Measuring a ‘growth mindset’ in a new school accountability system

May 5, 2014

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on intelligence, motivation and achievement has changed the thinking of educators around the globe – and now it’s helping to drive a first-in-the-nation experiment in seven of California’s largest school districts.


Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the “growth mindset” is one of the measures of student success in seven large school districts. Photo credit: EdSource Today/ Jane Meredith Adams

In a 2007 study, Dweck and her colleagues found that students who believed they could increase their intelligence worked harder in mathematics and outperformed peers of similar ability, who believed that intelligence was a fixed trait given at birth.

Dweck dubbed the belief that intelligence can be developed a “growth mindset” and has charted its power to shift students’ academic attitudes and achievements. This spring, students’ beliefs about intelligence are among the social and emotional factors to be measured in the new school rating system under development in the seven districts.

After receiving an unprecedented waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, the districts are replacing standardized test scores as the sole measure of school success. Instead, the districts’ are developing a new accountability system that also includes school climate and culture measurements, suspension and expulsion rates, and the hard-to-define qualities of motivation, self-management, empathy and a growth mindset. With nearly 1 million students enrolled in the districts, the new accountability system is thought to be the largest effort to focus on and evaluate students’ habits of mind.

In a pilot test of measurement tools, the seven unified districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Oakland and Sanger – are trying to figure out how to quantify these so-called non-cognitive factors. Together the districts formed a collaborative called CORE, or the California Office to Reform Education. Sacramento City Unified, an original member of CORE, announced in April that it will not seek an extension of the one-year waiver to the No Child Left Behind law – as the seven districts are planning to do – and will return to a standardized-test-based system of measuring school performance. The district remains part of the collaborative, though, and is continuing its interest in social and emotional learning.

“This is the first attempt to collect the data,” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of Transforming Education, a nonprofit partner of the CORE collaboration. Because quantifying growth in non-cognitive skills is expected to be challenging, it’s one of the first areas the CORE districts are tackling. When the districts’ new School Quality Improvement Index is fully rolled out over the next two years, 20 percent of a school’s score will be measures of social and emotional factors, defined as non-cognitive skills and rates of absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions.

CORE’s School Quality Improvement Index will be rolled out over the next two years. The 100-point index would include academic progress (60 percent), social and emotional factors (20 percent) and school climate and culture (20 percent) with weights of some measures to be determined. Many of these metrics are also required by the state as part of a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan under the new Local Control Funding Formula. (Source: California Office to Reform Education)

The measurement tools pilot is underway in 18 schools in the districts, with schools holding staff meetings to talk about how and why districts want to measure social and emotional skills. Because Dweck’s research on intelligence is accessible and seems to resonate, the schools are unrolling their new emphasis on social and emotional factors with an overview of Dweck’s work, said Noah Bookman, chief accountability officer at CORE.

“A growth mindset is something that makes so much sense in the world of education,” Bookman said. “Many teachers in classrooms every day use language that encourages a growth mindset. This is a way to recognize the work they are already doing and provide resources.”

Dweck’s research, which was included in the 2013 U.S. Department of Education brief “Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century,” investigates the power of the words we use to describe our talents and abilities. People with growth mindsets believe that our intelligence increases as we learn, Dweck said last month when she spoke at the San Francisco-based research organization WestEd’s annual forum. Challenges are welcomed as opportunities to work hard and figure things out. There is a lack of self-consciousness about making mistakes.

In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the belief that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and talent and “that’s it,” Dweck said. A fixed mindset is a mental trap, Dweck said, that can cause talented people to avoid challenges for fear of losing their identity as “smart.”

The fixed mindset approach is to “look smart at all costs,” she said. “Even more – never look dumb.” This is the mindset that saps students’ motivation, she said.

But she added, “The most important thing is this: We have discovered where these mindsets come from, how they work, and how to change them.”

As part of the 2007 study, Dweck and her colleagues found that a weekly session for eight weeks was enough to change motivation and performance for a group of low-achieving seventh-grade math students. Half of the students discussed the science of brain development – how brain cells make new and stronger connections as we learn, physically changing our neural pathways. They learned their intelligence was not fixed at birth – and they increased their effort and achievement, compared to the group that had not had a growth mindset lesson.

“L., who never puts in any extra effort and doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it,” wrote a math teacher who participated in the study. “He earned a B on the assignment (he had been getting C’s and lower.)”

In a CORE pilot test of assessment tools, students will complete questionnaires similar to, but not exactly the same as, the ones Dweck used in the 2007 study. Dweck’s questionnaires ask students to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as: “You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really can’t do much to change it” and “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.”

The questionnaires will also explore goals for learning and beliefs about effort. Those statements will be similar to Dweck’s questions: “An important reason why I do my school work is because I like to learn new things” and “To tell the truth, when I work hard at my schoolwork, it makes me feel like I’m not very smart.”

Teachers may also complete questionnaires about their students’ attitudes.

While determining the correct measuring tools might be difficult, measuring social and emotional skills brings those issues to the attention of schools and teachers, Gabrieli said. “There is compelling evidence that these skills matter for students, both in academic success and in lifelong success, independent of academic success.”

“The most important thing about including social and emotional skills in the measurements is to help schools realize that students can vary widely on very important competencies,” he said.“It’s not to say that these skills alone will singlehandedly reverse student outcomes, but they will help.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams. Sign up here for EdHealth, EdSource Today’s free newsletter on student health.


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