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Educating the ‘Whole Child’ Is Complex. Will Schools Get It Right?

Recipe blends academics with SEL, character development.

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The idea that education isn’t simply about academics is nothing new. But efforts are mounting to promote a better balance in schools, to more explicitly address students’ social and emotional learning (SEL), build strong character, and foster civic responsibility.

The terminology varies, but the broad concept is sometimes referred to as “educating the whole child.” What’s it all about? What’s driving the increased interest and attention? And are public schools today really equipped to deliver this expansive vision of education?

“Teaching the whole child, teaching the head and the heart, teaching information and inspiration: Putting these back together in schools has great promise for the future,” said Timothy Shriver, who co-chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, during a session at the Education Writers Association’s 2019 National Seminar in Baltimore.

“We have spent a lot of time in the ‘either or.’ Either academics or social-emotional [development]. Either classrooms or families,” said Shriver, a former U.S. ambassador to France and also the chair of the Special Olympics. “It’s the era of ‘both and.’ This paradigm has now, I think, taken hold.”

The broad-based Aspen Institute commission’s final report amounted to a call to action for this expansive vision for schooling. Members of the commission included education leaders, researchers, two recent governors, and others.

“The members of this coalition of conscience are … working to transform schools into places that foster empathy, respect, self-mastery, character, creativity, collaboration, civic engagement and—on the strength of these values—academic excellence,” declared the commission’s January report.

Akin to a Julia Child Recipe?

But getting this right won’t be easy, cautioned Chester E. Finn, Jr., a distinguished fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.

“The ‘whole child’ has been a concern for good educators and good schools forever,” Finn said during the EWA panel. “The current enthusiasm for social and emotional learning partakes, I think, of this tradition of concern for the whole child. And I think that is a fine thing.”

And yet, the “full recipe” of social, emotional, and academic learning done well, Finn argued, is “an extremely complex recipe.” He said: “It reminds me … of the early, original Julia Child cookbook, where you could find a recipe that goes on for seven pages that calls for 27 ingredients.”

Much might be lost in the translation from ideas into action in public schools, cautioned Finn, a former U.S. assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration who recently stepped down as president of the Maryland State Board of Education. (Finn earlier this year coauthored a report, “What Social and Emotional Learning Needs to Succeed and Survive,” published by the American Enterprise Institute.)

“There isn’t any question that this is hard to do,” said Pamela Cantor, the founder and senior science advisor of Turnaround for Children, a national nonprofit that aims to translate neuroscientific research into tools and strategies to better serve students who face adversity.

“And we have an infrastructure not set up to do it,” Cantor said at the event. “But … with the knowledge we have today, the urgency to take that knowledge and figure out how to integrate the pieces so that they become a whole” is essential.

She added: “We have to have far more experimentation in schools, new models, on exactly how to put the practice pieces together.”

Joshua Starr, a former schools superintendent who now leads PDK International, says that while he has long embraced the value of social and emotional learning, he worries about misunderstanding and poor implementation.

“I’m concerned that the concept of SEL has itself become too fuzzy to be useful,” he writes in a piece titled “Can We Keep SEL on Course?” “[It] has come to mean many things to many people. … “[E]ducators with scant time to read deeply into the research might be tempted to choose the shiniest apple, implementing a model that may not be the right fit for their needs.”

Many Teachers Feel Ill-Prepared to Teach SEL

Survey results released in July by the Education Week Research Center indicate that when it comes to social and emotional learning, many educators feel they need help.

Most teachers (78%) said they agree that helping students develop strong social and emotional skills is part of their job, but only about half (54%) believe they are good at doing so. And a smaller share (40%) said they have “adequate solutions and strategies” to use for students who lack strong skills in these domains. The top three challenges teachers said they face are limited time (given the need to cover academic content), lack of support from families, and inadequate training.

Meanwhile, new polling data from the journal Education Next sought to gauge the priority parents and educators place on academic performance compared with social and emotional learning.

“Parents prize academics over social and emotional learning, and it’s not close,” wrote Frederick M. Hess, an editor at Education Next and an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, to sum up the results. “Across parents and teachers, all ethnic groups, and both Republicans and Democrats, more than 60 percent of respondents said academic performance mattered most. The takeaway: To the extent that the push for SEL is seen as an effort to downplay academic instruction or excuse a lack of student learning, it’s going to encounter headwinds.”

