The Death Knoll for the Bell Curve

In 2004, as a fairly new teacher, I sat in a room and listened to district leaders explain President Bush’s plan to improve education—the now defunct, but then new law—No Child Left Behind.  They put some charts up on a screen and explained that by 2014, 100% of America’s children were expected to reach proficiency in reading and math.

I remember thinking at the time that President Bush was insane and had no clue about mathematics.  Hadn’t he ever heard of the bell curve?  Didn’t he know that it was impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency?

We have always had winners and losers in American schools.  I did not see how just setting a goal for 100% proficiency would be able to change that paradigm or change the ways our schools were operating.  

I left that meeting feeling depressed about the future of education.  I was deeply afraid that pushing for better test scores was not just impossible, but likely to cause extreme damage to the way that schools worked.  I envisioned a narrowing of the curriculum and a move towards “teaching to the test”.  I envisioned shaming of teachers who were working with some of the toughest kids in some of the toughest schools.

Those who have been involved in education since 2004 will know that a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test did indeed occur in many American schools.  In fact, some schools resorted to cheating as a response to high stakes testing.  Many districts cut programs—like art and music—that were not being tested.  Public shaming of teachers happened.  Newspapers published lists of teachers and schools who were not doing well at raising test scores.  

A lot of damage to education was indeed done in the name of No Child Left Behind.

However, something kind of wonderful happened as well.

Teachers started talking more.  We started looking at data in new ways.  We started asking questions about students that weren’t learning.  We started getting more inventive—if our leaders empowered us—and looking beyond the letter of the law.

The professional learning community (PLC) movement became stronger and schools and districts began giving time and resources to enable teachers to work together and get better at the art and science of teaching.

In the 13 years since that day, I have learned a lot about teaching and learning.  I have been training myself in the science of learning—both from a psychological perspective and from a neurological perspective—and I am now ready to throw out my unhelpful story that it is impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency.

I am ready to declare the death knoll for the bell curve.

I now believe that the bell curve is a product of expecting all students to learn at the same rate.  It is a product of expecting that all students can be sorted by age level and are equally ready to learn.  It is a product of expecting that all students in a grade must be studying the same things at the same time.

Although I don’t know of any school or district that has yet achieved a system that has truly killed the bell curve, I know of many (and more joining them every year) that are well on their way towards creating personalized learning systems that harness the natural power of human brains to learn.

I recently discovered Competency Works—an organization that posts daily doses of inspiration about what schools, districts, and entire states around the country are doing to shift the model of American education from a grade-level based (what some have called a factory) model to a personalized model that allows students more “choice and voice” in their learning.

Here is just a brief snippet from a post by Karla Esparza-Phillips and Ace Parsi.

“In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose describes how a faulty belief in the idea of an average student has led to the design of one-size-fits all systems.  Rose state that “there can never be equal opportunity on average.  Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.”

This is the premise of personalized learning—designing systems flexible and responsive enough to address students’ needs as well as build on their strengths and interest, thus recognizing what every parent and teacher has always known—that every child is different.

Our hope is that personalized learning may present the opportunity to flip the traditional model upside down.  Or better yet, put it right side up.”

The work these schools have done to empower teachers, administrators, parents, and students is awe inspiring and fills me with deep wells of hope for public education.

I can now envision a time when American educators have been empowered so much that they are able to give each brain exactly what it needs to learn

I can now envision a time when all students are empowered enough to see themselves as powerful learners who are fully capable of mastery of anything.

I can now envision a time when I no longer hear students saying things like “I hate math.” or “Reading is stupid.”  

I can now envision a time when 100% of students in a school are excellent readers.

I can now envision a time when we shake our heads at people who believed that the bell curve was a reflection of natural intelligence much the same way we shake our heads at people who believed the shapes of our skulls indicated our intellectual potential.


Does Practice Really Work in Schools?

Photo credit Clem Onojeghuo at

I recently clicked on a link to an article in which New Yorker columnist Maria Konnikova wrote about the impact of practice on expert performance.  “Practice matters,” she stated, “but in many fields, it matters much less than you might think.”  She then referenced a 2014 meta-analysis that concluded that deliberate practice did not improve performance in education.

I was stunned.  I worship at the feet of Daniel Coyle and Anders Ericsson.  I preach the power of deliberate practice to students and teachers in reading classrooms across the country.  I have seen the impact of deliberate practice in the rapid increase in reading skills and the improvement of teacher skill over and over in my ten years as a Read Right training consultant.

Yet, I am a believer in science over personal experience.  It is possible I am wrong.  It is possible that deliberate practice does not really improve teacher or student skill.  I determined to open my mind and look deeper.

I clicked on another link in the article and looked into the meta-analysis itself.  The study found that percentage of variance in performance in education that was “explained by deliberate practice” was only 4%.

