One lesson many have taken from the complicated No Child Left Behind story is that school reform efforts tend to suffer when they turn into “national” enterprises. This caution has informed the work of today’s high-flying reform coalitions, including those tackling early childhood education, career and technical education (CTE), and, especially, social-emotional learning (SEL). In the case of SEL, this point was emphasized in last winter’s influential Aspen Institute report, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” which posited that “local ownership drives change” and that “communities must have the flexibility and autonomy to devise plans that work best for them.”
That’s all well and good but is easier said than done. For one thing, it’s not always clear what “national” actually means. Presumably it means keeping things out of the hands of federal policymakers. Except, of course, that early childhood education and CTE advocates eagerly embrace federal funds and actively seek more, while the U.S. House recently passed a bill that would earmark $260 million for “whole child” SEL.
Even if movements steer clear of Washington, they can feel “national” if it seems like influential elites are promoting prescriptive directives that favor particular models, approaches, or metrics across the land. Now, the temptation to do just that can be hard to resist when advocates and funders are motivated by the conviction that some places are getting it right and that others would do well to learn from and emulate them. When we think we know what change is needed, deferring to communities can be an issue—especially if it means deferring to places that keep getting it “wrong.”
So, figuring out how to honor the spirit of community-led reform turns out to be more complicated than one might think. And that brings us to the intriguing new AEI essay “No Child Left Behind, National Ambitions, and Local Realities,” in which University of Oklahoma political scientist Deven Carlson offers some thoughts on what it means to pursue SEL reform as a “local” rather than a “national” enterprise. Carlson offers three tips for reformers seeking to stay on the “local” side of the local-federal divide when it comes to SEL (or anything else).
Don’t enshrine reforms in federal or state policy. This may seem counterintuitive to those seeking meaningful change, but Carlson argues that, “Precisely because policy is uniquely effective in making folks do things, it is also uniquely effective in mobilizing opposition.” He explains that, “We need only look back to NCLB for a cautionary tale of how local realities can spark the downfall of an initiative that initially commanded broad support.” Carlson particularly points to testing, noting, “Schools have administered tests for years, even standardized ones, but it wasn’t until testing requirements were codified in federal law that opposition began to form.” To avoid such blowback, he suggests, “Advocates should keep SEL as far away from policy as possible.”
Trust teachers to tell us what does and doesn’t work. In a bit of advice that’s to earn a chorus of “amens” from practitioners, Carlson writes, “Time and time again, teachers warned us about problems with earlier reform efforts, serving as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the perils of over-testing, the perverse incentives of NCLB accountability systems, and flaws in teacher evaluation systems.” Nonetheless, he argues, “Advocates tended to proceed full speed ahead without adjusting either substance or strategy.” To avoid the familiar pitfalls, he urges advocates to create formal processes for, “eliciting and incorporating teachers’ ideas and judgements into SEL initiatives.” More important than just soliciting advice, he adds, is being prepared to act upon it.
Provide parents with control over their child’s SEL experience. Even assiduous efforts to promote “local control” don’t mean that all parents and communities feel empowered. Families or whole communities may feel like policies or practices—even those adopted by local schools or school boards—are offensive or misguided. So, Carlson advises that, “To avoid coming off as elitist scolds who know what is best for everyone’s children . . . [advocates] need to design SEL initiatives in a manner that provides parents with control over their child’s experience.” Carlson believes this can be accomplished in part by offering easily accessed opt-out processes and regularly solicited parental feedback. He acknowledges that simply “providing parents with some agency over their child’s SEL experience certainly won’t eliminate all objections, but it will reduce the chance that parental opposition strikes a fatal blow.”
If a national coalition of advocates, educators, researchers, and policymakers wants to be seen as respectful of local communities, it’s going to take more than nice words. Carlson has provided a useful brief for thinking about what a meaningful commitment to localism requires. Whether or not they agree with this or that recommendation, would-be reformers will do well to pay heed.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.