I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard about Mindset. It was orientation day at graduate school and I asked one of the alumni what suggestions she had to prepare for school. She took one second to think, smiled, and said, “Read Mindset by Carol Dweck.” I did just that. Mindset changed my understanding of how people learn and, ultimately, of human potential.
If you are in the field of education, you are probably more than familiar with the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). You may also have a strong opinion of the STEM movement, as it is one more initiative you may have to accommodate among several other current major overhauls of the public education system, such as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the new teacher and principal evaluation requirements, and the new Smarter Balanced Assessment that is aligned to the new standards, just to name a few.
Over the last six decades, the American school system has been under fire and perceived as not preparing students well enough. It began with Sputnik and the race to the moon in the late 1950s and continues today as the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s answer to school reform through financial incentives. Throughout the history of the American public school system, the need for change or reform is prefaced with a crisis.
While researching for a project recently, I came across Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset. As more schools work to build 21st Century Skills in their students,greater numbers of teachers are trying to foster the growth mindset in their classrooms. Initially, I assumed a growth mindset had to do with students creating goals and monitoring their progress, either individually or as a class. I was wrong. So what is a fixed mindset? What is a growth mindset? According to Dweck’s website, in a nutshell:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
At The BERC Group, we visit many schools for many reasons. More often than not, they are struggling and under-performing. This fall, I had the privilege of visiting a once-failing school in a high poverty neighborhood. Despite its almost 100% free/reduced lunch status, extreme diversity, and high level of academic needs, the school had made great strides in improving student performance. Reflecting back upon many other schools I have visited, I wondered how the vibe at this particular school could be so different. Where were their excuses? Weren’t they frustrated by the deficits of the clientele they serve? Why didn’t they blame their circumstances like so many other schools?
One of the biggest differences I could identify comes down to a simple shift in philosophy: the leaders of this school ran it like a business, and everyone behaved like a professional. This is not to say that administrators and teachers at other schools are not professionals, but many schools do not adhere to such high standards. Let me see if I can explain the nuances of this difference.
As a first-year teacher, I thought entry tasks had one primary purpose: to keep the students quiet and occupied long enough for me to take attendance. During my first two years of teaching, I tended to assign a lot of simple, skills-based activities as entry tasks. I was an English teacher, so my students typically had grammar or vocabulary exercises during the first five minutes of class. However, as I observed other teachers through my STAR training and grew stronger in my own instructional practices, I began to look for ways to raise the level of thinking and application in my lessons. As my lessons began to demand more from my students, so too, did my entry tasks. Although I still started one or two lessons a week with skills-based practice (there is always a place for that!), I began to focus more on activities that asked my students to think critically and to make connections from the moment the bell rang. Here were three of my favorite entry tasks.
We read about it all the time – students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) do not perform as well academically as those from higher SES. SES refers to the mix of economic, educational, and social factors that encompass the differences in economic wealth (such as educational opportunity and attainment), social status, and the ability to control aspects of one’s life. Both laboratory and societal research point to early enriched environments as essential to success. They also show that stress, which is often found in households of low SES, can adversely affect cognitive function. Given the wealth of information on the cycle of reduced opportunities for enriched experiences and stress effects on cognitive development, a seemingly basic question would be, “Can we change this cycle? And, if so, how?”
I am sure most us remember hearing stories from our grandparents or great-grandparents about the one-room school house, where students sat in wooden desks, the teacher was almost always female, and a shiny red apple stayed on the teacher’s desk. Students of varying ages sat and watched as the teacher reviewed how to write cursive letters, or they worked on perfecting their penmanship skills. Students usually were taught to be respectful and quiet, and to mind their manners. I certainly did not grow up in this era, but I do remember getting in trouble if I asked my neighbor to help me solve a problem because that was considered cheating, at least in my experience. Gone are the days of reading, writing and arithmetic. You may ask yourself, “What?! Students aren’t learning the most fundamental subjects needed to be a functioning citizen?” Well, that is not quite the case.
We have come a long way since those days. With a vast educational reform movement underway, we are no longer expecting the typical bell-shaped curve, where the average student will rank at the top of the curve, with lower-performing students on the left-hand side (indicating possible learning disabilities) and higher-performing students on the right-hand side (indicating possible high potential). There are three big concepts behind this: rigor, relevance, and relationships.
During my teacher preparation program, I first heard the statistic from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future that half of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. My professor followed up that sobering piece of data with, “Teaching is a profession that eats its young.” Five years later, I’m officially part of that statistic. After four years as a high school English teacher, I left to join The BERC Group. It was a good move for me to come here. Of all the professional development I had during my teaching career (and in my district, we had a lot of PD!), my STAR training stands out as the piece that impacted my instruction the most. As a teacher, nothing helped me more than going into a colleague’s classroom for half an hour. I never failed to glean something from these observations that would later enhance my own practice. I admired the work The BERC Group was doing around Powerful Teaching and Learning, and I wanted to be a part of it.
But I was not prepared for the twin sensations of guilt and relief that overwhelmed me when I left teaching. Guilt because I’d given in. I’d become part of the 50% my professors warned me about. And relief because, during those four years of teaching, my life had turned into a juggling act. I had dozens of balls that needed to stay in the air. Lessons to plan. Students to tutor. Papers to grade. Phone calls to make. Paperwork to finish. Grades to enter. All of these tasks were absolutely necessary – and all of them took place outside of the school day. I was much better at keeping these balls in the air after four years of practice, but they still crashed around my feet more often than I would like to admit. When I left behind my classroom, I also left the constant dread of waiting for that crash to happen. A year later, and I am still processing both of these emotions.
Student achievement is higher when the Essential Components of Powerful Teaching and Learning are evident in classroom practices. These components include Skills, Knowledge, Thinking, Application, and Relationships. In observations I have conducted, Application has usually been the lowest scoring component. This means that students are often not given the opportunity to make relevant and meaningful personal connections to their learning. Teachers can quite easily provide opportunities for students to make these connections by incorporating student culture into the classroom.
One of the main services provided by our research team is program evaluations. Clients who have never engaged in a program evaluation often contact us and report that they have just received a grant for which a program evaluation is required and they are unfamiliar with what a program evaluation is and why they would want to do one. I will address these questions first and leave you with five tips for planning a successful program evaluation.
What is a Program Evaluation?
When we perform a program evaluation, we are critically investigating a program’s activities, characteristics, and outcomes. Evaluations typically require us to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data to inform program implementation, to improve program effectiveness, and to monitor program outcomes (Patton, 1987).We conduct different types of program evaluations, including formative and summative evaluations.
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