Commission Formed to Advance Schools’ Focus on Social, Emotional Development

By Evie Blad — September 20, 2016 5 min read
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A commission convened by the Aspen Institute will kick off a multi-year endeavor in November to explore how educators, policymakers, and researchers can more thoroughly incorporate students’ social and emotional development into the work of schools.

The aim of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which has members from all three sectors, is to “advance a new vision for what constitutes success in schools: the full integration of social, emotional, and academic development to ensure every student is prepared to thrive in school and in life,” the Aspen Institute said in a news release announcing the group’s formation.

That work, which will culminate in a list of specific recommendations in late 2018, builds on steps already taken by individual research and advocacy groups that seek to advance the mission of public schools beyond traditional academics to include a focus on issues like a students’ ability to recognize and respond to his or her own emotions, to form effective peer relationships, and to persevere through difficulty. The field includes various overlapping approaches which each come with their own names, including social-emotional learning, character education, noncognitive skills, and soft skills.

Advocates and researchers say nurturing students’ social and emotional skills will boost their achievement in the classroom and help prepare them to meet the needs of a changing economy as they enter the work force.

“I do think we are at a unique moment where parents are asking for this, educators are asking for this, employers are asking for this, and science is telling us we need to do this,” Ross Wiener, executive director of the education and society program at the Aspen Insitute, said in an interview. “Lots of forces are converging to suggest that it’s an important time to go from whether we should do this to how we should do this.”

The commission will be co-chaired by three familiar names to anyone who is active in the social-emotional learning field: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor and the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute; John Engler, the president of the Business Roundtable and former three-term governor of Michigan; and Tim Shriver, co-founder and chair of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and chairman of the Special Olympics.

The commission’s members, recruited in part by the three chairs, include two sitting governors—Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican.

Members also include Laszlo Bock, a senior adviser at Google; Atlanta schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphan; Oakland, Calif., schools Superintendent Antwan Wilson; Camille Farrington, the managing director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Gen. Craig McKinley, a retired U.S. Air Force general and president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association; Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center; Pedro Noguera, education professor at the University of California Los Angeles; James Shelton, the president of education for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York.

The group convenes as a new federal education law turns schools’ focus to a broader set of “whole child” issues. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to add an “additional indicator” to their school accountability systems in addition to traditional factors, like student test scores. Some have suggested states use the new law as an impetus to encourage or require schools’ to emphasize students’ social-emotional skills.

Leaders of the commission said it will watch states’ new accountability plans for lessons as it completes its recommendations.

But, if advocates can’t even agree on what to call these skills and traits, how will they come up with a uniform set of recommendations?

Commission organizers intentionally sought to bring together diverse voices from different organizations, streams of research, and interest groups “to build natural allies and to break down some of those silos,” said Shirley Brandman, the executive director of the commission and a past president of the school board in Montgomery County, Md.

“Our expectation is that this group is going to take a really deliberate look at what we know and take a look at the gap between what we know and what we do,” she said.

Recommendations could include a “road map” of how skills could be strengthened among children of different ages, new directions for research, and practical steps for policymakers.

To be sure, there are some sticky issues the group will have to tackle, especially in the politically sensitive environment that has followed several years of heated debates over the Common Core State Standards. CASEL saw this first-hand recently when Tennessee dropped out of its multi-state collaborative that is set to explore standards for teaching social-emotional learning in schools. As Chalkbeat Tennessee reported, the decision to withdraw from the collaborative followed “a flurry of complaints from Tennessee lawmakers charging that the standards were an overreach by the state, even though they would have been voluntary and never would have been assessed.”

“Some groups and bloggers also joined in, charging that the federal government is seeking to track and manipulate kids’ feelings and relationships,” Chalkbeat reported.

Brandman said the commission sought to address those type of concerns by recruiting a diverse group of members who can help inform conversations about messaging, policy, and the needs of schools and students throughout the process.

The commission will also take advice from a group of youth advisers, a council of educators, and a council of scientists formed to support its work.

“We have people from all different perspectives... so that we don’t have these conversations without being really aware of what’s happening in these communities,” Brandman said.

Related reading on social-emotional learning and non-cognitive skills:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.