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Friday, August 15, 2014

The fixed mind set of the education reform movement or why it will never succeed.

By Greg Sampson

If you want to know why Education Reform is off the rails and cannot succeed, you have to understand the fixed mindset, its implications, and ultimate destructiveness for those who have it.

The fixed mindset believes that talent, intelligence, and ability are fixed at birth. Improvement and achievement are only possible if someone has the genes, the inheritance from their progenitors, for it. This has the following implications:

·         A refusal to recognize failure and grow from it. Failure must be covered up lest the world find out that the fixed mindset person is a fraud—not really talented, not really intelligent, not possessing the right stuff, as Tom Wolfe described it.
·         An avoidance of challenge. New challenges are not opportunities for growth and learning, but tests that one might fail.
·         A lack of effort. Trying to achieve is doomed to failure if one is fixed, cannot improve, and will never succeed in surpassing set levels.
·         A lack of humility. The human ego protects itself at all costs. The fixed mindset lies about its true results, always inflating measurements of achievement, to maintain a pretense of competency.
·         A persecution of subordinates. The last thing a fixed mindset wants around it and under it is people who might be better than them. They will drive those people out of their organizations. They have to be the best; they have to be the smartest person in the room.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology, currently teaching at Stanford University, previously at Columbia University, has made the study of mindset a key feature of her research. My summary comes from her book, Mindset—The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. You can preview a copy on Amazon: or check out the website

Her discoveries are astounding and the implications far-reaching. The fixed mindset explains what is wrong with educational reform and those who lead it, including foundations, charter school advocates, legislators, state boards of education, and commissioners of education. In a series of posts, I will sketch the implications of the fixed mindset and how it is leading those in charge to erroneous conclusions and disastrous policies. At the end, I will provide prescriptions for educational improvement that works.

As an introduction, let us look at standardized assessments and how they promote a fixed mindset in students that erodes their confidence and leads to apathy, if not outright contempt, toward school.

In Florida, we have given the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) for many years. Every state has its version of the once a year test that measures and labels students for their achievement. These tests are not designed for growth. Their purpose is to label achievement. If these standardized tests were designed for growth, students would be allowed to revisit the questions they got wrong and investigate what they did wrong to discover ways to correctly solve the items. But not even teachers are allowed to review the tests.

In Duval County, we take the same approach to our Curriculum Guide Assessments. After the students have taken the test, we are not allowed to let them review the questions they got wrong and work on how to come up with the right answer. The fixed mindset: this is what you are—accept it. You get no chance to improve.

The test labels children and they take it to heart. They cannot believe that with effort and study they can learn and surpass these achievement labels. “No, the test said I’m a 1. That’s all I’ll ever be. No more homework for me. It’s worthless. When can I drop out of school?”

The surprising and outrageous consequence of the way we test is that the process creates low-achieving students. Let’s hear from Jo Boaler, Stanford University, who wrote the book What’s Math Got to Do with It? (page 95):

The ways in which assessment reporting can affect students’ confidence as learners was illustrated poignantly by a ten-year-old student in England reporting on the standardized tests (called SATs) she was about to take. She said, “… I’m afraid I’ll do the SATs and I’ll be a nothing.” When the interviewer tried to convince her that she could never be a “nothing,” no matter what happened on the tests, the young girl insisted that the test would make her one.

Students buy into the label. And they live down to it to the point where they will disrupt a class to make their peers laugh and prevent the teacher from teaching. If no one is learning, no one will find out how low they are. If they could change that, well maybe they would give the class a chance, but since they cannot, their best way of protecting their self-image is to take the class down.

CHAMPs (a classroom management system), zero-tolerance, parental involvement, and restorative justice cannot solve this problem. Instilling a growth mindset will.

From Carol Dweck:

One day, we were introducing the growth mindset to a new group of students. All at once Jimmy—the most hard-core turned-off low effort kid in the group—looked up with tears in his eyes and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” From that day on, he worked. He started staying up late to do his homework, which he never used to bother with at all. He started handing in assignments early so he could get feedback and revise them. He now believed that working hard was not something that made you vulnerable, but something that made you smarter. (Dweck, Mindset, page 59.)

Have I convinced you that we should throw out standardized testing because it is destructive in the lives of children? If so, Vive La Revolucion!

Next: The Growth Mindset and How It Promotes Learning, followed by The Failed Promise of Charter Schools: Doomed by the Fixed Mindset.

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