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.”

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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.

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Psychology Gets It Wrong… This Time

Last week’s New York Times editorial titled “Ritalin Gone Wrong” by Professor L. Alan Sroufe illustrates a troubling and recurring trend in American psychology: In the absence of clear evidence and research-based data, mothers and the environment are repeatedly blamed for whatever problems surface in children.

Professor Sroufe notes the significant increase in the use of stimulant medications to treat what he calls “troubled children” and questions the effectiveness of – as well as our growing reliance upon – pharmacological treatment.

Those of us who have actually worked with children in the classroom and have lived with children in our homes know that there is indeed a real condition, a set of “traits” as Dr. Ned Hallowell calls them, called ADD/ADHD. While it may be mislabeled (I don’t think of it as a deficit) and quite often misunderstood (children with the condition are often seen as willful and disruptive in class), it is real… and it is indeed disruptive to children’s learning and functioning.

Those of us who work with children everyday understand that solutions to complex problems are usually not simple and not easy.

Professor Sroufe uses the example of childhood diabetes:

“Back in the 1960’s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs…”

Professor Sroufe then goes on to mischaracterize and misinterpret the research regarding the use of stimulant medications in the treatment of ADHD.

Here at Lawrence School where we specifically serve children who have learning differences and challenges focusing attention, we find that about one third of our students have a diagnosis of ADHD – and often these children are well served by a combination of medicine and effective programs (at school and at home) to support the development of time management, organizational and executive skills.

We would agree that there is no pill that will completely treat the symptoms of ADHD – just as most physicians would not propose that insulin alone is a “cure” for diabetes. Good therapy in many medical situations relies on both medicine and treatment programs to support good habits that, together with medical treatments, achieve positive results and outcomes.

Recently, Dr. Ned Hallowell spoke to parents at Lawrence. He compared the use of eye glasses to correct near-sightedness to the use of stimulant medication to treat ADD. He noted that neither eyeglasses nor Ritalin are cures for the underlying conditions – but both can be extremely effective at mitigating symptoms.

Noted local child psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Grcevich wrote a response to Dr. Sroufe, which we link to here.

Finally, what troubles me deeply is not that Professor Sroufe might question the data supporting stimulant medications to treat ADHD, but that he could be so indifferent to his own supposed standard of research by casually suggesting that the real cause of attention challenges in children comes from “family stresses like domestic violence, lack of social support from friends and relatives, chaotic living situations including frequent moves and, especially, patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared.”

This is an example of psychology gone wrong.

I invite Professor Sroufe to our school to meet some of the families and children he so off-handedly dismisses with conclusions that have no basis in research.

After meeting these families, I would defy him to not come to very different, positive conclusions not only about these children—but about the indefatigable, knowledgeable, and caring parents who support them.

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A Tribute to Parents – and to My Mother, Lillian, ‘Buon Natale!’

There are many wonderful events in an independent school community that make our work on behalf of children inspiring and fun. One of my favorite “perks” is the time I get to spend talking with parents and grandparents. Two such recent opportunities to connect and socialize with parents came through the ‘Living Room Chats’ series we hold each fall. Hosted by Lawrence parents, each ‘Chat’ provides groups of between 12-30 parents an opportunity to engage in informal discussion about our most important mutual concern—the children of Lawrence School.

The truth is, this entire sector of what is referred to as “special education” – and most of the three hundred plus special-purpose independent schools across the country that work with children who have learning differences  – was founded, propelled or sustained by parents.  They were parents who watched their children enter first grade with high hopes and expectations, only to have dreams dashed and spirits discouraged by experiences in school. They were parents who knew that there needed to be more options for our children than the one-size-fits-all general education curriculum found in most public, private and parochial schools.

Back in the ‘60s, it was parents who started the first special purpose independent schools. It was parents who lobbied educators and psychologists, parents who pushed pediatricians and legislators, and parents who raised money to start after-school and summertime tutorial services.