4%!  Holy Cow!

And that wasn’t the worst of it.

Reading the article, it became clear that what the study meant by education was the relationship between practice and students’ performance—not the relationship between practice and teachers’ performance.

Teachers’ performance was not studied independently but lumped in with other professions. In the professions, the relationship between “deliberate practice” and performance was only 1%!

Another bigger, louder Holy Cow!

Could I be that wrong?  Was my belief in the power of deliberate practice misguided and not based on the science?

I looked a little deeper.  In the study, the authors frequently refer to deliberate practice, but they do not define it the same way that Ericsson does.  They say that deliberate practice is “engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain.”  They do not define it as repeated attempts within someone’s zone of challenge with a focus on finding and fixing mistakes as Ericsson and Coyle do.

There is no attempt to distinguish the type of practice that is actually taking place.  They don’t differentiate the type of practice that typically takes place in schools and the type that takes place when someone is training for a sport or learning a musical instrument.

This is where the “aha moment” happens.

Of course, there is a weak relationship between “practice” and performance in education.  It is still the rare classroom that has students or teachers engage in true deliberate practice.  Our schools are not yet designed for that.

Ericsson states:

“When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do.  Deliberate practice is different.  It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.  Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Deliberate practice is not any practice.  Deliberate practice is not just doing the skill and trying to do it right or even better.  This is the type of practice that mostly happens in our schools.

In schools, teachers usually “practice” by teaching.  Most teachers (contrary to some popular opinion) actively engage in working to get better at the skills of teaching.  They read articles, listen to podcasts, and attend conferences and trainings.  They try new skills and implement new systems.  If they are lucky, they work in professional learning communities and have opportunities to share new ideas and new methods with their colleagues.

But is only the very few—and the very blessed—that actually have the freedom and support to engage in repeated deliberate practice.

The very blessed have the time and freedom to teach the same lesson over and over while engaged in focused inquiry about what is working and what is not working.  They get to attempt-fail-analyze-adjust each lesson until excellence is achieved.

They do this a lot in Japan–it is called jugyokenkyu or “lesson study”.  Japanese teachers work in teams to perfect a teaching method by teaching the same lesson over and over and fixing aspects that are not working.

We don’t really do this in

the United States.

Fortunately, this is changing.  For an example of teachers engaged in true deliberate practice check out the work of the Teaching Channel Sarah Brown Wessling demonstrates how to squeeze every drop of learning from a lesson by revisiting what went wrong multiple times.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the kind of “deliberate practice” that Macnamara et-al included in their study.  This is something more than “engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain.”

In schools, students usually “practice” by doing school work.  Most students start out actively trying to get better at the things they are learning in school.  Some of them are able to maintain a strong focus on learning throughout their school careers.  However, far too many of our students have learned how to “do school”, not how to engage in repeated deliberate practice of the skills that are important to them.

They may engage in deliberate practice outside of school but it is only the very few—who little idea how blessed they are—who engage in repeated deliberate practice that involves doing the same task over and over with feedback until excellence is achieved.

For an example of deliberate practice, check out this video.

Deliberate practice is practice that is specifically designed to engage the learner in his “zone of proximal development”.  It is practice that is challenging for the learner and requires some type of adjustment, some sort of failure before the learner can achieve success, yet which is not so challenging that the learner cannot achieve success with a sufficient number of attempts.

Deliberate practice is practice where the learner pays attention to what they cannot yet accomplish, what is not yet excellent, and tries again and again with the specific intention of achieving excellence.

Deliberate practice is iterative.  It is attempt, fail, analyze, adjust, and try again.  It is not do something once and turn it in for a grade. It is do something, analyze how it could be better, and do it again and again and again until you achieve a reliable ability to do that thing consistently excellently.

Deliberate practice is fierce!  It requires us to face our fears and persevere in the face of embarrassment.  As Daniel Coyle says it requires “…a willingness to feel stupid.  To endure the unique social-emotional burn of repeated clumsiness.”

“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient.  The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment.  There are no shortcuts.  It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.  You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.  Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.”

The Making of an Expert, K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review

Macnamara et-al concluded that Ericsson and his colleagues were wrong in their belief in the power of deliberate practice in education and the professions.

I suspect, however, that their study illuminated something else.

Holy cow we have a long way to go in figuring out how to practice well in schools in the U.S.!

Figuring it out will take bravery, shame resilience, fierceness, collaboration and support.

We will have to be willing to fail—repeatedly—as we invent the kinds of schools and cultures that allow our teachers and our students the time and flexibility to engage in true deliberate practice.

But there are amazing teachers and leaders and students engaged in this work and more and more of us are getting grounded in the science of deliberate practice and calling for learning environments that allow us to iterate and fail until we get it right.