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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Research Matters / SEL: Getting the "Other Stuff" Right

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School Culture
Social-emotional learning
Several years ago, Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, former heads of the New York and Washington, D.C., school systems, respectively, sparked a debate when they joined forces with more than a dozen other education leaders to issue a "manifesto" in the Washington Post (2010) that declared "the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income—it is the quality of their teacher." They then issued a call to broom out incompetent teachers. 
In a pointed response, economist Richard Rothstein (2010) noted decades of research showing schools and teachers account for, at best, only about one-third of the variance in student achievement, and that two-thirds of students' success in school stems from other factors, including mobility, chronic stress, hunger and malnutrition, and health. To this list, he might have added dispositional factors, like whether students possess goal-directedness, curiosity, self-regulation, persistence, and psychological well-being. 
Researchers often group such competencies into two categories: intrapersonal (like persisting in achieving goals and understanding one's emotions) and interpersonal (like empathizing, communicating, and collaborating with others). Such categorization is far from a settled matter. As a team from the American Institutes for Research (Berg et al., 2017) found, 136 frameworks, models, and constructs have been proffered to arrange and measure this sweeping set of competencies—more commonly known to educators as "social-emotional learning" (SEL). 
In many ways, SEL encompasses all the "other stuff"—the student dispositions and traits schools have traditionally left to chance—that much research now shows is vital to student success. Therein lies the promise of SEL: If we can help students develop these competencies, we might finally narrow achievement gaps and help all students succeed. So, can SEL programs make a difference in student achievement? 

Promising Results, Pesky Caveats 

Here's what we know to date. It appears that students' experiences in schools and classrooms can shape their development of SEL competencies. An in-depth analysis of surveys of the social-emotional competencies of more than 150,000 students in five California districts, for example, found that students' growth on these measures varied depending on which school they attended—which suggests school environments influence students' development of these competencies (Loeb et. al, 2018). 
Several studies also suggest schools can explicitly develop social-emotional competencies in students. One RAND study of 60 SEL interventions nationwide found significant effects from these programs, mostly for nonacademic outcomes, like self-esteem, self-concept, and growth mindset. A handful of programs the RAND study examined (5 to 13 percent) demonstrated positive impact on academic outcomes (Grant et al., 2017). And a meta-analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs involving 270,034 K–12 students found moderate effects of SEL programs (equivalent to an 11-percentile-point gain) on achievement (Durlak et al., 2011). In addition, a Columbia University examination of six school-based SEL interventions found a strong, positive return on investment; that is, a rather minimal investment in SEL programs generated significant returns in learning, which could translate into future increases in earnings and reduced societal costs (Belfield et al., 2015). 
Some important caveats emerge from these studies, however. For one, Durlak and colleagues' meta-analysis observed wide variance in the effects of different programs: Some succeeded while others fell flat. What contributed to these differences? According to the researchers, successful programs engaged students in intensive learning reflecting the acronym SAFE: programs were sequenced with step-by-step approaches, included active learning, focused time and attention on skills development, and had clear, explicit learning objectives. The meta-analysis also revealed two other influencing factors: whether staff delivered key aspects of the program faithfully and whether some unexpected event derailed the SEL lessons. 

Three Takeaways and a Question 

Here are some takeaways for leaders eyeing or engaging in SEL programs: 
▪ Be clear what you're trying to accomplish. SEL can mean different things to different people, so be clear what it means to you—especially to your school's teachers, who'll likely be the ones to implement your program. Before adding something else to teachers' plates, articulate what you expect them to do and what will happen as a result. No one should assume a focus on SEL will magically translate into achievement gains. RAND researchers recommend using a logic model to link SEL programs to desired outcomes. 
▪ Think twice before using SEL measures for accountability purposes. Researchers worry that measures of SEL outcomes are still in their infancy and thus aren't completely valid or reliable. In the California study of school effects on student SEL outcomes (Loeb et. al, 2018), idiosyncrasies in the data left researchers concerned that the student survey tools might be picking up other factors—even just students' moods while taking the surveys. Pressuring schools and teachers to boost students' SEL competencies through accountability levers may be unfair and likely counterproductive. 
▪ Have an experimental mindset. Because SEL programs often run aground on the shoals of poor intensity or implementation, engaging in rapid-cycle research to monitor program implementation, track progress toward outcomes, and make course corrections will improve your chances of smooth sailing. 
With SEL being ill-defined, difficult to implement, and tricky to measure, we might ask whether infusing SEL training into schools is worth it. Likely, yes. With two-thirds of what drives student success falling outside the usual focus of schooling, schools cannot afford to ignore all the "other stuff" that drives success. That said, school factors like ensuring effective teaching and delivering a challenging curriculum are still vital for student success. So, perhaps the biggest takeaway here is to avoid trading one set of "stuff" for the other, deciding SEL matters more than curriculum and instruction or vice versa. Our students need us to focus on doing all the right stuff right. 

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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