As Principal Scott Fleming prepared for his second year at MacArthur Elementary School in Long Beach, CA, he examined his school’s student data. He scanned the rows of numbers to get a sense of what he’d be working with the next year, taking in test scores, rates of absenteeism, and academic performance. But then he saw data that stopped him in his tracks: 53.8 percent, or 1 out of 2 students at MacArthur reported that they believed that if they weren’t naturally smart in a subject, they wouldn’t do well. This statistic, a key metric in students’ social-emotional learning (SEL), raised a red flag for Principal Fleming.
“I can remember thinking to myself, if these kids don’t believe they can get smarter, how can we hope to teach them anything?” he recalls. MacArthur teachers attending a district-supported data analysis meeting observed the same dilemma and opportunity. With this realization, MacArthur teachers and Principal Fleming collaboratively decided to dedicate themselves to building up their students’ thoughts about their abilities and potential growth mindset.
What does that mean? Quite simply, they wanted to give students a growth mindset. A growth mindset gives students the problem-solving skills and outlook on life that allows them to persevere even when they make mistakes. But cultivating this attitude in students isn’t a simple process. At MacArthur Elementary, it meant a total transformation of school culture, including buy-in from parents, teachers and students.
Principal Fleming began each week by issuing words of inspiration over the PA system first thing Monday morning, offering wisdom like Friedrich Nietzsche’s advice that “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.” Teachers presented students with moral dilemmas – hypothetical examples of kids their age struggling in school – and asked students how they would solve the problem. Making mistakes was reframed as an integral part of the learning process – not a roadblock.
Steadily, a growth mindset became more pervasive at MacArthur, woven into the fabric of the school. In staff meetings, teachers stopped saying, “My student can’t do this” and started saying, “My student can’t do this yet.” Slowly but surely, students began to believe in their potential for growth.
Suzie King, a fourth grade teacher at MacArthur explains, “Growth mindset has played a key role in our school environment. It is pervasive in every classroom and has proven to be an effective way to motivate, inspire and move students toward effort and success. Our school has emphasized and encouraged a focus on effort rather than on intelligence.”
Principal Fleming remembers a conversation he had during recess with a student who was struggling in math. The student’s whole family excelled in sports, and this young man was a talented baseball player, but he seemed to have hit a wall academically. Principal Fleming asked the student how he got to be such a good baseball player and the boy replied that he practiced a lot. “Do you think you could do the same thing with math?” Principle Fleming asked. “If you practice your brain will grow stronger, and you’ll keep getting better and better at math.” The student agreed: “That makes sense,” he said. These kind of casual interventions became commonplace and had a powerful impact on students’ academic confidence.
By the end of that first year, 81 percent, or 8 out of 10 students at MacArthur Elementary gave positive responses when surveyed about their perception of their ability to grow academically. The strong increase put MacArthur in the 99th percentile among schools in the CORE Districts – a collaboration of school districts in California using innovative strategies to improve student outcomes.
As a result, the improved SEL scores corresponded with a jump in students’ academic performance. On state tests in math and English, students’ scores rose in both subjects by more than 25 points. The largest gains were made by children from low-income families, who account for 51 percent of MacArthur’s student body.
Principal Fleming has three words for administrators looking to dive deeper into student data: “Listen, listen, and listen.” He attributes MacArthur’s dramatic success to being receptive to what the SEL data was plainly showing him and the teachers, listening to teachers to gain buy-in and provide feedback as they developed new classroom prompts, hearing out parents as they learned about the growth mindset concept, and engaging in a dialogue with students to share the data with them in the classroom and let them analyze it to describe the importance of perseverance in their own words.
The Long Beach Unified School District that includes MacArthur Elementary is one of eight districts in California that make up the CORE Districts. CORE Districts use a shared data system that empowers educators with the 360-degree view they need to ensure every student is set up for success. Using their school quality improvement system data that encompasses academic, social-emotional and culture-climate indicators, educators closest to the students can identify problems quickly and implement changes even faster.
For schools like MacArthur, this begins by using data to understand the challenges students face and finding innovative solutions to address them. As Principal Fleming notes, “Access to a vibrant suite of student data was a game-changer for us at MacArthur. It gave us the ability to find the opportunities, such as strengthening student perseverance, which caused a sea change in our school culture and, in turn, significantly improved students’ academic performance.”
The CORE districts are continuously researching and refining these measures. To learn more about their emerging research, visit http://www.edpolicyinca.org/projects/core-pace-research-partnership.