Positive Deviance to improve high school education

As this mobius-cut bagel shows, there are two ways to bisect a bagel into identical halves. It is just that our formal education all-but eradicates one’s ability to see things differently.

Fixing High School Education:

This is a tale of two findings about similar methods (teacher training) used to tackle the same problem (poor student scores) but produced opposite results. The first study asked: Do more educated teachers have better performing students on standardized tests? One would hope that if a group of teachers with bachelors degrees went head-to-head with teachers who had a masters in education, that the teachers with an additional two years of advanced study in the very subject at the heart of their work – education – would be able to raise their students’ test scores. Many school districts subsidize continuing education for teachers predicated on the assumption that it does.

But in Australia, a study of 10,000 teachers and 90,000 pupils found that a Master’s Degree made no difference, and that having 1, 2, or 3 years of total experience did. But after 3 years, good teachers remained good and poor teachers remained bad.

The second approach used a method called positive deviance to improve each failing school in Chattanooga’s school district from within. Every school has a teacher that does a little better than his or her peers. Once identified, each school can move and improve the herd of average teachers by coordinating schedules so that they can see and learn from the good one. Because self-improvement is self-initiated, and lessons are gleamed from a friend and colleague, they tend to get adopted and stick. Here are excerpts from a transcript of a Public Radio Works documentary:

Instead of building up a new teaching staff, their task was to take the teachers they already had, and figure out how to make them much, much better. Dan Challener says they began by going back to that first “aha” moment they had when looking at the data.
There were outstanding teachers in every one of these schools.

For a lot of teachers today, they’re pretty much on their own. But not at the Benwood Schools in Chattanooga. In every school now there are two lead teachers.

Joe Curtis is the lead teacher at his school. He spends the morning teaching his own class. School officials decided this would give lead teachers more credibility as mentors — if they spent part of their day teaching. Then in the afternoon, Mr. Curtis visits his colleagues – observes them in their classrooms, gives them feedback. Today he’s helping a new teacher plan a lesson that they’re going to teach together….
This is what the people involved with the Benwood Initiative have learned. Instead of coming up with a checklist of things that teachers should do, they want teachers to focus on whether their students are learning. If not, go watch a colleague whose students are learning, get advice from a lead teacher, meet in teams to come up with better lessons.

Researchers at Education Sector looked at how much teachers in the Benwood Schools were raising their student test scores. What they found is that before the Benwood Initiative began, teachers in the Benwood schools were far less effective at raising student test scores than teachers at other schools in the district. But six years after the Benwood Initiative began, the Benwood teachers were more effective than other teachers in the district. And this was mostly the same teachers. Two-thirds of the teachers who were fired got their jobs back. The Education Sector report concludes that what happened in the Benwood schools shows that teacher effectiveness is not a “fixed” trait. Teachers can – and did – get better.

Before the Benwood Initiative began, only about half the students were passing state tests in reading and language arts. Five years later, more than 80 percent were.


So in two examples where teacher training was used to boost test scores, a master’s degree was ineffective, but turning good teachers (the positive deviants) into facilitators made a big difference. This is a success story for positive deviance, but even more of an indictment of university “Masters of Education” programs. Two years of university education does not provide teachers with a single skill to make them better teachers.

Other ideas in the aether:

Teacher bonuses do not affect student test scores:

Can a peppermint improve test scores?

Board certified teachers are no better at raising test scores:

Improving test scores by getting students more involved in community work:

[My proposed social prosperity-based hypothesis: Look for research that asks whether teachers with stronger relationships to students and/or parents raise student test scores. Once again, it may not be money or ideas or education or power, but relationships that trump – because personal relationships are closely tied to performance incentives.]

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