grade level! Our schools don’t do this already?”

Your pulse quickening yet?

Stay with me… or leave right now and go get your hands on this book!

What Kennewick decided to do in three years in its little corner of the world is similar to the No Child Left Behind (or, as I like to call it, No Child with a Behind Left)  mandate articulated in 2002 by the Bush administration to have all children reading and computing on grade level by 2014.

In the end, it took Kennewick twelve years (not three) to attain the goal of having 90% of third graders reading at grade level. The book details every step and misstep this courageous group of educators took to achieve this goal.

It was a thorny and difficult journey that required challenging long held assumptions and presumed knowledge about the readiness levels of incoming kindergarteners and how they learned language skills

It required firm negotiations with the teachers’ union regarding how teachers were going to conduct their classes and how they were going to be evaluated.

It required learning to use interim and summative assessments.

It required significant changes in the daily schedule, professional development, curriculum, and communication with parents.

Reading about Kennewick’s step-by-step journey was a fascinating trip for me, and I was particularly struck by how closely their actions lined up with the “five suggestions” Gwande suggests for increasing positive deviance in his book, Better:

  1. The Kennewick school board asked unscripted questions of themselves
  2. They stopped complaining and accepted that you can’t teach every one of those children with the same curriculum for the same amount of time and expect different results for each group.
  3. They counted something—they gathered data on incoming kindergarten children and then gathered research to devise a plan to address rather than ignore the differences in the preparation of these children.
  4. They wrote something—new schedules, and a strategic plan to achieve targeted growth.
  5. Teachers, administrators and parents eventually embraced change.

Can you imagine? They changed it up.  Dr. Gawande would say they used different treatments at different doses to treat different levels of need.

You have to love these folks in Kennewick. If you read this manual to achieve growth for all students in your district it won’t take your city 12 years because the Kennewick folks will save you time –they detail all the mistakes they made that delayed achievement of the goal. They counted every bean.

Now, tell me…. why can’t we achieve similar results in every city across the country in the next five years???

The story of the Kennewick school system is the story of a bona fide positive deviant. It is a story of achievement in the face of obstacles and conditions that elsewhere paralyze progress and transform intelligent, reasonable, hard-working professionals into strident defenders of mediocrity and failure.

Our catastrophic failure to educate all children in public schools —particularly in the nation’s urban and poor communities—constitute a perpetuation of a permanent underclass. Our history as a nation teaches us that education is the key to social and economic mobility. And everyone knows that it all begins and too often ends with reading.

We know what works. We know how to put effective practices into effect on a school-wide basis and, as the folk in Kennewick have proved, on a community-wide basis. Let’s drop the political rhetoric. Let’s quit the ‘complain and blame’ game.

Let’s embrace changes in school that will lead to positive outcomes downstream in our children’s and our nation’s future.

Let’s do our jobs in school and ensure exactly what the title of the book suggests: “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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5 Responses to Positive Deviance: No More Excuses for Failure – Part II

  1. Another wonderful post from Lou on a vital topic and written in his indomitable style. His voice and the truth he speaks of ring loud and clear. CDC

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thank you Carolyn,! I appreciate so much your’s and John’s support of our journey into the world of social media, and I particularly appreciate your leadership in our field starting apparently when you were only ten–and spanning over 3 decades! Your friendship to our children, and your patient mentorship of so many of us who aspire to leadership in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times sets a standard to which most us us can only aspire.

  2. sandi tadaki says:

    Your enthusiasm and passion are palpable; thanks for sharing!

  3. Bill Keeney says:

    Nicely said, Lou. I am forwarding this to all my colleagues and our school districts, as well.

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