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Fall 2016 | Volume 22 | Number 3
A Bright Future with SEL
"SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING," or SEL. The term may seem hazy or imprecise, but educators generally agree that it refers to the ways in which children develop healthy mental outlooks, appropriate responses to their own and others' feelings, and positive and respectful attachments. During that process, students learn to make responsible choices; manage their emotions; empathize with others; desire and preserve wholesome relationships; and establish, target, and accomplish suitable objectives, both personal and educational.
Decades of research argue that students need a balance of academic and social and emotional competencies for success in college, careers, and life. Policymakers and practitioners are now discussing the best resources, tools, and supports for embedding SEL across preK–12 schooling. A significant policy lever that will drive this work is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires multiple measures for accountability, including at least one "nonacademic" indicator generally understood to be an SEL measure, such as student engagement, educator engagement, and school climate and safety.
Yet, even as the United States begins implementing SEL across its educational system and shifting from high-stakes, strictly test-based accountability, SEL experts debate whether we can accurately measure and assess these skills and competencies—and if so, whether we should use those results to gauge school quality. This brief will review the complexities of that discussion, as well as the support, challenges, and successes states have experienced in implementing SEL across districts and in schools.
SEL is no longer an "inside baseball" conversation reserved for education professionals, researchers, and academia. Both educators and the public are beginning to better understand that success for our students, beyond high school and through college and careers, means that teaching and learning must focus on more than just core academic content—and that students do not gain social and emotional competencies at the expense of rigorous academics. Decades of research—including Grossman et al.'s 1997 study of violence prevention among elementary schoolchildren and a cost-benefit analysis of SEL in 2015—document how SEL supports academic achievement, deserving, in fact, equal billing with academic outcomes (Vega, 2015).
Roger Weissberg, chief knowledge officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), one of the nation's leading organizations in the field of SEL research, evaluation, and best practices, credits decades of "strategic, steady work" across research, policy, and practice, in helping to highlight the benefits of SEL in delivering a whole child–centered education that supports academic achievement. This wide-ranging work includes the following:
Just last year, a study from the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College found that high- quality, research-validated SEL programs return $11 for every $1 invested.
SEL supporters celebrated the enactment of ESSA in late 2015. The federal law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act requires states' accountability systems to include at least one "nonacademic" indicator of "school quality or student success" that "allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance" and "is valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide" alongside academic data (Ujifusa, 2016). While the law lists student and educator engagement, school climate and safety, and postsecondary readiness as examples of this indicator, states can select their own measures.
As further proof of SEL's rising popularity, a recently formed national commission on SEL—intended to create an implementation roadmap for school leaders by the end of 2018—will convene its first meeting in the fall of 2016.
"SEL is a hot topic right now," agrees education writer and consultant Jonathan E. Martin. He attributes this "moment we are having" to researchers establishing, "in a substantial way, the significance of social and emotional learning for success in school, college, career, and life."
The next few years will be "critical in terms of being able to create as many conditions as possible to help SEL advance," Weissberg notes. He shares that one of CASEL's strategic goals is to have, by 2025, evidence-based SEL in 50 percent of schools nationwide (from preK through high school).
Such a goal "wasn't even in our imagination 20 years ago," Weissberg says. "Now, it's close to being a possibility. That's pretty amazing."
Jonathan Cohen, cofounder and president of the National School Climate Center, believes that we are at a tipping point on SEL and prosocial educational improvement efforts.
"My hope, as states grapple with ESSA, is that they think about sustainable school improvement efforts which integrate and support academic and the so-called nonacademic aspects of student learning," Cohen says.
In documenting the evolution of SEL, Weissberg shares that the acronym "CASEL" used to refer to the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning. To underscore the organization's focus to balance all types of learning, he lobbied in 2001 for changing its name to the current Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. The name change led to so many debates regarding the relationship between academic learning and SEL, he said, that he and collaborators were prompted to write Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? (Teachers College Press, 2004), a book that helped to build the empirical base for connecting SEL to academic performance.
Adding SEL components to teaching does not mean that educators will be "giving up on academics," notes Shirley Brandman, executive director of the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. "Rather, this is a way of better engaging students to ensure that they will be very well academically prepared."
Policymakers are key to integrating social and emotional development into K–12's core mission, Brandman points out. "Until policymakers understand the foundational relationship between SEL and academic success, they will continue to see it as peripheral. As long as social and emotional development is seen as simply an 'extra,' it is vulnerable to being cut" in schools "when scores aren't so good"—a move that, in fact, stymies academic achievement.
While awareness of the benefits of SEL may be greater than ever before, it has not spurred a majority of state policymakers to act systemically to entrench it at the school level.
"Any changes that have occurred in practice and policy are occurring at the local school system or classroom-based level or by happenstance at the state education agency level," remarks Albert Wat, a senior policy director at the Alliance for Early Success.
