Student Well-Being Opinion

A New Approach to Social-Emotional Learning Research: Putting Practitioners and Youths in the Driver’s Seat

By Urban Education Contributor — March 22, 2018 5 min read
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This post is by Lucy Herz, co-Founder of the Student Success Network (SSN, @SuccessNYC) and Director, Network Development & Engagement, at SSN.

Today’s post is the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: How New York City Is Improving Students’ Social-Emotional Learning.

Responding to the Problem of Practice

What can happen when practitioners, researchers, and youth collaborate to solve our most important problems? At Student Success Network, we believe the possibilities are limitless.

Student Success Network (SSN), a community of now 50 education and youth development organizations in New York City who collaborate to improve student outcomes, first formed in 2011 when a group of fifteen nonprofit leaders in NYC decided it was time to shift their focus beyond traditional academic skills to include social-emotional learning (SEL) skills they knew were critically important for student success. Through two years of exploration, influenced by collective impact approaches, these leaders set out to create and adopt a common SEL measurement tool so they could identify bright spots and share promising practices. Their radical vision was that all organizations could serve more students more effectively by working together. With support from Philliber Research, Student Success Network officially launched and piloted the inaugural version of a student self-report survey in 2013.

In 2015, Student Success Network began to partner with the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, who brought a commitment to SEL and deep roots in NYC. Together, we wanted to create a truly collaborative, unique relationship that leverages the different but equally valuable expertise of practitioners, researchers, and youth.

Youth Advisory Council interacting with the Student Success Network team

Collaborating to Improve SEL

As outlined in Monday’s post, we partner with researchers from the Research Alliance to address key issues raised by practitioners: how to continuously improve our SEL student survey and how to use the survey data to identify the most promising program strategies in a way that is practical and actionable. Students at individual sites across the network take the survey twice a year, allowing us to measure 8 specific SEL competencies.

Our partnership is not typical, according to Lisa Merrill, Research Associate at the Research Alliance:

“We are more enmeshed than many research-practice partners, and we are on the same page about how practitioner expertise should be valued and how to leverage that diversity of expertise. We consider together what questions to tackle, and how to bring research methods to answer questions that are most important to practitioners and students.”

Student Success Network has created structures to facilitate an authentic research-practice partnership, putting members and students in direct dialogue with Lisa and her colleagues. One of the most critical structures is the Data Advisory Working Group (DAWG), made up of program directors, evaluators, and frontline staff from across Student Success Network membership. DAWG meets regularly with Research Alliance staff, bringing their expertise rooted in serving young people to an ongoing conversation about how to improve SEL measurement, what questions measurement should answer, and how to create actionable reports. For example, DAWG is currently helping create a framework for comparing like programs to help identify promising practices.

We also believe no partnership is complete without input from our most important stakeholders: youth. Through convening a Youth Advisory Council that meets monthly, SSN regularly gathers youth input on how to continually improve our measurement and programming. We take their recommendations very seriously: DAWG is currently considering how to implement a recent recommendation from the youth to be more transparent about the use of SEL data to encourage greater honesty from students. In the words of one Youth Advisory Council member:

“Showing students what is done with the results [by] talking about the process of collecting data and what is achieved from it will give them a better understanding [of] why is it important to take the survey seriously.”

This iterative, three-way dialogue between researchers, practitioners, and students has enabled critical improvements in our survey that would never have been possible otherwise, including a reduction of the reading level, which was tested by students, and the addition of new competencies to our survey (Self-Advocacy and Belonging), and ensures our research agenda is answering meaningful questions that will ultimately help practitioners improve student experiences.

Use Of Findings In Practice

Today, Student Success Network has evolved into a dynamic Networked Improvement Community that leverages our partnership with the Research Alliance to inform real changes in practice to improve students’ SEL. Members are rapidly building the knowledge and capacity to collect high-quality, reliable, and valid SEL data and dramatically improve their organizations’ data systems in the process. At our yearly Data Lab, we work with the Research Alliance to highlight “bright spots” —positive deviants across our network— and the practitioners closest to those practices share knowledge about what is working. Our members use improvement science to test practices highlighted by research and by their peers in their own context, constantly iterating and learning more about how to serve students better.

Future Work

As we move forward, we are enthusiastic about the future of our bottom-up approach to using data and research to guide improvement. The new Gates Foundation education strategy, for example, acknowledges the need to empower the experts on the ground who understand their students better than anyone else—the practitioners. This serves as an affirmation of SSN’s belief that research-informed, practitioner-led networked improvement communities will drive the most significant innovation in public education in the 21st century.

Please visit our website to learn more about our network, our members, and our collaboration with Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.