Taking a “Positive Deviant” Approach to Change

By Ben Walker, 2018 Alaska Teacher of the Year

There is a lot of talk about how public education needs to change. I mean A LOT. Sometimes it gets very heated and, often, quite creative. For example, anyone with an Internet connection can venture into an online comments section and learn a whole bunch of new words. As a 12-year public school teacher and the 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year, I agree, to the surprise of many. And I will add that during my time working with other State Teachers of the Year, I can confidently say they also agree public education needs to change. However, we wholeheartedly disagree with how education needs to change and, more importantly, where that change needs to come then.

First of all, the idea of entrenched public education interests, such as teachers and unions, being resistant to change is a myth. Special interests and for-profit educational companies, not to mention those online comment dwellers, use our resistance to mandated, non-vetted change with no known result and paint that as satisfaction with the status quo. I have yet to meet a single educator that thinks they can’t improve or is satisfied with the education every Alaskan student is receiving. Not wanting change at all and wanting to ensure deliberate change that is best for all students are two very different things.

Second, and this is the deliberate part, transformative change of any kind, including in education, must originate and grow from within. This is for a variety of reasons. One, change is difficult and slow. Changing from the inside out can help alleviate both these issues. Two, there are thousands of experts on teaching and learning currently in Alaskan classrooms. So many of these are already making changes on the classroom level to a profound effect. We must harness those innovations and find ways to implement them in other areas. This will not only result in transformative change as we adapt from the ground up, but also increase efficiency from a budget perspective and raise the level of professionalism in our schools as educator-leaders help guide schools through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The world ahead is full of exponential change as technology continues to collide with globalization, laying out the possibility of both closing and widening our gaps and inequities, especially for traditionally marginalized populations. We must start with individual classrooms and look outward, using what works and adapting it to individual populations and place.

There is a term I continually come back to when talking about change in education: “positive deviant.” Positive deviants are situations or people that, in the face of overwhelming negative, deviate and create a positive trajectory. Originally surfacing in research in the 1970’s, the idea was most famously practiced in the field in the 1990’s in Vietnam by Jerry and Monique Sternin. Rural Vietnam had huge struggles with child malnourishment, resulting in widespread health problems and a high mortality rate. Aide organizations had been pumping money into these areas, but with a focus on Western solutions targeting the problem areas alone. The Sternin’s instead started from the inside and found the “positive deviants,” those in the area with similar situations of poverty, but without the problems with childhood hunger and disease. These local solutions were then adapted to other areas, resulting in an 84% reduction in child malnourishment. More importantly, these solutions were sustainable once initial funding and the Sternins had left Vietnam.

We need to take the “positive deviant” approach to education. Not every poor urban school is failing. Not every Alaskan village school is failing. Not every kid is falling prey to the achievement gap or failing to graduate. Not every teacher that comes from the Lower 48 to teach in our villages struggles or leaves at Christmas. In order to solve the problems, we must find the solutions that already exist and work to adapt and scale those solutions to other places. This comes from the ground floor, teachers, students, and communities, and builds up. Not the other way around. We must flip the pyramid of change. Outside interests cannot transform our local schools in any sustainable fashion.

One of the lingering issues in rural and remote Alaska is teacher recruitment, and more importantly, retention. But this is not the case in every single Alaskan community. What is happening in the places where teachers either stay or where, ideally, teachers come from the community? What is different than those with high turnover? Additionally, in our larger cities, not every Title 1 or school with a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch is struggling. We have schools with high poverty that also have high-test scores. Ignoring the limited diagnostic of test scores for the sake of this article, what are these positive deviants doing that can be adapted for similar schools?

When we look at our diagnostics for our education systems, yes, we must look at the negative, but we must also look at the positive. There are great successes and innovations going on all over Alaska. There are thousands of educators willing to implement change from within for the success of our students.

In addition to the hundreds of schools in Alaska, there are even more throughout the world that hold adaptable solutions to many of our most pressing education problems. For example, Canada has made it a priority to work with First Nation stakeholders to increase student achievement and has many successful cases of Western and Indigenous ways of knowing working together as well as producing more First Nation teachers through their teacher preparation programs. As Alaska’s larger cities’ demographics change and reflect many more places in the Lower 48, we have a myriad of positive deviants to study and adapt for our own use.

Change will not be meaningful, much less transformative and sustainable, if it comes from anywhere except the classroom level, especially in a time of tightened budgets. There is no program produced by a for-profit technology or curriculum company that can produce the change a classroom teacher is able to produce when given the respect, agency, and sustained support to do so. The solutions are out there – we just have to invest and work together to find them, for the success of ALL Alaskan kids.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.