Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset

One of the great concepts that is taking hold in our classrooms around the North Santiam School District is the idea of working with our kids to develop a "Growth Mindset".  This concept was first set forth in a book called "Mindset" in 2007.  The book, which was not necessarily an educational book, illustrates the role that a person's mindset plays in their learning and their success. Essentially, the book makes the point that there are basically two types of mindsets, the "Growth Mindset" and the "Fixed Mindset".  A person with a growth mindset will generally see challenges as learning opportunities, and works with the idea that they can learn and improve at doing something. These people generally persist longer at tasks that are hard, and are more willing to accept new ideas and challenges. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, means that the person does not always see themselves as being able to learn something. Their knowledge and skills are in a "fixed" state, they tend to accept this, and new ideas or challenges are not accepted or learned easily.

One of the areas that schools see this in most consistently is in mathematics. Not only students, but parents and teachers often make comments about how math is difficult.  This is language that we are working to change. Note that we aren't trying to make math something other than it is--we are trying to change how people approach it. We want to move away from comments like "I'm not good at math (a Fixed Mindset that makes further effort and focus difficult) to "I need to spend more time on this", or "I presently struggle with...".  How do we do this? We spend time explaining to our classes the difference, we correct statements when we hear them, we positively reinforce students who persist at difficult work,  and we model our own growth mindset as we learn with the students. There is a great statement by former New York Giants Football Coach Bill Parcells. He said that "Confidence comes only from demonstrated ability." It cannot come from anywhere else. To build a growth mindset, we have to put challenging work in front of students, and support their persistence in meeting the challenge of the work. Perhaps most important is that we must not only recognize the final result, but we must also focus and reward  the effort at least as much. As an adult, that will make all the difference.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Superintendent’s Message
November 14, 2016

The results of the recent election have created new realities for public schools, both at the Federal level and here in the State of Oregon. My intention in writing this is to make all employees aware of the potential impacts and challenges that we currently face, but perhaps even more importantly to give all district employees a general overview of how we will begin to approach these challenges as we move forward. In the next few months, several events will be reported in the news.  We will see the Governor publish her budget in early December, followed by the Legislative Co-Chair’s budget just prior to the legislature’s opening in late January.  Following that, the Oregon Legislature will have the responsibility of putting together an extremely challenging 2017-19 budget. As the work unfolds, we will send out similar updates and share with all of you how these changing conditions will impact the district. It is the District’s absolute intention to sustain our system, and we believe it can be done.

Before we get to funding, I want to thank all district employees for the tremendous start to the school year. Every single employee in our buildings and across the district have contributed to make our five schools into very welcoming environments for students and parents.  It is critically important that we continue to do this in the wake of the recent election.  An incident at Silverton High School last week reminds us that not all students come to school with the knowledge of how to treat others, and the troubling themes of the election campaign have been interpreted by some as giving license or freedom to express intolerance.  In addition, there are many children in our schools whose families may feel significant vulnerability at this time.  These realities underscore the important role of public schools.  Democracy functions on tolerance and civil liberties, and students learn these inside our walls.  I trust that each of you will continue to work diligently, as you have done in the past, to provide a safe learning environment that is accepting and free from intolerance.  

The State of Oregon’s budget challenge is currently daunting.  The defeat of Ballot Measure 97 is probably the significant factor in Oregon’s budget picture.  This measure certainly would have solved many of the current problems that Oregon is facing, and in the wake of its failure Oregon must now balance a budget that is approximately $1.7 billion in the red. The budget deficit estimated for the 2017-19 biennium was $1.4 billion dollars—prior to the election.  This deficit is largely created by two factors, the increase in PERS rates beginning in July 2017 and the loss of Federal funds to assist with Oregon’s health care plan.   The passage of Ballot Measure 98, which gives K-12 districts money for career pathways, improving grad rates and other CTE programs, only increases the deficit by approximately $300 million. (It directed more money to schools, but provided no new revenue). So, the deficit has now increased to about $1.7 billion. It is important to note that that number is based on the current government budget plus roll-up costs; it also includes PERS increases.  Oregon by law cannot run a budget deficit—our books have to balance each biennium. This means that this budget deficit must be solved in the next seven months.  Make no mistake, our Governor and Legislature face a huge challenge.
We face these same challenges here in the North Santiam School District. While the district has worked since the last recession to create reserves, these are not sufficient that we can simply sail into the coming storm and use them at will.  It should be noted that the current budget deficit is occurring during a period of high employment levels and a strong economy; it is chilling to think of the next economic recession.  The cost of PERS is projected to rise again for the 2019-21 biennium, by approximately the same amount as the current increase (roughly $675,000 per year).  With such long-term cost increases, it makes little sense to allocate a significant portion of our savings to a single budget year. The key word will be “balance”. The District will watch the budgeting and legislative process closely, and look for both present and long-term impacts. While doing that, we will look to provide and sustain the best system possible for our students.