The inclusion of language in ESSA to assess educational progress via multiple measures of success, a longstanding ASCD priority, might incentivize SEL policies and practices at a quicker pace, notes David Griffith, ASCD senior director of government relations.
Cohen expresses hope that new conversations on new ways to measure educational progress will lead state policymakers to use educational data more as a "flashlight versus a hammer."
He credits a number of states, such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Georgia, for using school climate data to engage their school communities "in systemic, relational, or instructional strategies" that support students' academic and social and emotional needs.
Cohen points out that he's hearing more conversation about the importance of moving away from purely top- down, state-led policies to policies that support bottom-up solutions from local school systems. The former approaches, he believes, "are much less powerful in transforming school climate and culture and in creating the right environment for SEL to take hold and sustain long term."
A report published by ASCD and the Massachusetts-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, documented SEL policies and practices that are occurring in that state—and lessons other states might extrapolate from them. In creating its report, the study team interviewed leaders from states with strong SEL agendas, such as Kansas, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.
"SEL resonates across so many areas of our work inside and out of the Rhode Island department of education (RIDE), and SEL competencies support college and career readiness, help students meet higher academic standards, and are necessary for the adoption of healthful behaviors and addressing the needs of the whole child," observes Rosemary Reilly-Chammat, an HIV/AIDS sexuality specialist for RIDE and president of Rhode Island ASCD.
Nina Culbertson, senior research associate for the Rennie Center, notes that Massachusetts has created a variety of initiatives and policies that "get abstractly at social and emotional learning," but she adds that state policy has not yet addressed SEL explicitly. State lawmakers have introduced legislation such as recommendations for schools to address bullying, broad SEL guidelines for local school systems, and discipline rules for local schools.
Culbertson says that broad agreement exists among educators and policymakers that "good work can happen without state requirements," such as districts piloting expanded early education SEL standards independent from any state mandate to do so.
Jennifer Poulos, associate director for the Rennie Center, says that the state's department of education aims to "foster an environment that allows local districts to do things such as define SEL in their own local context. Districts across the state are tackling everything from behavior competencies, [such as] self-regulation and behavior management, to professional development leadership focusing on growth mindset."
The pendulum swing toward, and now away, from high-stakes test accountability in measuring educational progress "taught us all that balance is important. People recognize that if you care about the academic performance of our kids, than you have to care about a lot more than just academic performance," remarks Weissberg.
The SEL community of experts agrees that our education system must address social and environmental conditions, such as school climate and relationships, to ensure student academic success. But dissension remains regarding the real possibility of valid assessment of SEL skills and competencies.
A nine-member group of districts in California believes that it's worth trying to figure out.
The California Office to Reform Education (CORE), the nonprofit organization representing the California school districts of Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Sanger, and Santa Ana Unified, focuses on improving student achievement by "fostering highly productive, meaningful collaboration and learning" between its members (CORE website).
Starting this year, the CORE districts will assess their students on how well they have learned specific social and emotional skills, such as self-management, growth mindset, social awareness, and self-efficacy (CORE, 2015).
"Given that the evidence is pretty profound that social and emotional skills, such as self-management, are as important as academic skills inside and outside the classroom, the CORE districts are focused on trying to measure them and put them right next to academic performance on the scale of what matters most in schools," notes Noah Bookman, chief accountability officer for the CORE districts.
Student assessment, Bookman says, will be conducted via self-reporting surveys. He stresses that the CORE districts are "not inventing our own measures but working with the best experts in development across the country, and we are testing the work with independent evaluators to ensure that they are high-value indicators."
"Everyone" at CORE, Bookman continues, "understands that we are still going to use academic achievement data, just more wisely and more appropriately—that's not being taken off the table. We just want to put something else on the table to balance the equation."
Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and scientific director of the Character Lab—a nonprofit that works to advance the science and practice of character development—researches, writes, and speaks extensively on social and emotional competencies such as grit and self-control. She has vigorously opposed the assessment of social and emotional competencies. She recently resigned from CORE's advisory board, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance.
In a March 26, 2016, New York Times op-ed, Duckworth wrote, "Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students' character? Without question. Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no."
Martin is quick to acknowledge concerns held by Duckworth and others regarding SEL assessment. But, he points out, "we need to follow the evidence and study correlation patterns. Divergences will appear if these assessments don't work. But let's wait until the evidence is in before we decide this can't or won't work."
To Martin, how districts that measure SEL respond to the data they receive and what types of improvement plans they generate are more important considerations than the measurements themselves.
"I haven't seen a lot of SEL data action plans," he admits. "Just as schools need help with academic achievement data for effectiveness, they need guidance on ways to incorporate SEL data into school improvement planning and strategies. They need training in how to evaluate the data for teachers. Everyone struggles with 'now what do we do with the data?'"
