The Windward School’s Mission
In his most recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell contends that the extraordinarily successful individuals he studied did not reach their level of achievement by pure merit. He posits that “the outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.”
In one of his case studies, he cites the fact that Bill Gates just happened to be born at the best possible time to take part in the technology boom. Gladwell also refers to the early advantage that Gates had when his parents took him out of public school and, at the beginning of seventh grade, sent to him to Lakeside, an independent school in Seattle. Lakeside happened to have a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer, a resource that even most colleges did not have at the time. As a result of this serendipitous situation, Bill Gates had the opportunity to do real-time programming as an eighth grader in 1968. Gates made the most of this “arbitrary advantage” and his success is now legendary. Gladwell’s thesis has serious implications for educational institutions like Windward, where admission to the school can be the difference between educational success and failure. Like Bill Gates, Windward students take full advantage of the opportunity they have been given.
Part of Windward’s unique mission is to return students to the mainstream as soon as they are ready. Research conducted at the University of Oregon indicates that students scoring in the lowest 20 percent on a standardized reading test should be considered at risk for poor reading and language outcomes, and those scoring between the 20th percentile and 40th percentile (“below average”) should be considered at some risk of not achieving literacy benchmarks. At the end of the 2008 school year, 122 Windward students returned to public and independent schools. When these students first entered Windward, their performance on standardized reading tests put 34% of them at risk of not achieving the literacy benchmarks. Over 60% were at some risk of not succeeding in reading. Simply stated, the research indicated that over 70 of these 122 students were at some risk of not achieving the all-important literacy benchmarks.
In spite of this dire prediction, the teaching methods employed at Windward allowed these children to make huge strides in reading as demonstrated by the School’s annual end-of-year cohort analysis of the performance of students who are leaving the school. When the 2008 cohort was tested, 89% of the students scored in the “average to above average” range in vocabulary and 90% scored in the same range for comprehension. This dramatic change in performance is not limited to a single cohort. An analysis of each of the cohorts that have left Windward over the past four years (2005-2008) indicates consistently excellent performance with 86% (408/476) of the students scoring in the “average to above average” range in vocabulary and 90% (430/476) scoring in the” average to above average” range in comprehension.
In addition, Windward continues to monitor our students’ progress once they have returned to mainstream schools. When a student has been at a new school for at least two years, administrators and guidance counselors are asked to complete a survey evaluating their performance. The most recent survey was sent to schools where former Windward students were enrolled during 2004-2006. Approximately half of these students attended independent schools after leaving Windward and half went on to public schools. Results indicate that 94% of the Windward graduates are performing academically at or above the average of their grade level peers.
Unfortunately, while Windward students are making the most of what Gladwell might call an “arbitrary advantage,” other equally deserving students do not get this opportunity. In this edition of The Beacon, Dr. Maryanne Wolf describes her own experience trying to find a school for her dyslexic son, Ben. This was a frustrating search spanning sixteen years and eight schools because she “…knew the long difficult road Ben faced in an educational system ill-prepared to meet his needs.” Gladwell’s work and Dr. Wolf’s experience with her son reinforce the need to provide more students with the advantage that direct instruction in a structured language program provides. Through its outreach efforts and the Teacher Training Institute, Windward is committed to making the “utterly arbitrary advantage” of research-based instruction the norm for all students rather than the rare exception that it is today. #