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What’s Next for the Social, Emotional, and Academic Movement?

By Ross Wiener — October 31, 2018 5 min read
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The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development tapped into vast, pent-up demand for a richer, more holistic vision of student success. It’s been a remarkable collaboration and an incredible learning journey for the many educators, parents, students, scholars, and policymakers who contributed to this effort. As I reflect on this experience and plan for the next chapter, four findings stand out as foundational:

1. A Rich Vision of Student Success is Essential

Education has never been exclusively about academics—because preparing for college, career, and citizenship isn’t only about reading and math achievement. Without compromising any of the rigor reflected in college-and-career-ready standards, we need to act on the knowledge that schools have an essential role in preparing young people to take their place in the community. Properly understood, strong academic standards create an ideal context for realizing this holistic vision, but supporting students in developing character, life skills, and agency can no longer be relegated only to a supporting role in reaching test-score goals.

2. Effective Practice Sits on a Three-Legged Stool

With a rich vision of student success in mind, it is clear that the answer is not a program or intervention. Social-emotional and academic development has to be infused into every aspect of the school and student experience. The National Commission coalesced around the sturdy vision of a three-legged stool: Students need (1) explicit instruction in understanding and applying social-emotional skills/competencies; (2) opportunities to practice these skills/competencies embedded into academic instruction; and (3) a learning environment that models safety, respect, and purpose so that students can invest their whole selves in learning.

3. Equity Must Be an Explicit Goal

When we acknowledge that education plays a pivotal role in students’ development as learners, leaders, and members of the broader community, we also have to recognize that sensitive issues of identity development are implicated. These issues are experienced through the prism of race in America―by students, families, and teachers―which is especially important to address in a system of public education that serves majority students of color with an overwhelmingly white teaching force. There are at least three dimensions of equity in this context:

Resources: Straight-up resource inequity persists, representing a moral failure of our society. Resources should be allocated relative to need, including additional counseling, mental-health support, and wrap-around services for the many children who experience trauma through exposure to violence, neglect and abuse, and food and housing insecurity. The National Commission highlights ways that school systems can more effectively partner with out-of-school-time youth development organizations to foster more seamless connections in support of learning and development.

Identity: Creating learning environments and experiences that enable students to develop into their best selves requires affirming students’ heritage and cultural background as assets to build on. Issues like stereotype threat and implicit bias are flip sides of the same coin and need to be addressed proactively; both teachers and students need to learn that effort and mindset are more determinative of achievement gains than race or socioeconomic status.

Agency: Finally, equity in social-emotional learning requires giving voice to the aspirations and concerns of families, community members, and students themselves―and sharing power with these perspectives. Value judgments inevitably inform thousands of decisions about what to prioritize (and what to stop), how to combine building blocks of student success into a vision and a curriculum, all the way down to what books to read and what cultural institutions to visit on field trips. Parents and students must be actors, not objects, in defining a richer vision of student success and grappling with its implications.

4. Policy Should Prioritize, But Not Prescribe

As should be clear from the equity discussion, policy has to invest in setting enabling conditions, but should tread carefully so as not to displace community prerogatives. There simply is no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing an agenda that supports the comprehensive development of every young person. Moreover, the most important work happens in schools and classrooms in the context of the communities and families they serve; this work needs to be both responsive to local context and iterative to reflect what is learned over time. Policymakers can bring focus through the bully pulpit and accelerate progress with resources, but ultimately this is a practice-change agenda that needs to be owned by educators along with the students and communities they serve.

The National Commission will release its final recommendations in January 2019, giving voice to a growing consensus that learning is a social-emotional and academic enterprise. Schools need to pay attention to each of these dimensions of learning and development for students to thrive in college, careers, and in their communities.

At the National Commission’s inaugural convening in 2016, youth commissioners poignantly called on all of us to demonstrate greater empathy, trust, and investment in students. The plaintive but wise voices of these young people ring true today, with all of this work taking place at a moment of great opportunity and responsibility. American public education and American democracy both need to be revitalized; neither can succeed without the other. A rich vision for students’ social-emotional and academic development can play a big part in improving student outcomes and renewing the American Dream for the 21st Century. Whatever your role in the work—practitioner, policymaker, parent, student, scholar, employer, or concerned citizen—there is a role for each of us in co-constructing the agenda, collaborating on common goals, and advancing positive change. Watch for the Commission’s final report and livestreamed release event, invite your colleagues to join this effort—and decide on the change that is going to start with you.

Ross Wiener is a vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Education & Society Program.

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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