In the ‘70s, parents were the ones who finally beat down the doors of lawmakers in Washington D.C., and passed the first version of Public Law 94-142, now called IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This legislation was influenced by several state Departments of Education which, in turn, were influenced by strong parent advocacy groups often associated with independent schools offering tutorial services, summer programs, and alternative year-round programs to smart kids who were underachieving and dropping out of their local schools.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were only a handful of independent schools for students with learning differences like dyslexia and ADD. By the middle ‘90s, there were about 200 such schools, and now there are over 300. Indeed, special purpose schools for students with learning differences and twice-exceptional students (high IQ but low achievement) are the third fastest growing sector of the educational industry, just behind home schooling and charter schools.

In 2004, the International Dyslexia Association published a special theme journal about private LD schools and their founders, noting the extraordinary impact this small group of schools has had on public education in the United States. I, in turn, would give the credit for this high impact to the parents – particularly moms – who were the inspiration, perspiration and motivation behind this phenomenon.

So, I began our recent living room chats with a shout out to parents—with an expression of gratitude to moms who, in the process of trying to solve the problems their own children encountered trying to learn to read in the public schools, kept knocking on doors, asking questions, and requesting help. These moms did not stop until they pushed or kicked open doors all the way from the local public school principal’s office to the offices of state and national legislators.

My interest in this movement is not exclusively professional – I have personal skin in this game! While I was at the University of Massachusetts in the early ‘70s my parents were struggling to understand why my youngest brother, Adio (13 years younger than I) was unable to learn to read in the primary grades. He was having difficulties with every aspect of school from focusing attention to reading and spelling. Yet he was clearly an intelligent, highly verbal and very funny kid going to a well-funded, “good” suburban public school.

My parents, Lou and Lillian, grew up in large Italian immigrant families in Boston. Both left school to go to work and help support their families. My father was a blue collar factory foreman and amateur boxer but it was my mom, armed with only a 9th grade education and a fierce determination to get the right opportunities for my little brother, who took the lead in meeting with teachers and school administrators. When those meetings proved ineffectual, she moved on to town hall and then the state house.

Lillian was relentless. She secured placement for my brother at the Landmark School for children with dyslexia, north of Boston, where he was finally able to learn to read and write. He graduated high school (the only expectation ever levied on me and my brothers by our parents), gave college a try for a semester, left, and started working in the building trades.  He is now married with three sons.

Curious about the curriculum and methods used at schools like Landmark, I followed my brother there after teaching two years in Philadelphia Public Schools. I took training and a teaching position there in 1975, beginning a journey of personal and professional discovery that continues to this day here in northeast Ohio at Lawrence School.

I am inspired by, and grateful to our parents, my own and those I meet daily in my work. Their courage and tenacity gave birth to an entire educational industry that now addresses the needs of different learners in public, charter and independent schools.  Over the last three decades we have learned so much about how to educate and support our children who struggle with learning differences.

In a remarkable book, Rethinking Learning Disabilities: Understanding Children Who Struggle in School, clinician and author Deborah Waber cites some fascinating longitudinal research regarding outcomes for children who were referred during childhood for special education programs. She concludes:

“Children are most distressed by their learning disabilities in the early years of school. As time goes on… especially after they leave school – learning issues are of less concern.” (p. 85)

The ability of children to successfully adapt is driven by three important factors: supportive parents, school environments where children are not harmed emotionally by the response to the learning challenges they face, and positive personal qualities (adequate social skills, perseverance, and self awareness). Academic skills are only one part of the picture. These other factors – that are often overlooked – are just as important as we help our children develop the resilience and strength they will need to make their way towards their rightful place in the future.

In her book, Waber also reviews a now-famous study on risk and resilience: Resilience and Recovery: Findings From the Kauai Longitudinal Study.  The study followed 698 children with risk factors such as learning disabilities and poverty on the island of Kauai in Hawaii from their birth in 1955 to their 40th birthday. The main lesson from the study is that life after these children leave school is much better than their lives were during school:

Children whose skill set may be ill adapted to the very narrow and specific academic requirements of school can be well adapted as adults for the more diverse world of work, if they can identify their niche. Yet school can be so discouraging, at times irrelevant, and blind to their assets that it can take many years for them to recover a sense of self efficacy and find their way.” (p. 82)

At Lawrence we are proud that our seniors graduate and matriculate at rates that are comparable to competitive private and public schools in our region and nation. So it should be for all children with learning differences—indeed all children who are considered at risk for school failure. And we are proud of those students who, like my brother Adio, decide not to continue the battle in higher education but to instead pursue vocations and develop skills and career interests aligned with their strengths and affinities – an asset often ignored by our singular focus on academics in school.