Ballot Measure 98 as it was written and passed by voters requires us to spend money for a few selected priorities that help us improve Oregon’s graduation rates.  While the concept was a good one, it did not provide a new source of revenue; the result is it simply adds to our shortfall.   A key issue for the NSSD is that the measure as it is written states that no existing program is eligible; money is only provided for new programs.  The language is problematic for us in that we have several programs that already exist. Therefore, the possibility is created that we could actually be cutting existing CTE programs while funding is available for new, different programs. We will be working with legislators starting this week to educate them about the issue, and we will also look for every legal means to allow these funds to be used to support existing programs in the district that qualify for the purposes intended in the grant.  We note the one bright spot in Measure 98’s passage; citizens of Oregon overwhelmingly support that our schools should have a funding base that allows them to provide these programs.

One Ballot Measure that has been overlooked by the news was the passage of Ballot Measure 99, which provides funding for Outdoor Schools. Our district has a long tradition of sending our students to camps for this experience, and this has been funded over the years by our teachers leading fundraisers, by parents paying fees, etc. The good news is that these funds should ease that pressure. We will communicate with staff as we learn more about how to access funds.

There are currently a host of moving parts, with many different outcomes that are possible. While we cannot give certainty to you at this time, we want to assure you that it is our absolute intent to sustain our schools as great places for kids to be.  It is critically important that we all remember our mission, our vision and our values.  The District will continue to pursue a program that gives us the best chance to positively impact the lives of our students. We will strive for a balanced position as we bear the challenge, from our elementary settings to our high school opportunities, as well as our current budget versus the long-term.  In the final analysis, it is the adults of the school that powerfully determine the climate within the walls, and we have great confidence in you that you will continue to make our schools places where kids want to be. 

Of course, many of you may have questions after reading this. If so, feel free to send me a comment or question.

Andy Gardner

NSSD Superintendent

Monday, October 17, 2016

Teaching and Learning Math

Two years ago, the North Santiam School District undertook a series of meetings in every school in order to make parents more aware of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Core at that time had a great many critics, and still does, as people have a great many conflicting ideas about what the standards are and what they are trying to accomplish.  These standards were adopted by the vast majority of states, and sought to set a rigorous standard that all states would respond to, in order to improve education and hopefully gain consistency across most if not all schools in the United States, but many teachers and parents saw this as a Federal overreach, with a loss of local control that limited states and local school boards from setting appropriate standards.  The sessions with parents were a revelation, however.  We found that much of the issue was that parents simply did not understand what the CCSS were, and the discussions were great. It was gratifying to have parents confirm to us that they didn't have a problem with high standards--they just wanted to know what it meant for their own children.  They want to understand, so that they can help.

A common theme in every meeting was the difficulty in understanding what our teachers were--and are-- trying to accomplish in the subject of math.  The sense among parents is that their children are often taught multiple processes to solve problems, some of which are counter to the way they learned math. This distressed them, because often when they were helping their students at home they had only their child's statements about how to do it. This tension has been around for years, as knowledge of teaching mathematics has grown. I've experienced it myself as I have helped my own children, only to have them come back the next evening and tell me that many of the answers I'd helped them to arrive at were wrong.

My own math foundation was taught to me in the 1970's, including a couple of teachers in my early grades that had taught my dad in the 1940's. I am inclined to think I received a reasonably good education, but much has changed about our understanding of how people learn math since then.My experience was very drill-oriented, with memorization a very important piece of success. Now, our focus is on students learning a variety of ways to solve problems. A second and very important piece of our math teaching is the emphasis on student discourse (explaining processes verbally to each other). Research in recent years shows that students that are explaining and listening to each other are learning effectively as they do it. This is a huge departure from my own education, where we worked alone, often against long assignments of repetitive problems.

