The December 2010 issue of The Utah Special Educator focused on the bright spots or positive deviance in Utah schools. Positive deviance is “an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in a community, there are people (Positive Deviants) whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge” (wikipedia.org).
A well-known example of positive deviance occurred in 1990, when Jerry and Monica Sternin took part in the Save the Children project for millions of malnourished children in Vietnam. Rather than seek help from outside experts to solve the problem, they went to the villages in order to discover the positive deviants—those families whose children were healthier than the rest. They then assisted other villages with teaching each other how to use these effective practices with their own children. The project emphasized examining where the problem didn’t happen—the positive deviant moments—and in understanding how that happened, moving the effective practitioners into an awareness of their competence and then working with them to spread their successful practices.
Stern and Choo (2000) wrote: “The traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work…Maybe the problem is with the whole model for how change can actually happen. Maybe the problem is that you can’t import change from the outside in. Instead, you have to find small, successful but ‘deviant’ practices that are already working in the organization and amplify them. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is already alive in the organization—and change comes when you find it.”
A less well-known example of positive deviance is powerfully illustrated by the William Kamkwamba story. In 2002, when William was 14, his poor farming family could no longer afford to send him to school when Malawi was hit with its worst famine in decades. He decided to continue studying on his own, however, and discovered a library book about wind power. Much to the surprise of his friends and neighbors, William began constructing a homemade wind turbine from wood scraps, plastic, and old bicycle parts. But their skepticism quickly turned to wonder when William demonstrated that his contraption could provide enough energy to power lights and radios in his family’s home, when only 2% of Malawi’s residents enjoyed household electricity.
William continued to modify and improve his homespun turbine, which he eventually linked to a series of car batteries to store electricity for his family and their neighbors. When word of his design reached the organizers of the TED Global Conference in Tanzania, they invited him to appear as a guest speaker, which subsequently led to lots of attention. Besides continuing his studies, William has traveled extensively to explore renewable power sources in other parts of the world. (To learn more about the amazing story of William Kamkwamba and his windmill, click here).
Regarding the challenges of initiating and managing positive change in education, Fixsen and Blase (2006) remind us that “we cannot change a whole system at one time, we need to manage the old while creating the new and work to retain the best (of the old) while changing the rest.” Ultimately, the most effective way of embedding and sustaining positive change is to find a way of identifying and promoting positive deviance. The best way the UPDC has found for doing this is by examining the data. The data speak volumes about what district leadership teams, principals, and teachers are doing to achieve positive outcomes for students, particularly students who are most at risk for academic failure.
For example, Park City School District has systematically worked to close the achievement gap between their general student population and students with special needs. The district’s Criterion Reference Test (CRT) data show that students with disabilities and ELL populations are making steady academic progress. Such progress is the result of a strong multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) in each school, principals who understand and fulfill their roles as instructional leaders, and a district leadership team that makes student learning their main focus. (For more information about the Park City School District’s successes in closing the achievement gap, view the recent KSL 5 News report.)
Another example of positive deviance is found in Lewiston Elementary, a Title I school in Cache County School District. Lewiston recently won national recognition for academic achievement. It’s one of about 300 schools in the nation and one of only two schools in Utah that was selected.
The school is located in rural Lewiston. They have an enrollment of about 500 students in grades K through five. Forty-eight percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and about ten percent are English language learners. Despite these conditions, students score well above the state average, and make significant progress every year toward even higher scores. Under the instructional leadership of Adam Baker, principal at Lewiston, teachers and paraprofessionals at the school helped students achieve remarkable results.
Lewiston Elementary is a Utah Multi-Tier System of Supports (also known as ABC-UBI) project graduate. Differentiated, small group instruction; an evidence-based reading curriculum; progress monitoring; parent involvement; and instructional coaching are some of the factors that helped contribute to the school’s success.
Park City School District and Lewiston Elementary School are just two examples of Utah districts and schools that are successfully implementing evidence-based practices that make a difference for all students. The UPDC will continue to identify the many bright spots in Utah districts and schools. We’ve discovered that these professionals have a low regard for the status quo. Their successes make it difficult for others to respond by saying: “That can’t work in Utah public schools,” or “Our school is different than yours,“ or “That won’t work with students in my classroom.” Their passion for improving student outcomes is demonstrated by their relentless focus on implementing effective practices. It’s the kind of deviance worth following.
The articles in the December 2010 issue of The Utah Special Educator promote practices designed to help struggling students achieve. They highlight the many bright spots we see in Utah schools and enable us to find better solutions to the challenges of effectively teaching diverse student populations.
Author: Lowell K. Oswald, Wasatch Front Coordinator, Utah Personnel Development Center (UPDC)
References available upon request from the UPDC.