As we light the candles and lights of the holiday season I reflect with gratitude and pride on the dedication and love of the parents I meet in my work at Lawrence. They, like my mother Lillian, provide the care, courage and commitment at home to their children that we build on every day at school. I thank all the parents, relatives and friends who sacrifice and struggle to understand, support and nurture their children, often prevailing against long odds. At Lawrence we thrive on the energy and light our parents provide. We know from our work that it is their support and love that will make our work more effective and make such a difference in the lives of children.

Lillian is 91 now and lives in a nursing home in East Boston operated by the Archdiocese of Boston. Her memory dims but her spirit burns brightly. She lights candles at Mass everyday for my father and the friends and family she has lost – and for my two brothers and me who she has never stopped worrying about (in my case with good reason)!

Let us follow Lillian’s example and the example of the parents I am so honored to meet in my work at school and keep the lamps of learning burning in every room in our homes and in every classroom, research clinic and office we can influence. Let’s ignite our children’s potential – just like it says in the Lawrence mission statement – and let’s work together to expand the circles of light we are so privileged to tend on behalf of children who learn differently.

Happy holidays and best wishes to us all in the New Year!


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Cheating: What Students with Learning Differences Teach Us about Learning Indifference

Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.  ~Henry David Thoreau

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.   ~ Lloyd Alexander

There’s a memorable scene in the movie Casablanca when the local constable, Captain Renault (played by Claude Reins) comes into Rick’s (played by Humphrey Bogart) Club, and closes him down:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I’m shocked!! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much!
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

The news recently of the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public School District brought this scene to mind. School officials there had to confront the possibility that student answer forms were changed allegedly because teacher bonuses there are tied to student test performance.

And, last April, ABC news published this story about a professor at Hunter College who found out that several of his college history students plagiarized the same elementary school web site in their required papers for his class.

Mary, a college student quoted in the ABC News Primetime special referenced above defends plagiarizing, cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty by indicting the educational ‘system’:

 “A lot of people think it’s like you’re not really there to learn anything. You’re just learning to learn the system.”

What exactly is the nature of this ‘system’ that Mary and her peers are trying to learn?? How has this system influenced what students at Hunter College and teachers in Atlanta think and do in school?

As a Head serving in a school for students who learn differently, I would like to take this opportunity to examine this topic of cheating.  My guess is that we are all taken aback and confused by stories like these.  It might help to get a wider-angle perspective on what is going on in our schools – and how the educational environment itself can often foster the very behavior it strives to prevent.

In the interest of full disclosure, the ‘normal’ school experience simply fails to engage or honor the students we work with every day at Lawrence.  Our students have learning differences. We are therefore required to think and teach differently. Our students for the most part are very much like other kids in school everywhere, but they need a highly structured and systematic approach to learning literacy, math and other academic skills.

If you want to marginalize these students, think again.  The children we work with who are being failed by our general education venues prove to be bright, successful, entrepreneurial adults once they escape the bonds of the classroom.

While our students at Lawrence can accurately be described as struggling with a learning difference, I suspect that one explanation for the cheating being reported in schools is that our students and teachers in many places have surrendered to learning indifference.

Several years ago a math teacher brought a group of five boys to my office. They had been caught copying each other’s answers to an algebra homework assignment in the boys’ room before class.

The cheating distressed him and me for different reasons.  He was understandably upset with the choices the kids made to avoid completing the assignment.  I shared his concern about the boys’ behavior, but I wasn’t willing to impose swift, severe discipline without first looking at how our practice may have unwittingly encouraged this behavior—or at the very least made it an attractive, allowable alternative.

