Transcript of the episode “Changing school culture: The Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM)”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today we continue our conversation with Dr. David Osher, Vice-President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Osher has published on school climate and the conditions for learning, SEL, supportive community-building approaches to school discipline and safety, cultural competence and responsiveness, and family support and engagement. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. If you missed Part One, you may want to listen to it now. Welcome, David. Can you describe what CBAM (the Concerns-Based Adoption Model) actually is?

[00:00:51] David O: Sure. CBAM is a model that both understands the fact, as I said, that you have both a series of processes that almost we could think about as stages that people go through emotionally as well as cognitively as they move into things. So let me just give you the very simple stages and then we’re going to talk about another key element. One stage is just, how do you feel about it, a) do you think that something like this matters? But there is a moment where people start taking it seriously, that there’s a different type of question that I used to call a CBAM moment. This is my language, not the language that people developed. It’s when someone is taking an idea seriously, so they start asking questions about the logistical problems. And what I used to say to people who are in leadership, “when your staff starts raising logistical problems about a new idea, don’t just see that as people being negative, think about it as people taking seriously the fact that they may have to do something, and what you have to do is listen to them about what are the things that they will need so they’ll be able to implement it.” 

Okay, so I’m giving you a set of CBAM stages. And one of the stages ends up being where you know enough about it, you’re taking it seriously. Now you’re worried about how can you really handle it and do it. But as you move through the process, you start to feel better about it. And in part, we know from other work that both when you start to feel better, you get better results, but you also start to feel better because you start seeing the results. But at the end of the CBAM process, it’s where not only do you like it, but you’re sharing it with your colleagues. You really can say, “this really works.” And meanwhile, there is a cognitive journey and a practice journey that is similar, and both of those journeys are very, very individual. And so one of the things that CBAM thinks about is the fact that as different people are learning practices, if you look at individuals, they may do them in slightly different ways. You need to know that that’s part of the learning process. It’s also part of the adaptive process and the leadership, hopefully it is distributed leadership, will end up supporting people as they’re trying things, letting them know when they’re doing things that are really not going to work. But on the other hand, building on the strengths that you see.

The equivalent end, from a CBAM perspective, of someone becoming a champion is when someone has mastered it enough to become an innovator, that you know it isn’t you, then say, “this is a way of doing something.” And with my colleagues at AIR, a decent amount of work in both trying to deal with discipline disparities, eliminating the negative pieces, but trying to support people in using restorative approaches. We use CBAM and we use readiness assessments because we know that this is not easy work. I think when you are doing hard work, you have to be deliberate. You have to be patient. You have to know that it is messy stuff and you have to stay with it, but give people the support that will enable them to ultimately embrace it because they master it both intellectually, they understand it, but also because they become more agile and facile in doing the work. This is a long piece. But it’s nice to talk about doing restorative work. It’s not easy to do restorative work. 

[00:05:22] Jon M: This sounds conceptually, very, very interesting, because it sounds like it’s a culture change, a really fundamental culture change within a school, but I’m not clear what would it actually look like. I mean, what would a teacher or a set of teachers be doing differently in a CBAM process and in, say… 

[00:05:46] David O: No, the CBAM process is not something that teachers do. The CBAM process is really important for the people who are pushing the change, promoting the change, to be sensitive to, and then build it. What is the teacher doing? Hopefully what’s happening is the teacher has not only gone to workshops and participated in reading groups where they’re thinking about these issues and talking about these issues, but they’re receiving work-embedded coaching. They’re in a process where they can talk about problems and they’re receiving support in terms of dealing with the problems. But the important thing is for leadership and for change agents not to think that there is this magic moment that happens either when you bring something in or even when people vote to have it in. 

I mentioned before, the book, “Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools.” It has 20 chapters. The first chapter of the book is not about visions, not about planning, not about leadership, not about engaging the different people who need to be engaged, not about how do you create the environments, not about supporting teachers, not about being aware of what your educational interventions are, not about funding or planning and evaluation. It’s about readiness, readiness as defined by my ability to do something. It is a product of my motivation to do it, plus my own skills and capacities, those attributes that I talked about before that we bring to the table, but also my specific capacities, knowing something about restorative approaches, that becomes part of my readiness in this case. And if I am really ready, the other piece is not just my capacity. It’s the fact that the organization supports me. It gives me the training. It gives me the space to feel comfortable taking a little risk in doing something that I’m not feeling comfortable with. I think everybody who’ll be listening or watching this has been at some point where they are learning something that they don’t know. And if you’re doing it in a situation where there are stakes and if you’re doing it in a place that’s visible, it’s really hard to be doing something when you’re not yet comfortable doing it right. And so that’s important for leadership to know and act on. 

[00:08:38] Jon M: I think that makes a lot of sense in terms of how one would look for a fundamental change in a school environment. I want to go back. . .

[00:08:49] David O: Can I just say one more thing? I just realized that my organization has gone through a pivot over the past five years, not just in response to the George Floyd moment where people temporarily came to Jesus. One of the reasons why I am more confident than I had been before that we will succeed, not in getting perfect, but getting much better at what we’re doing, is that the people who are leading it really know that this is a sustained process, that you have to really attend to the details and you also have to let people embrace it. And so it’s not just the fact that we do mandate the fact that we have a set of values regarding diversity and equity that need to be built in, but we really try and we try to build it into all our protocols, but we’re trying to also support people in embracing that. And to me, it’s when you know that change and develop as well as just human development is in the details. It’s in the moment by moment, it’s not just a magical have an epiphany, and then really change your behavior, right.

[00:10:08] Jon M: The question I want to ask almost feels out of place because the logic of what you’ve been saying is so strong, but I know that you were also relatively recently involved in a major study about what some of the actual short and long-term impacts of exclusionary discipline is, so that I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about what you found out about some of the reasons that this is so harmful, [unintelligible].

[00:10:44] David O: Okay. And let me just bound the fact that it is a very important study, which I’ll describe in a minute, but to say it is not the discovery of new things. There has been a rich body of work that people have done over the past decades that help explain why this is a problematic intervention. Okay. And the problematic intervention includes everything from the extent to which it does the reverse of engaging students. It disengages students. It does the reverse of saying to somebody you are a member of this class, we expect you to behave. Instead. It, it removes. Instead of teaching people how to be part of a community. It places them outside of a place where they can really learn. And if it’s a suspension from school in a place where there can be a lot of negative social learning. And there are a whole set of dynamics that aren’t good. 

But let me tell you what we did. And we found, because we knew enough before we did the study, we being the scholarly community, but also the practice community, that we know that it has been bad. But people sometimes say, but how can you know it with really scientific integrity? How can you know that it really is a bad thing? And traditionally people who believe in learning what works or doesn’t work through experimental studies would say what you need is an experimental study. But ethically you can’t do an experimental study of suspension if the notion is “I will randomly assign people to be suspended or not, and then we’ll find out whether or not suspension works.” That would be horrific, ethically, and I hope it would be politically intolerable, okay. And I think it would be in many districts. So we developed a methodology to get as close as possible. It’s what in the research literature would be called a quasi-experimental study rather than an experimental study, sort of experimental. And those studies work best when you are able to really minimize selection by matching people as much as you can. And typically you have small groups and you can match them on five or 10 different variables. And that’s pretty good, but the trouble is that matching is only as good as the number of variables you match people on, because other things distinguish them. 

And what we were able to do was to leverage two things, one, the fact that we had a very, very large data set because New York City wanted to do something about it, was willing to give us access on every student who had been suspended over the course of 10 years in New York City, and to be able to follow them throughout their academic career, and it was willing to open data up that it could open up so that we could add other information to the study and connect it in a way that protected individual privacy, but we could really see the impacts and because we had that and we had machine learning techniques that could help us analyze very, very quickly large amounts of data. We were able to do the equivalent of a Granny Smith apple to Granny Smith apple comparison, where we could look at two people who both would have been candidates to be suspended. We could look at, among other things in our matching, the specificity of the infraction that they had been identified for, but also all sorts of other information about them, everything from how they had been doing academically through their behavioral career beforehand in the school system through the way in which students in their school describe the climate of the school. And so we had more than 80 variables that were able to match people Granny Smith apple to Granny Smith apple. 

And this is what we found. And I’m only giving you the data from middle and high school, because those are the ones that we had the biggest numbers for in terms of our different sets, so that we can describe things. First of all, in these apple to apple comparisons, the decision to suspend or not suspend was consequential alone, okay. So that you get worse results the minute you suspend. Then things unfortunately get worse as the number of days that people are suspended gets more. Even with this big data set, because we were matching so many different apples, Granny Smith apples to each other. And if you want Bartlett pears to each other and so forth, we had to cluster, so we looked at small levels of suspension, medium levels of suspension, and very, very big suspensions. And I don’t want to put a value judgment on because medium suspensions are very, very high, okay. But we looked at those three clusters and what we found is not only the more it was, the worse it was, but the consequences were not just in the year that someone was suspended, but over their academic career. What we found out was students who were suspended had worse problems behaviorally, not just talking about suspension, after they were suspended, than those who weren’t. And this is not just in the first year, but I mean, this is an all the out years, that if you’d been suspended in sixth grade, this goes all the way to the end of high school. If you had stayed in school, you missed more days due to attendance, separate from whether or not you were suspended more in subsequent years. So not only do you have more behavioral problems, but you have more suspensions, you have more absence. And at the same time, academic achievement, as measured by test scores, which are the data we had in this case, were poor. They were also predictably less likely to graduate.

So that’s what we found. Now I want to feed into you the fact that we know from other studies that also there are ancillary outcomes that are just as important and were not part of our study. So, for example, another colleague of mine at AIR, Horace Duffy, did a dissertation while he was working for the Houston Independent School District that looked at who was suspended in Houston and connection to the juvenile justice system. And what he was able to demonstrate using similar types of data — he didn’t use our model, but his data are very credible — is what we know from lots of studies, including other studies I’m doing. If you are suspended, you’re more likely to have negative encounters with the juvenile justice system and you’re more likely to not only have negative encounters, but there are more likely to be poor results. So one of those ancillary consequences ends up being getting caught up in a juvenile justice system that has the same types of negative consequences as suspension. I mean, there’s actually a study that was done in Montreal that looked at matched people like the one we did, but it looked at whether or not the same people in terms of whether or not they went before a judge or not and whether or not the judge adjudicated them and sent them away or not. And what you found out is the best outcome was if you weren’t sent to the judge. And remember again, they’re comparing similar people. And the worst outcome was if you were punished. Okay, so one set of problems ends up being getting caught up in the juvenile justice system. And then another set of problems is the fact that we know from other studies that students who have been suspended are less likely to participate in STEM classes, are less likely to apply to college and university, are less likely to stay in college and university. And so we have these different sets of consequences that are really important. 

And so what you have, I think, in suspension is a pretty risky intervention that is normative in our society. Now while I would stop suspension as soon as I could and I certainly would reduce the number of days people are suspended, so if you ever even needed to remove somebody, I would think about that as being one day or if they need some type of services, a few days. And not 10 or 20 days, which has no justification whatsoever. But what’s also important, and this gets back to the Austin question and the question you were also asking, Amy, is creating an alternative. Because the issue is not that teachers are just mean and they want to suspend kids. Teachers may not be prepared to handle a classroom. And schools may not be prepared to create the most productive environment. And if they don’t have the readiness and capacity to do that, then you have the behavior that triggers the types of suspension that are going on. So what you really need to do is do systematic and systemic work to do things. 

And that connects to our whole conversation earlier. On the one hand, you want to create a safe and supportive environment. On the one hand, you will want to be trauma sensitive already. On the one hand, you do want students to have developed and teachers’ social and emotional skills so that they can interact with each other. So that for all those reasons, if you end up having a restorative process, it’ll go better because people are more ready to participate, it will be less burdensome, and so forth. So you need to be systematic. You don’t want to just be magical about it, but similarly, when you get to the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to be a teacher in a class where you work with 20, 30, 35 young people and you’re under lots of pressure, you need alternatives that can help you do things. You can’t just be told to do it better. And one of the things that has sometimes happened up until now is people have done the right thing of limiting suspension. And I think it is important to do it. I would say it’s important to do it ethically. It also is important to do it because it’s sensible, but there’s been less emphasis on doing the things to prevent the reasons why people are likely to suspend, which is both what young people may be sometimes doing alone, what teachers may be doing alone, and then the problematic interaction that they’re having. 

And what you want to do is to get back to the first piece of our conversation today. You want to create what happens when two people look at each other and smile. You want to do the things that happen when people trust each other to be in the same emotional space and reinforce each other. And that’s not easy. Particularly again, I would say in a society that has so segregated people that they don’t know each other, and they really have been more readily infected by toxicities that are in every water we drink when it comes to issues of race, and lots of water we drink when it comes to other issues that relate to other issues of oppression and privilege. One has to deal with those issues in a way that people can become not only self-aware but can find ways of changing themselves and not just experiencing that as loss, okay. Not easy. 

[00:24:11] Amy H-L: David, have you looked at whether exclusionary discipline has any effect on the other students? 

[00:24:18] David O: Yes. In the same study, we did that as well. And we did it because part of the argument for doing that is, if I were to suspend Amy from the class because she’s a real pain to the classroom, Jon’s going to learn better. And what we were able to see was in most cases, either peers were hurt by suspension rather than were bettered by suspension, other than in one case, where there was a minimal change in academic performance on one test. But the preponderance of, of what we found was that the bad apple model doesn’t work. But in addition, what we and this was not just for the peers. Well, I would have to say is in terms of the peer results, we had to largely limit it because of the fact that students change peers over time. But that also looked at peer reports on school climate that happened in the year of the students’ being suspended. And what we saw was that peer reports did not get better when people were suspended. Okay, so I want to say our findings here are not rocket science in the sense that they just give greater credibility to what others have said. 

What I don’t know, Amy, because our study was not able to get it and what I’ve thought a lot about and I would love to learn about with other study or see other people study is what is the particular effect on kids who would identify with the young people who are suspended in terms of their own identity? And what is the feeling of guilt people have and humiliation they have when they’re watching those things? I know from my own life experience, when I have been in those situations where, because I was doing site visits, on rare occasions, I had to see things that I thought were really inappropriate, that in other times I would try to do something, to address something. And I had to be the dispassionate and also distant observer. How painful that was! And I’m talking about now, not where someone who has been put at risk. Then, I’d have to do things, but seeing a principal out in the cold tell a parent who shows up to go around to a different door. And I couldn’t say anything, but I was, you know, I was pained by it. And I think there is that process as well as the other pieces that explain why, when we see correlational data, we find out that peers in places where, or students in places where there are higher levels of suspension, say that they trust their teachers less, say that they don’t feel as good. I mean, there were a lot of things going on. I have not seen any study that really focuses in on peers, but I think it’s very, very important, okay.

And in fact, let me make the connection to the much earlier conversation about thriving. I think not only do you thrive collectively as well as individually, but you experience ill being collectively as well as individually. And, and this is a piece of it, but I think it’s still probably an important piece, which is again, why I would promote restorative practices, not just because I don’t want to suspend people, but because I want young people to be able to fully engage in learning and not be distracted by the pain, not get caught up into the unnecessary drama that happens when a teacher feels that they have to punish somebody and remove somebody, which means you have to provide the teacher with an alternative system so that things can move.

[00:29:11] Amy H-L: David, is meaning-making something that happens to the individual or to the class as a whole?

[00:29:17] David O: It’s both, I think. And I think meaning-making is also something that you do that happens consciously and in the moment as well as a little more over time, cumulatively, but also unconsciously. Meaning-making, I think, is everything from, “How do I process an experience?” so, like, “How do I feel when Jon’s suspended and I’m not?” But, meaning making is also collective when the three of us talk about Jon’s experience and we make sense of it together. And I think both of those things happen. I think that each of us does some learning that, no matter what, is individual, and I don’t mean individualistic, but it is particular to us given our own unique position in the world. But at the same time, we’re always looking to others as reference groups. And we also use people to help us make sense both intentionally, in some cases, and in other senses, unintentionally. 

[00:30:18] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. David Osher of American Institutes for Research. Thank you very much. 

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