There are many parents who have the assumption that math is black and white, with one right way to do it.  I admit I had that mindset about math (luckily my teaching was in history!). This changed for me when I attended a session at a conference where we were asked to solve simple math problems, then share how we had solved them. I was astounded when people began to share. Even on simple math questions, there were a huge number of adults who had used a variety of methods to solve those problems. This changed my thinking, opening up a world of tremendous complexity in how students learn.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Parent's Role in Sports

I went to Stayton High School on Friday night along with other Stayton High School athletic parents to watch a video about what middle and high school age athletes want from their parents as they engage in sports. The speaker in the video, Bruce Brown, is a successful high school coach who spent many years interviewing student-athletes about their experiences, looking for what they enjoyed and didn't enjoy about their high school sports experience.  Of course I went in thinking that I was the perfectly detached parent, but that it would be of interest as both my boys play various sports. The video, of course, was very well done, and all who attended were able to complete a reflection sheet while they watched. In the course of the video, I have to admit that I spent no small amount of time reflecting on my own expectations of my boys, and will certainly change some things about how I interact with them from now on.

I think the most important thing that Coach Brown said in the video was simply to "Release Your Child to the Sport."  This has tremendous implications for parents. First, it means that their successes and adversity are theirs--and theirs alone. It means that when we talk to our kids about sports, that we don't bring our own expectations to the conversation, and that we support them in the sport and as a part of a team. Coach Brown made a great point when he said that sports is one of the few areas where parents have the freedom to allow this sort of complete freedom. We exercise tremendous influence and some control in their choice of friends, in their grades, in responsibly using their free time. But in sports, it is healthy only if it is theirs.

While Coach Brown introduced several  topics that made me think, one that was particularly worth mentioning is what he says student-athletes want from their parents after games. What they want is time and space. They don't want to re-hash the game with their dad or mom. They want anything else. He had two great stories about this. He told about a girl who had taken a scholarship at a school over a thousand miles from where she lived, despite having several local schools who had offered her scholarships. Her major reason? To get away from a dad who spent hours after each game talking about each play. Another boy ( a great athlete in several sports)  he coached would stay in the locker room long after the other boys had left--until he knew his dad had gone to bed.

So, thanks to Darren Shryock for putting the evening together. I will definitely put some of what I learned to use in the Gardner house, and I'm sure my boys will thank me for it!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

While I am very proud of the focus on instruction that we have in the district, and while it is always rewarding to be in classrooms and see our teaching staff truly working in new and engaging ways with kids, it is always worth remembering what the truly fundamentally important things are.

First, like all people, kids want to know that you care about them as a person. There's an old adage about teaching that goes "I don't care what you know until I know that you care". While education has progressed a great deal in the last few years through great research, people--including students-- by and large remain the same. We simply cannot get anything done with our students until we adopt a positive, welcoming and engaging approach to dealing with students. Parents often talk about the "feel" of a building. While it's not scientific, I agree that it is a real thing. It is the many small messages that people send that signals their attitude, their beliefs, that we all can read and decipher.

The only approach or response to this reality is to make the choice to send positive messages and trust it will pay off. The bamboo plant is a great example. Seeds are watered for over a year, with no growth seen above ground. Then, sudddenly, the plant will sprout and grow many feet in a day. Often  in my career I have stated to teachers that positive relationships must have positive actions and statements, and that it is always the teacher who must make the first step. Teachers, like all people, have absolute control over what comes out of our mouths and the actions we take. We can choose to engage students.  One of our principals once greeted a student every morning for three weeks as they came to school, and got no response from the student. Then the student had an issue and needed help. Who did that student come to? Of course, the student came to the principal.  Sometimes it takes time, but we lose nothing by our positive actions;  it's truly watering the bamboo.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Home Construction and Pathways

Some of the most difficult work we have going right now is the sustaining of our Career-Related Pathways. I guess if it were easy, everyone would just snap their fingers and do it. The work is of course made easier by our very willing and motivated partners, such as Santiam Hospital, Emery and Sons and HP Civil. They help in every way they can. Probably the greatest challenge for  SHS Principal Alan Kirby and myself is the myriad of requirements in each industry's workplace. When we work with home construction, we must labor through all of the challenges of that industry, and then mesh it with our school system requirements. The health care world is literally that; a whole new world with different systems yet again. It is dizzying, to say the least.

And yet it's fun. The idea that we can create in our high schools systems that allow students to learn about careers and actually have experiences in them is a concept that adds great value to our high school students' experience. I can't say enough about our partners.  Bill Martinak in particular is always ready, and gets on the next task immediately. A great person to work with.