Back to Skills

Left Out of ESSA Plans, What’s Next for Social-Emotional Learning?

Back to Skills

Given the opportunity to go beyond a singular focus on test scores to measure schools’ success, will states begin holding schools accountable for teaching skills like perseverance, empathy, and self-control? As Education Week’s Evie Blad reports, the answer appears to be “no,” at least for now.

Forty-eight states have submitted plans to revamp their school accountability systems to the U.S. Department of Education for review. None include measures of students’ social and emotional learning as an accountability indicator. (The department, so far, has approved 15 state plans.)

“That raises some new questions,” Blad writes. “Did backers of social-emotional learning miss a chance to encourage wider adoption of its strategies? Or did they avoid the concerns and pitfalls that would have come with attaching it to high-stakes accountability?”

A key dimension of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a 2015 rewrite of federal education law, was to broaden the ways school quality and success are judged. As Blad explains:

“In addition to traditional measures of success like student test scores, ESSA requires states to use at least one additional ‘indicator of school quality or student success, such as measures of student engagement or access to advanced coursework. The law gave states broad latitude in which factors they selected.”, requiring that those measures allow for “meaningful differentiation in school performance” and are “valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide.”

With that in mind, there was some expectation that states would find ways to measure how schools are developing students’ social and emotional skills. Instead, as The 74 reports, states have mostly opted to measure rates of chronic absenteeism.

The reason for that is simple — schools already collect attendance information, so including this in an accountability system should be straightforward. On the other hand, figuring out how to accurately measure skills like self-control and empathy (not to mention tying them to high-stakes accountability systems) presents an entirely new set of challenges.

‘A Unified Voice’

But just because social-emotional learning isn’t included in state plans doesn’t mean work to integrate it into schools has stalled.

Just last month, a broad alliance of scholars and scientists released a series of consensus statements affirming that the ability of students to manage and express their emotions, persevere through difficulties, and relate to peers is deeply and inextricably linked with students’ academic success.

Few parents or teachers would disagree that students need perseverance, empathy, and problem solving skills to succeed in school and life. But the extent to which schools should be intentionally teaching these skills, and how, remains an open question.

The report, published by the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development at the Aspen Institute, explains that it is misguided to separate students’ social and emotional development from other areas of development.

“Major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior, and all are central to learning,” the report states.

With the consensus statement, the commission hopes to unify the field of social and emotional learning and create a foundation from which their work can move forward in both policy and practice, Tim Shriver, co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and a co-chair of the Commission, said at an event in September marking the report’s release.

“This document positions us not just to unite scholars … but we can now create a research agenda that is cutting edge,” Shriver said. “ We can now create frameworks for practice. We can now create a unified voice for policy change that we can agree on.”

Shriver’s emphasis on unity was not accidental. Efforts to integrate social and emotional development with academic development have been stymied by a lack of consensus on what “social and emotional learning” is.

A lot of terms are used to describe dimensions of SEL, such as soft skills, non-cognitive or non-academic skills, grit, growth mindset, and even character education.

The Aspen report narrows in on about a dozen specific social and emotional skills linked to school and life success, and suggests that disagreement within the field is to be expected with such a complex topic.

“This lack of consistency doesn’t mean that social and emotional competence is soft, immeasurable, irrelevant, or faddish,” the report states. “It means that social and emotional development is multifaceted and is integral to academics—to how school happens, and to how learning takes place.”

What’s Next for SEL?

The commission argues that schools have a unique role to play in ensuring that students have the opportunity to obtain and hone these skills. Just how exactly schools can most effectively do that remains an area for further research. The report stops short of prescribing specific strategies or programs for fostering social and emotional skills, instead outlining a broad set of conditions that are necessary for effective implementation.

At EWA’s recent National Seminar, the Aspen report’s lead author, Stephanie Jones, explained how some schools are taking a much more purposeful approach to teaching students social and emotional skills, and how some school districts are attempting to measure those abilities.