Researchers have created effective, reliable, and valid SEL measurements and assessments (such as the Tessera noncognitive skills assessment system from NYC-based nonprofit ProExam, designed by two scientists formerly with the Educational Testing Service), Martin observes, but to his knowledge, none are available for school systems to access or purchase commercially. Some that have been in the prototype or beta testing phase for the last few years should be on the market soon.
As more valid and reliable survey instruments appear, Martin notes, educators will need generous support in "how to interpret the data, what significance to make of them, and how to create continuous improvement plans."
The CORE districts are just starting to assess SEL skills, Bookman emphasizes. "It's important to state that I think it's probably too early for states to place SEL skills on their school measurements that count on ESSA-based report cards. I would encourage a modest approach, step-by-step piloting, stakeholder engagement. It takes time, especially across an entire state. We are in the middle of getting more formal understanding of how educators are using—and can use—SEL data."
"At the end of day, the naysayers may be dead-on right that we should not be assessing social and emotional skills or including them in a report card, but I flatly reject that we shouldn't try to figure this out … that education should not be a continuous learning institute," notes Rick Miller, executive director of the CORE districts. "These skills matter, and if we agree to that, we have to find resources, ways to assess them."
Bookman questions the consequences of "not trying" to assess social and emotional competencies. "Do we just continue in the current state where we know this is hugely important, but we don't yet have the measures to go with it? I'd be the first to say that we are just at a starting place, we want better measures, but we are moving the ball forward."
Poulos credits the CORE districts for their work to "raise the profile of not only the importance of SEL but in being committed to finding the best ways to measure it effectively."
CORE, she says, has added SEL indicators as part of its accountability system "with a good buy-in from educators across different roles and communities" after comprehensive conversations with stakeholders about what constitutes SEL skills and competencies—and why they matter.
"When people say, 'We don't know how to measure,' they are wrong," Weissberg believes. The question becomes, well … what are the 'right' ways to use assessment?" California's CORE districts, he points out, are doing some "trailblazing work" in this area.
"We all got into this business thinking that kids are consumers of education and that they should be taken seriously," he continues. "I like the idea of school climate being used as part of a multimeasure accountability system. I personally wouldn't use social and emotional competence assessments for high-stakes accountability at this time. But we have tools that teachers can use formatively to foster students' self- reflection, goal setting, social skills, and decision making."
Griffith argues that educators need to embrace ongoing progress in SEL measurement and assessment, "and to not allow 'the perfect to be the enemy of the good.' ESSA's support for multiple measures of success, such as nonacademic indicators, means that SEL will be measured—and this is a good thing because it provides the ability for policymakers to incentivize SEL efforts.
"The lesson from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act," Griffith adds, "is that if it doesn't 'count,' it falls by the wayside. ESSA was a huge win for SEL, and we have a great opportunity to seize."
The concerns expressed among SEL experts over assessing social and emotional skills and competencies are understandable given the lingering fallout associated with high-stakes testing. While most educators would agree that ESSA is a vastly improved federal law to guide and assess educational progress of U.S. students, a self-described progressive educator such as Martin says that he is "sympathetic to those who think there is an overload of testing in our schools." He also understands the concerns surrounding SEL assessment—such as "whether or not to tell a kid that he is 'low in grit.'"
"The last thing I want is for a student to use that as an excuse for the next three years and to tell everyone around him, 'I'm just not a gritty person,'" Martin says.
"The insanity of high-stakes testing under NCLB … no one wants that," he observes.
When teachers learn about SEL, Weissberg says, they often say, "this is what I wanted to do [when entering the profession], and what I do as a good teacher." The value of SEL, he stresses, is that it "helps educators be reflective and more intentional about educating the whole child and how to promote their competencies more broadly. Teachers just need to be given a framework, tools, and professional learning for how to be intentional and do it well."
Blad, E. (2016, January 6). ESSA law broadens definition of school success. Education Week, 35(15). Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/01/06/essa-law-broadens-definition-of-school-success.html
California Office to Reform Education (CORE). (2015, January 2). Social-emotional & culture-climate domain—social-emotional skills. Retrieved from: http://coredistricts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/SE-CC-Domain-Social-Emotional-Skills-updated-1.2.15.pdf
California Office to Reform Education (CORE). (n.d.). About Us page. Retrieved from: http://coredistricts.org/why-is-core-needed/
Duckworth, A. (2016, March 26). Don't grade schools on grit. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/sunday/dont-grade-schools-on-grit.html?_r=1
Ujifusa, A. (2016, May 26). Education department releases ESSA accountability rules [blog post]. Retrieved from Education Week's Politics K–12. Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2016/05/essa_accountability_rules_release_education_department.html
Vega, V. (2015, December 1). Social and emotional learning research review: Annotated bibliography. Edutopia. Retrieved from: http://www.edutopia.org/sel-research-annotated-bibliography
Barbara Michelman is a freelance education writer and communications consultant who lives in Maryland.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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