Positively Deviant School Reform?

If you had six months, little to no resources, and a clear mandate to solve a chronic country-wide problem -- knowing that, if you failed, you would be asked to leave that country altogether -- what would you do?

I ask because this was precisely the challenge Save the Children was faced with, in Vietnam, in the early 1990s, and the way they succeeded has great relevance for those of us who continue to struggle with other intractable problems (like, say, comprehensive school reform).

In 1990, two-thirds of Vietnamese children under the age of five were suffering from some degree of malnutrition. A string of typhoons had decimated the country from cultivating its central food staple: rice. Consequently, traditional supplemental feeding programs offered nothing more than a temporary solution.

Under these circumstances, Save the Children (STC) was asked to help Vietnam solve its widening problem of child malnutrition -- and told that the solution could not come from more food, more money, or more resources of any kind: the people were going to have to solve the problem themselves. And if STC couldn't help them figure out how in six months, its visa would not be renewed.

In response, STC decided the first thing it should do was see if any of the country's poorest families had children who weren't malnourished; surely, if there were, something valuable could be learned. As STC's Jerry Sternin explains, "Aid workers visited households, asked questions, and, most importantly, observed how mothers and other family members fed and cared for their well-nourished kids." And as it turned out:

... in every instance where a poor family had a well-nourished child, the mother or father was collecting tiny shrimps or crabs or snails (the size of one joint of one finger) from the rice paddies and adding these to the child's diet, along with the greens from sweet potato tops. Although readily available and free for the taking, the conventional wisdom held these foods to be inappropriate, or even dangerous, for young children.

Other atypical habits emerged. Most families fed their young children twice a day -- in the morning, before they left to work in rice fields, and in the afternoon, after they returned. But because small children have small stomachs, they could only eat so much of the available rice at each sitting. By contrast, the outlier parents had instructed an adult in the house (usually a grandparent or older sibling) to feed their children regularly -- as much as five times a day. As a result, even though every family had the same amount of rice, some children were getting twice as many calories as their friends and neighbors.

Armed with these insights, STC worked to help the parents of the malnourished children change their behavior. Within weeks, the early morning trip to the rice paddy with a small net and empty tin can -- for retrieving the shrimp, crabs and greens -- had become routine. And by the time STC's six months were up, more than 40 percent of the children who participated in the program were rehabilitated; another 20 percent moved from severe malnutrition to moderate malnutrition; and Save the Children received another six-month visa.

What explains STC's remarkable success? A strategy called Positive Deviance (PD) -- or the idea that in every community, there are already individuals and/or groups behaving in a way that engenders better solutions to community-wide problems, despite having access to the same resources.

As the Positive Deviance Institute explains, the PD approach "is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover these successful behaviors and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned." And as Sternin suggests, "because PD is based on the successful behaviors of individuals and groups within the sociocultural context of each program community, it is always, by definition, culturally appropriate. It is very much an 'approach' not a 'model.'"

As someone who cares deeply about American public education, I believe the PD approach could yield great returns for our ongoing reform efforts -- but only if we became clear on what constitutes "positive deviance."

Currently, we celebrate the teachers or schools who demonstrate unusual gains in reading and math scores. But that's like trying to solve malnutrition by focusing on whether children eat out of bowls or on a plate; it's related to the goal, but only indirectly.

What, then, is the central goal of American school reform? I would suggest it's creating a system that is capable of supporting the development and growth -- cognitively, socially, emotionally, and ethically -- of every child. And if that is our goal, then our examples of positive deviance must come from schools and communities that, despite limited resources, are helping children develop and grow.

That means no private schools -- and it means no highly unique, highly expensive models like the Harlem Children's Zone. It probably also needs to mean only public schools that do not screen for certain types of students -- so, no magnets, either.

So who fits the bill? For districts that are reorienting themselves around the personalized needs of every student, we might want to spend more time looking at what RSU2 is doing in Maine, or what superintendent Pam Moran has helped engineer in Albemarle County, Virginia. For individual schools that are attuned to the holistic developmental needs of kids, we can look to Malcolm Price Lab School in Iowa, or The Project School in Indiana. And for networks that help their members focus on the right combination of inputs and outcomes for kids, we should study Expeditionary Learning, New Tech Network, and James Comer's School Development Program.

There are, in other words, lots of examples of positive deviance in our current system -- and lots of places that are refusing to be limited by the current myopic definition of what constitutes success. And while none of these places are perfect, together, their examples of positive deviance just might add up to the perfect plan for American public education going forward.