A problem can be a kind of gift that needs to be unwrapped carefully. There are problems that solve us (as Robert Keagan says), and it struck me that this issue of boys copying answers might have surfaced systemic issues that offered us an opportunity to improve teaching and learning.

What did the boys behaviors indicate about what they thought was important in math class, and in our school?

How did our approach to homework contribute to the choices these boys made?

What could we do to steer them more definitively in the direction of behaviors that were aligned with our mission to make them life-long, insightful learners?

“What was the assignment,” I asked?

“Give answers to problems one through thirty odd at the end of the chapter on slope,” was the response.

As we talked about how to respond to the boys, I thought about my own experience in algebra class—I think I got the exact same assignment in a different algebra text book in 1964!

If the assignment is to come up with a piece of paper with 15 answers—without really proving in any authentic way that the material was mastered—it becomes an easy assignment to minimize. Or, as in this particular case, avoid altogether either by simply not doing the work, or by cutting corners.

This teacher was a wonderful man who was very dedicated to his work. While he had teaching experience in other schools, he was relatively new in our school. Perhaps like most math teachers he was trained to demonstrate problems on the board for the class, and then assign problems for homework.  The homework problems were discussed in the next class after the students’ papers were collected. He was a caring, thoughtful teacher who went out of his way to change explanations when necessary and give plenty of time and one-on-one support when students had difficulties. His own commitment seemed to make the behavior of the boys even more painful than it might ordinarily be.

This prompted me to ask the question:  Is it possible tocome up with a homework assignment that is cheat-proof?

It was not difficult.

After some discussion, we came up with a plan: Instead of the teacher going over the problems on the board after he assigned the homework, we determined that he would ask students in class to form cooperative groups.  Each group would be responsible to solve several problems using the models in the text, each other, and the teacher when they got stuck. Each student would be required to demonstrate the solution to one of the problems the group got to solve, plus one that they would be randomly assigned at the end of the week. They would be responsible to present in their groups first, and then go to the board and lead the class discussion and the solution to the problems. If they could not satisfactorily demonstrate mastery of the concept and the work required to solve the problem, they would be required to attend an after school study session with the teacher to have more intensive review until the assignment could be completed satisfactorily.

The homework now was to learn how to solve the slope problems and prepare to present solutions to the class.  They could prepare any way they wanted—they could talk with older siblings or parents, discuss with their peers in study hall, or even talk to each other in the restroom if convenient!

The lesson here is that if we make school and homework about learning, and demonstrating what we learn, there is no way to take a short cut. You can’t easily find a way to cheat.  Not only that, this approach fostered cooperation and collaboration. Unfortunately, collaboration, which is highly prized in the marketplace, is called “cheating” in school.

Before anyone points a finger at Atlanta, or college students who copy someone else’s writing, or the boys who share homework answers to algebra homework, let’s hold up a mirror and acknowledge what has happened in our schools over the past two decades. Let’s talk honestly about who cheats and who gets cheated in our nation’s schools and colleges.

Have we not rigged the system to encourage students and teachers to take short cuts? Have we spent so much time and energy preparing kids to take tests that we have forgotten what teaching and learning actually requires?

Tests and grading systems now emphasize recognition over cognition, memorization over problem solving, and individual, isolated student work over team work and collaboration. When we quiz students and grade them on material they memorize for a short period of time—without an opportunity to discuss and use it with others or apply it thoughtfully to new circumstances—we confuse ‘memory’ with ‘knowledge.’

When educational practice settles for memorized facts over application and problem solving, students shift into the mode Mary described in the ABC Special.  Students focus on surviving a system of binging and purging information—what Dr. Mel Levine called ‘informational bulimia and intellectual anorexia.’   It becomes possible to cheat in such circumstances perhaps because everyone involved perhaps feels cheated by the experience.

And how do we define cheating?

And who is really cheating who?

In the State of Ohio, for example, only 32-36% of all the students in the 4th and 8th grades score at or above proficiency levels in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—often referred to as the nation’ s report card. Similar scores are seen across the nation, elevating this failure to a public health emergency as well as an enduring national disgrace.