At the EWA conference, Laina Cox, the middle school principal at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., described how her school aims to weave together the academic and nonacademic aspects of schooling. The school is part of EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning), a national network.

“We have three dimensions of achievement in EL education: Mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality work,” she said. “None of these dimensions can be successful without the other.”

“We make habits and character values visible in school culture and instruction. We model respect and compassion as part of the school culture. And we prioritize social-emotional learning. So our lessons are not just academic content.”

‘A School Where Character Matters’

A cornerstone of this work are the “expeditions” that Capital City and other schools in the EL Education network use.

“We use expeditions, which are like larger units and themes, and students are assessed in those expeditions on both academic mastery but also habits or character mastery. With every assignment, task, larger product, students receive a grade for their understanding of the content as well as how they reflected on the topic or used habits” (of scholarship).

“Our character values — compassion, contribution, courage, self-discipline and integrity — go beyond just being painted on our walls. … Students spend time breaking these values down, they understand what they actually look like, what they sound like, what they feel like. And we do that from day one.”

Cox’s school was featured this month in an article by journalist Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report: A School Where Character Matters as Much as Academics.

After hearing Cox talk about her school and its approach at the EWA seminar, Finn said, “If we had a hundred thousand principals like this, I’d feel a lot more optimistic.”

Shriver agreed that there’s reason for concern in how schools tackle educating the whole child.

“The risk of bad practice is enormous,” said Shriver, who also is the chair of the Council for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a research and advocacy group. “The risk of sloppy implementation is enormous. The risk of ideological appropriation is enormous. But not to be cute, but we’re not trying to do this because it’s easy.”

What Should Reporters Be Looking For?

The panel’s moderator, Laura Meckler of The Washington Post, wrote a story in May that examined the push for SEL in schools through the example of an Atlanta high school that held a symbolic funeral: “A Mock Funeral Aims to Help Students Bury Their Pain.”

She asked the speakers what journalists should look for when trying to gauge the success of a particular school’s efforts.

“First of all comprehensiveness,” replied Shriver. “Is it a K-12 program or is it a widget? Secondly, are teachers trained comprehensively?”

He added: “Is there a teacher who says, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I hate this stuff. I don’t like it. I prefer to teach the periodic table.’ That’s bad implementation by definition. Are there measures? Is there engagement from families?”

A reporter asked the panelists how a state can measure social and emotional learning across districts in an objective manner. Cantor of Turnaround for Children offered words of caution.

“We are a long way from having measures of social and emotional skills themselves,” she said. “Were they to be accountability measures, there is a tremendous amount of risk, … the kinds of perversion that happens when you seek to make something an accountability measure that is a developmental human skill and that will, in fact, change over time.”

Finn added, “I think that there’s a metrics challenge facing this whole thing.” The Maryland State Board of Education examined this issue recently when it sought to create new school accountability plans in light of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. “We looked for quality measures that would pick up on noncognitive, nontest score, non-achievement things. And we got sort of stuck on [finding] things that would be uniform, measurable, equitable and so forth, and applicable statewide.”

In the end, Finn said, the state ended up developing a school climate survey for teachers and students to take (in grades 5-12).

“But there’s always these risks with surveys; people can manipulate the outcomes of them,” he said. In addition, the state included attendance as part of its new accountability plan, with the notion being that high attendance rates “would be the sign of a healthy school, though that’s flawed, too, because there are other reasons sometimes why kids can’t make it to school, even if they’d like to.”

However, this month, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning released a new report based on work by scholars, test developers, and educators that describes the “evolving field” of SEL assessments and how to improve them. A top finding is that “social and emotional competencies can not only be taught—they can also be measured.”

At the EWA event, Cox of Capital City Public Charter School urged journalists, as they cover educating for SEL and character, to remember a powerful source of insights.

“Talk to students. Come into our schools and sit with our kids,” she said. “A lot of the stories live within our students, and sometimes they’re not the ones being asked. So, ask them about character. Ask them some questions. They may not have all the bells and whistles and terms … but listen to them tell stories and give examples.”