Needed: A New Strategy to Promote Social and Emotional Learning in Public Schools

A New Strategy

Common Einstein lore indicates that he kept a sign in his office that read: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The last thirty years of public school accountability policies and rules (i.e., the standards and accountability movement) have proven this to be true. We tend to measure what is easiest to measure, without regard for what might be the most impactful or important topics for children and their success.

The most recent example is discouraging: States have not taken advantage of the measurement flexibility afforded them by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The federal legislation intended to stimulate state-level innovation by encouraging states to “count” something new—something they could begin measuring in order to jumpstart the process of managing and improving it over time. This flexible category is commonly called the “fifth indicator” because the Department of Education requires four consistent indicators from all states.

Unfortunately, 34 states have chosen student attendance as their fifth indicator. Attendance certainly tops the list of “countable”—we’ve been counting children in seats since the days of the single room schoolhouse. However, we know from our two hundred years of experience that collecting and reporting attendance does little if anything to create meaningful dialogue or improvement related to school quality.

Perhaps even more discouraging is the fact that not a single state included Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) as its fifth indicator. SEL is a type of learning defined by students’ self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. Despite gaining significant momentum in recent years through research literature and numerous education publications and conferences, this is a significant blow to the SEL movement.

Social and Emotional Learning skills have been shown to deliver significant, lasting benefits to students, including improved academic, attitudinal, and behavioral outcomes. Students who receive SEL instruction experience improved academic achievement, motivation, and persistence, and decreased incidences of depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. What’s more, the vast majority of Americans believe it is important for schools to help students develop these skills.

SEL is obviously more difficult to measure than attendance, or even student academic proficiency. But educators, researchers, and policymakers alike have clearly demonstrated their determination to identify high-quality SEL measures through experimentation. From using surveys to observational data to online engagement tracking, researchers and practitioners have already made significant progress at measuring these critical skills.

Much of the work on defining, promoting, and measuring SEL has been led by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a well-funded and impressive organization with widespread support from organizations such as the Institute of Education Sciences and the Wallace, Spencer, and Stuart Foundations. CASEL and its partners have gone to tremendous lengths to promote the value of SEL via publications, conferences, and grassroots education. Other organizations, like the RAND Corporation, have also made important contributions to SEL measurement.

However, given recent trends, it now seems clear that current efforts alone are not enough to ensure all students have the opportunity to receive SEL instruction. K-12 education also needs a unified, comprehensive strategy to promote SEL instruction and measurement in schools. This will most likely include uncovering the root causes for why states failed to seize the “fifth indicator” opportunity; identifying the main obstacles to increased SEL focus; and developing a policy framework to continue advancing this important movement. Social and Emotional Learning counts for a lot, and all students deserve access to the lifelong benefits of SEL instruction.

Dr. Trent Kaufman

Senior Partner and CEO

Dr. Trent Kaufman is Co-founderPartner, and CEO of Cicero GroupTrent’s areas of expertise include K-20 education, quantitative and qualitative research methodology, performance management, strategy, and sales and marketing analytics.  Among his teams and clients, Trent is known for developing sophisticated systems to enable the use of performance data to maximize individual and team performance at organizations of varied purpose and form.

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