We are cheating all the children who fall below proficiency levels, and maybe even those who reach proficiency levels.  We cheat our children when we do anything that sells them short.

Our failure rates cheat our children, cheat our communities, and cheat our nation by allowing schools to fail the most basic and fundamental obligations to teach children effectively in classrooms.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated, “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the people . . . [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

Philosophers and leaders from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey to Martin Luther King have admonished that the preservation of democratic institutions require knowledgeable and virtuous citizens educated in schools that serve every sector of the populace.

The cheating we should really be worried about and outraged by is not happening in Atlanta schools, or in Hunter College history classes, or in high school bathrooms where boys share answers to homework questions. It is happening in federal and state legislatures and local budget offices where policy that influences what happens in our schools is determined.

We made this problem and we can fix it. There are now several examples of schools and educational models that have succeeded in the same conditions that others use to excuse and rationalize failure.  I will be celebrating what these schools have learned about effective programming for at-risk learners in future blogs.

For now, I think we should all be shocked. Shocked that ‘business as usual’ continues in schools that are failing our children.

Where is Claude Reins when we need him?

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Learning Substance… Not Learning Style

More matter, less art. (Gertrude to Polonius in Hamlet)

Welcome to the new school year! I am thrilled to see students arriving at school early in the morning, and I am comforted by the sounds of teaching and learning activity that spill out of each classroom into the hallways and commons areas.

My walks around both schools reassure me that teaching and learning are alive and well at Lawrence School. Our teachers are engaging, enthusiastic, energetic and expert.  The environment they create in their classrooms and on the playing fields support students and simultaneously challenge them to keep them moving and growing.

At Lawrence School, all of our students have learning differences. Their approaches to learning may vary greatly from one student to the next, but they share one very significant experience: in prior school experiences they were not well-served by the ‘one size fits all’ approach promoted in most general education environments.

The Lawrence mission statement pinpoints what we do every day, which is to teach students who have distinct learning styles, ignite their potential and inspire academic and social success.

Interestingly, this week, National Public Radio carried a piece on Learning Styles. While I missed the original broadcast, a friend and colleague sent it along and asked “Lou, what’s your take on this?”


The piece questions the existence of “learning styles” which identify children as ‘auditory ‘or ‘visual’ learners. The reporter quotes psychologists who state there is no scientific evidence that some of us favor one sensory system over another when we are learning new information.

As parents, instructors, and those invested in the community of learning differences education, we may feel threatened by this kind of report—and we might even be tempted to get a tad defensive.

Does this report mean we got our mission at Lawrence School wrong???

Wait! We know our kids and we know they learn differently!  However, there is truth to the claims that historically in all schools we have not based enough of our educational practice on evidenced-based research.

Education is often prone to lunge in the direction of fads – particularly in the reading education arena.  Debates about how to improve reading skills in children with dyslexia, for example, over the last thirty years tell a discomforting story of our need to find quick fixes and easy answers. Controversies often fueled by media attention have included impassioned considerations of tinted lenses, antihistamines, visual training, blue-green algae, balance beams, vestibular stimulation and a host of other supposed “cures” for dyslexia.

Most recently there has been a rush to generalize findings of  brain researchers who use fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonating Imaging) that provide scans of our brains as we try to accomplish specific tasks. While we can now generate a clear picture of our brains in action, we do not have clear understanding of how the findings of laboratory research apply to classrooms.

“So Lou,” you might ask, “what do we actually know from research that we might apply in our classrooms serving students who have failed to learn in other general education venues?”

Thanks for asking!

We have known for decades that students identified as struggling readers have weak memory and retrieval skills for letters and sounds regardless of whether the information is auditory or visual.  More often than not, these students also demonstrate delays for processing and production of oral and written language which compromise participation and production in class.  About a third have associated difficulties maintaining focus and attention.

(For more information and research regarding the role of memory and retrieval in reading skills acquisition, look up Charles Perfetti. For information and research on the role of attention, look up Russell Barkley. Or see the video links in the “Links and Resources” section of my sidebar).

