Sunday, January 23, 2011

Being Positive about Positive Deviants

There exists a system where data on performance was not collected regularly. Then, one fine day, a group of practitioners got the go ahead to allow data collection on their performance so long as they remained anonymous. To the surprise of the professionals working in this field, not every entity was a high performing enclave. In fact, the performance of all of these centers rather followed the traditional Bell Curve with a few very poor performers, a whole lot of performers in the median range, and a small band of high performers leading the field. Does this sound like your school district, your grade levels, your group of teachers? In fact, this data was collected on the centers for treatment of Cystic Fibrosis and you can learn all about it in Atul Gawande's excellent book Better.

We come to find out that the medical profession has much in common with the education profession. Sharing data on performance is not as enthusiastically embraced as one might think for a field of scientists. Likewise, getting medical teams to rethink their performance by comparing to those who are getting better results is not so common, and hardly the norm. Gawande says, "What we're not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers".

Imagine for a minute your child has cystic fibrosis and you learn that the children being treated at your child's center lived on an average just over 30 years. Then you find that the children at the most successful centers were living on average to 46. Where would you want your child to be treated?

The good news in Gawande's research is that the center that he highlighted did indeed seek out the highest performing center to observe and learn what strategies, attitudes, and practices they had in place to get such stellar results for their patients. Of course, the journey from mediocre to highly successful is not as easy as making some simple observations, tweaking a few practices and rejoicing at your new found success. There are so many intangibles that are difficult to replicate, much like the art and science of teaching!

So how can we in education take advantage of the Positive Deviants in our field in a way that is respectful of our teachers, yet insistent on learning from those teachers, schools, and districts who are outperforming the rest? Here are a few thoughts from my experience.

1. Be crystal clear about the reason for sharing data. Having landed on a few land mines of my own, I know that the purpose of data comparisons must be made clear and repeated often. It's about the learning.

2. Allow teachers to have input on what data should be compared. You can make a case for a lot of data to be compared that might give a distorted view of end results. Were the classes evenly created at the start of the year? Are there formative data that would contribute to positive end results? Discussion and debate about what data matters is healthy and will lead to a more enthusiastic response to the numbers.

3. Celebrate those who are humbly taking risks to learn from colleagues. Those who are willing to seek out learning from their colleagues need lots of encouragement and praise for their efforts. They are learners who are proving that they are open to any ideas that will help their children learn at higher levels.

If you are interested in seeing the data reports on the Cystic Fibrosis centers across the country they can be found here: *requires free registration I encourage you to compare your local center with the center at Minneapolis, Minnesota.

No comments: