The Marva Collins’ Way

Recently, the world lost an amazing educator.  Marva Collins, dying at 78 in North Carolina, was known for the Marva Collins’ Way, which in short was a commitment to high academic results for society’s most marginalized learners.  Today, I want to write in honor of her far-reaching influence and to publically give her credit to my commitment to social entrepreneurship as a means of community transformation.


When asked how she was able to garner respect and loyalty from those perceived to be Chicago’s most difficult children, Marva Collins had this to say…

I just deal honestly with children. They know I don’t turn my nose down at them.  They listen to me because I am not some outsider who comes over here and talks down to them about what it is like to be poor. I’m right here working with them all the time.  If everyone in the neighborhood treated these children with the same consistent interest, the children would do for them what they do for me.

[Taken from page 11 of Marva Collins’ Way.]

When I was introduced to Ms. Collins’s writings, I immediately felt a familiar kinship. I too work with under-represented populations. I too value their humanity and believe in their gifts and their strengths.  And, I too am committed to promoting their achievement at high levels.

But, there was also something about Ms. Collins that was unfamiliar. From her writings, I saw her as more traditional when compared to my progressive training and practice.  For the most part, I consider myself a constructivist (which typically associates me with other progressive educators). True, there is a cohort of people out there who say “at-risk” learners cannot thrive in progressivism, where students are placed at the center of their learning and are allowed to make meaning and build new knowledge.  However, my track record of success—even in how progressivism saved me from my own downward spiral in high school– unequivocally negates this misconception.  It truly is ridiculous to think that poor and racially marginalized students cannot thrive as drivers of their own learning process.

Now although I am a progressive, there is a traditional dimension to my practice that more than likely sparked my interest when I read Ms. Collins’s book. As I discuss in The Pragmatic-Progressive, a piece not yet published, Lisa Delpit (another inspiration of mine) validated the traditional tactics that I used to compliment progressive classroom methods.  My progressive colleagues, with an almost maligned interpretation of progressivism, were not really effective with socioeconomically disadvantaged learners.  Sure, they were amazing models for planning for higher order cognition, but in the population of students I enjoy serving, they had a very limited track record in getting them to successfully enter (and stay) in a stratosphere for higher order thinking.  So, as a beginning urban teacher hell bent on the success of all students, I began to pad my progressive practice with a little bit of traditionalism… a little bit of teacher control… a little bit of rote learning…and a little bit of behaviorism. And, it wasn’t until I read Delpit’s Other People’s Children, that I felt validated with my approach.

I eventually found myself taking a teaching job in one of Ms. Collins’s schools.  I was willing to forgo my allegiance to progressivism (albeit temporarily) in order to immerse myself in traditionalism… in order to learn more about the pragmatic side to my practice.  To fully explain how teaching in this school influenced me, I want to share a small excerpt from my not-yet-published piece, titled The Pragmatic-Progressive.


I went (to Marva Collins’s school), conquered and left.  I learned a lot about the other side (traditionalism), about what works and why, and I learned about the need to equip low-income and racially disadvantaged learners with literacies associated with schooling—not necessarily learning.   I learned about the classics in literature, philosophy, and the arts.  I learned about classroom control and how to create a climate of scholarship.  And, I learned about the power of language and how to leverage it.  While Delpit taught me that it was okay to embrace a more pragmatic side to my practice, Collins taught me how to do it… and how to do it better! 

What I learned from the Marva Collins’ Way solidified my identity as a pragmatic progressive. And, it was her push for urban student achievement, beyond excuses, that eventually moved me into school leadership.  It is with great pleasure to report that I had one more encounter with the Marva Collins’ Way and that was in directly encountering Ms. Collins herself.  I return to my unpublished piece, The Pragmatic Progressive, in order to tell you what happened.

Like Delpit, I had an opportunity to personally connect with Collins.  On a whim I called her, years after being directly trained by one of her designees.  Several days after I made the call, she called me back.  We talked for an hour not just about instruction and black children but on the politics of schooling.  By the time of this call, I was running a school in which I had founded and was so in need of a deeper understanding of the politics.  So beyond teaching me about the advantages of traditional strategies with disadvantaged learners, she also helped me to better understand the politics of schooling.   And she challenged me not to succumb to it. As a result, I hung up the phone existentially knowing that my work was about more than just serving as a school leader.  It was about movement, transformation and liberation.  From that call, I learned why being a school leader was not enough.  Instead of my formal training where I learned how to be a principal of instruction and operations, she trained me, in that one hour call, on why I needed to be a leader of deep change. And in order to walk in this calling of leadership, I had to more fully embrace what I had unknowingly become – a social entrepreneur!

I sometimes encounter progressives who are turned off by the notion charter schools.  In that I am pro-union and an advocate for the professionalism of teaching, I can somewhat understand their concern.  But, in that I want to take traditionally underserved learners into an “unchartered” (no pun intended) territory of higher order achievement, I find merit in policies that allow schooling and entrepreneurism to merge.

It is here, in the merge, that I can continue the legacy of Marva Collins, in her push for movement, transformation and liberation.  While I will forever be a progressive educator, a pragmatic-progressive educator to be exact, I am indebted to Marva Collins for helping me to take my practice, my work, to this next level!  May her soul rest in peace!!!!

Written by Angela Dye, PhD

Executive Director, The Empowerment Network

To learn more about her work in education, please visit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s