Children who are identified with these learning differences are known to be a widely heterogeneous group—that is they differ markedly from one another in the ways they learn differently. But they all have some sort of underlying processing challenge that does not compromise intelligence, but does cause a failure to thrive in school.  We can call the resulting differences whatever we might agree to call them… challenges, processing delays, or styles. But however we name them, it is our obligation to create learning environments, classrooms and curriculum that teach to our students’ particular needs.

At Lawrence we refer to our students as having ‘distinctive learning styles’ because it is respectful, it draws no negative assumptions, and – most importantly – it promotes the thought that distinctive teaching addresses distinctive learners.

What we have known for decades is that teachers need to offer all students in every class a variety of presentations in order for them acquire new skills and remember information. Children who struggle with reading, who have language or other information processing differences or delays, need to interact with information multiple times in a variety of ways in order to move concepts and skills from short-term memory into long-term memory.

The attached is from a presentation I gave at NAIS several years ago and have used in my talks about how to make secondary education classrooms more ‘user friendly’. The lesson of the data is clear: just by combining various presentation modes, retention is significantly enhanced – not only for children with learning differences, but for all kids.  For example when we simply read something silently, then discuss what we have read, we retain 60% more of the information compared to situations in which we only read. This might explain the popularity of book groups!  The neat thing is that applying this research to a classroom costs nothing, is already in a teacher’s tool box, and can significantly enhance learning for all brains–even the kind I have!

We don’t teach this way because one child is a “visual” learner and another is an “auditory” learner.  We do this because we are all learners whose brains use both visual and auditory sensory information all the time.

So, I agree – the NPR story has it right regarding the research on brains not having a particular visual or auditory “style”.

And I remain steadfast in my belief that the challenge we all face in education and the mission we embrace at Lawrence is to help all the children in a classroom learn by providing sufficient variety in the way information is presented and practiced to keep learners excited and engaged.

For more information on brain research and how it might impact curriculum design, see the two recommendations below.

I welcome your comments below or feel free to e-mail me directly with your thoughts at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org.  Here’s to a great school year! Let the games begin!



Here are two books that have helped me to understand how the brain works and what it might mean for teaching and learning:

A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain

By Dr. John Ratey

Dr. John Ratey co authored Driven to Distraction with Ned Hallowell. He is an expert on ADHD and in this book he provides  instructive, accessible metaphors about brain function. Ratey notes that brains are especially sensitive to changes in our environment. The typical or ordinary will be quickly ignored in favor of the unusual or strange. So, to pique attention in our classrooms and maintain students’ focus, we need to keep the environment in a constant state of flow and change – but at the same time provide structure. We need to challenge ourselves to find different ways to review and revisit information and apply learned information in new contexts – all the things effective teachers do in any classroom, in any school, to hold students’ attention.

The Art of Changing The Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

By James Ellwood Zull

Professor Zull is right here at CWRU and his work in the area of brain research as it impacts practices in the classroom is meticulous and readable for parents and teachers. Zull’s work is exciting because it proves that the brain grows new neurons and is capable of making new connections all through the life span. New skills promote new brain development.  This is a most welcome message at my chronologically gifted stage of life!

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Where are We? (aka, “Dad, are We There Yet?”)

Much is being written and discussed about what and how to use assessments in our schools.  It is now the subject of movies as well as discussions about how to reform education.

What follows is one example of how a thoughtful group of administrators and teachers answered the most important questions about students’ progress in a school for at-risk learners:

At what level in reading, math and writing skill is each one of our students performing? Is our instruction helping them? How do we know? And how far have they come since they started with us? How does each student compare to a standardized sample in their age and grade group?

Below, Bill Musolf, Lower School Dean of Students for Lawrence School, explains how we answer those questions – and why we ask them in the first place.

Thank you, Bill, for the clear and thoughtful explanation of formative and summative assessment.



Where are We?  (aka, “Dad, are We There Yet?”)

Let’s say you needed to take a week long trip from Seattle to New York.  Once started, you might begin to wonder:

“Am I heading in the right direction?”

“Am I making good time?”

“Will I arrive in New York?”

To answer those questions you will need to evaluate your progress. To do that you need to know where you are staring from, how quickly you move, and you must have some way of determining when you reach your destination.

