Education Opinion

Social and Emotional Learning in Vermont

By Contributing Blogger — August 08, 2018 4 min read
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This post was written by Bryant Best, Program Associate for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Follow him on Twitter at educator_x.

Students take different paths to their future college and career choices, and it’s important for their learning environments in K-12 to prepare them for the future. State leaders see their efforts to promote student-centered learning environments as a key strategy to increase student and family engagement in the learning process, ensure students receive timely and targeted support to master standards and essential competencies, and encourage students to pursue pathways that prepare them for their college and career plans.

CCSSO’s Innovation Lab Network is designed to help state education agencies identify, support, and scale deeper learning efforts across the United States. Our member states, 15 in total, serve a diverse set of student demographics and operate in a variety of sociopolitical contexts. But one thing that ties them together is their commitment to leveraging policy, research, and evidence-based practices to make public education more equitable.

I had the chance to catch up recently with Vermont Agency of Education Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler and Vermont’s Personalized Learning Coordinator, Sigrid Olson. The state has spent this past year participating in the ILN’s “Whole Child” peer learning community, which gives states the opportunity to share successes, challenges, and best practices related to whole child approaches, personalized learning, and social and emotional learning (SEL). During our conversation, we discussed the state’s vision for these policies and practices, how they came to define them, and what they see as the next big steps for public education in Vermont.

Q: What is it about participation in the ILN that your state leaders appreciate or find valuable?

Fowler: Honestly, it would be foolish for us not to participate in the ILN. Our engagement in the four ILN peer learning communities offers us critical opportunities to connect with experts and other states in a way that we would not have been able to do on our own, at least not as quickly as the pace of innovation demands. As a result, we can provide better service to our state’s students, educators, teachers--all stakeholders, really--because of the way the ILN challenges our thinking and allows us to better articulate our goals.

Q: Talk to me about your state’s work in the Whole Child peer learning community. That community is dedicated to integrating personalized learning, SEL, and whole child efforts into one coherent system of learning support. How would you describe that integration process in your state?

Olson: As far as whole child approaches go, we believe that they are captured really well in our state’s Education Quality Standards (EQS). We consider Vermont’s EQS to be very student-centered because of its holistic focus. It covers just about everything--academic content, school climate, staffing, and even financial allocations. Our Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) offers a framework that addresses the needs of the whole child. This includes academics, behavior, and social emotional learning. Vermont’s view of personalized learning contains five key attributes. Three of those attributes, personal relationships, student agency, and learner profiles, are all heavily integrated with and dependent upon SEL.

This work didn’t take place overnight and our commitment to this work has been informed by our practitioners in the field; some schools in Vermont have been engaging in student-centered learning for many years. The Flexible Pathways Initiative, also referred to as Act 77, and EQS codified our ability to support this work statewide. We’ve been very successful in establishing a strong community of stakeholders across the agency to inform Vermont’s PLC. As a result, we have multiple perspectives to support the development of the whole child, and their social and emotional attributes, through a personalized learning system.

Q: You mentioned that you have established a group of stakeholders within your agency. Have you been able to get any support from district or school leaders across your state as well?

Fowler: Of course! This isn’t a “top-down” approach; Vermont is a small state and collaboration with the field is essential. One of the original goals of the whole child PLC was to create a shared understanding of terms related to SEL and the whole child. In Vermont, we revised many of our terms through brainstorming and feedback sessions with educators around the state, including curriculum directors and pre-service teachers. These revised terms, created through this collaborative process, became our new personalized and proficiency-based learning glossaries. In addition, the long-terms goals of the PLC will be to expand our stakeholder group, align resources, and highlight the important work of SEL educators around the state.

The BEST/MTSS Summer Institute focuses on the behavior, social emotional, and academic needs of all students using a multi-tiered system of supports framework.

Q: Finally, what advice do you have for states looking to engage in this work?

Olson: First things first, get involved in the ILN! We will be attending their biannual convening next month in Denver, Colorado. It will be a great opportunity for us to connect with other states, share best practices, and witness some of the great work taking place in Denver Public Schools! Second, we suggest that any SEA that wants to engage in this work really take the time to craft a clear theory of action. Use that to pitch the work to potential stakeholders in your agency and across your state. The buy-in is the most important piece. If you get that, everything else will fall into place.

Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Education

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