There are mainly two forms of evaluation, summative and formative.

Summative evaluation occurs at the end, after a task is finished.  It helps answer the question of, “Did we get where we wanted to go?” In the trip example above, it would be the equivalent of driving for a week (without looking at a map or road signs), getting out of the car and then asking someone, “Where am I?”

What if when you left Seattle you went north instead of east?  You likely ended up in Anchorage, Alaska instead of anywhere near New York.  Although a summative evaluation is helpful, it does not always allow for a timely readjusting of the route. It can answer the question, “Am I in New York?” but if the answer is “No” it does not allow for course correction or rerouting.  The evaluation occurred too late, at the end of the trip –and thus, time is up and routing adjustments not possible.

At Lawrence School, a school for students who learn differently, we use the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (Third Edition) as a summative evaluation.  At the end of the year, each student in grades 1-8  takes the WJ-III.  Results are compiled, given to parents, and help answer the question of “Where are we right now?” academically.

Very good information but… what if the results of the WJ-III are not as positive and significant growth was not made?  Since it is given at the end of the year, there is no time to make curriculum adjustments. We may have journeyed, but we did not end up at our anticipated location.

As opposed to summative evaluation, Progress Monitoring allows us to measure progress as we go, allowing plenty of opportunity for adjustments.  Progress Monitoring is a formative evaluation that helps answer the question, “Are we heading in the right direction, at the right speed?”  It is an ongoing ‘in progress’ assessment, and is performed on a weekly basis here at Lawrence School.

Using our trip analogy, it would be the equivalent of using a map and watch.  Every four hours on the trip, the map and watch are used to plot where you are on the route.  It also helps you know if you would reach your destination.  The benefit of formative evaluation is that it offers feedback in a timely way that allows modification to the route. Or, in education terms, modification to the instruction to more efficiently benefit the student’s learning.

Progress Monitoring at Lawrence School has been designed to capture students’ growth in reading and writing skills, as well math facts, by measuring fluency in these areas.  Please note that there are many other ways we monitor academic growth (daily teacher observation, in-class assignments, reviews, mastered homework, mid-year reports, end-year reports, and – as mentioned above – Woodcock Johnson Achievement testing).  Progress Monitoring simply captures one aspect of a student’s academic profile – fluency.

Fluency (speed + accuracy) can be measured by evaluating how quickly and accurately a student can perform a task. A student’s speed increases gradually as skill and proficiency improves.  It can be measured over time and improvement in speed can be interpreted as progress.  Essentially, fluency measures how easily something can be done. Fluency frees attention to perform more difficult tasks.

For example, if a student spends considerable attention and mental energy recognizing and pronouncing words when reading, their comprehension is likely to suffer.  Similarly, if a student spends a lot of time trying to remember basic math facts, there may be confusion or simple errors when trying to apply math in story problems or real world contexts.  Lastly, if a student struggles with handwriting and spelling as they get their thoughts down on paper, they may lose their idea and not be able to communicate.

Here is a simple description of the three areas (reading, math, writing) in which formative evaluation informs instruction at Lawrence:

Reading Fluency is simply the number of words read correctly within a minute from a passage.  We are using a system already developed through the University of Oregon.  It is called DIBELS and stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.

Math Fluency is simply the number of basic math facts in a specific computation area (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) a student can correctly perform in a minute.

Writing Fluency measures the total number of words written as well as how often a student can pair two words consecutively that convey meaning and are spelled correctly.  The student is given a writing prompt, 30 seconds to brainstorm, and three minutes to write.

Evaluation requires courage.  What if the results are not favorable?  Then more difficult questions arise:

“What are we doing that is not working?”

“What do we need to do differently?”

But remember, it is critical to answer those questions well before the end of a school year, so we have time to adjust curriculum or approach. Our goal is to help each one of our students make the most progress they can, as quickly as they can.

And that is a trip well worth taking.

Bill Musolf
Dean of Students
Lawrence School – Lower

Leave a comment below or e-mail the author at bmusolf@lawrenceschool.org

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