Student Well-Being

Set Social-Emotional Learning Benchmarks to Guide Efforts, Commission Recommends

By Evie Blad — January 15, 2019 7 min read
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Districts and policy makers should work with their communities to set a vision for social-emotional learning that helps focus efforts to improve children’s well-being, a national commission recommends.

That vision can then be used to chart out developmentally appropriate milestones in those areas— like relationship skills and responsible decision making—giving educators and community groups a clearer understanding of how to carry it out, says a report released Tuesday by the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

The commission sought to synthesize recommendations from a who’s who of 200 researchers, policy makers, educators, students, parents, and philanthropy representatives. Their vision: bold changes in education to help schools be more responsive to students’ social and emotional development and, in the process, to see academic gains.

The group’s recommendations summarized two years of work, drawing from educational movements that sometimes overlap, including social-emotional learning, community schools, student engagement, and character education.

The report’s call for schools and policy makers to consider setting learning benchmarks or standards is part of six key recommendations. Those standards or benchmarks should be used to guide improvement efforts, not to penalize schools, the commission recommends. The report notably warns against measurement of students’ social-emotional learning for accountability purposes, which has been the focus of ongoing debate in recent years.

Leaders hope the document will help guide policy makers through the sometimes confusing world of “whole child education” as more schools seek to broaden their approach and focus on child well-being. Over 100 education, community, and children-focused organizations have signed-on to the recommendations, aiming to use them to focus their work, said Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who is also co-chair of the commission and president of the Learning Policy Institute.

“There’s a lot of energy to advance this work in the field in a more unified way, rather than a little program here and a little program there,” she said. “They understand that if we really want to make progress academically, we need to understand the needs of the child. We can’t just get there through test prep.”

The report recommends that states or districts set benchmarks, guidelines, or standards to “identify a developmentally appropriate trajectory of social, emotional, and cognitive learning objectives” from pre-K through graduation.

Education Week has covered several districts that have developed such benchmarks. Oakland, for example, has defined what competencies like problem-solving look like for students at each grade level and for adults who work in its schools.

There’s also growing interest among states in creating such benchmarks, though many shy away from calling them standards, a term that has taken on political baggage after debates over the Common Core State Standards. In Kansas, the report says, the definition of a successful high school graduate now includes academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills, and civic engagement.

The commission highlights several school systems that have worked around a common vision to help coordinate their efforts with after-school programs, community organizations, and policy makers.

Those school systems include Tacoma, Wash., the subject of this Education Week story, which underwent a multi-year plan to gradually put a “whole child” focus in its schools, even working with the city and public parks organizations to carry out its plan. In Tacoma, community and afterschool groups receive professional development so they can help buttress schools’ efforts to teach students to solve problems and build relationships.

All of the converging fields of research under the “whole child” umbrella can be confusing for educators to navigate, said Stephanie Jones, a Harvard education professor who served on the commission’s panel of scientists. She hopes the report will provide some concrete recommendations for change.

“This process has been about both consensus building—bringing all of these stakeholders together to coordinate and come to agreement about all of this stuff—and organizing the big ideas that have been out in the field in a coherent way,” Jones said.

Flexibility Created by ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states more authority and flexibility in how they define success and improve schools. The report calls on state and local decision makers to use that authority to dramatically rethink their educational programs. Much of the existing “whole child” work that has shown success was developed at the state and local levels, it says.

The commission recommends that schools directly teach social-emotional skills, incorporate them into academic work, and change schoolwide practices in areas like discipline and family engagement to support student growth.

States have already included some of these factors in their ESSA plans, though none chose to measure student progress in social-emotional learning directly. Thirty-six states included chronic absenteeism rates, which are influenced by school climate and student engagement, in their accountability plans. Some included plans to monitor school climate, which is defined as students’ perceptions of how safe, supported, and connected they feel at school.

The Aspen commission calls for making results of school climate surveys public and including such factors in school improvement plans. Some districts, like Cleveland, already rely on school climate surveys to guide their work.

While the commission supports those efforts, it does not recommend monitoring students’ social-emotional competencies through measurements like surveys and using those results for school accountability. Some policy makers have supported using SEL data for accountability, arguing that “what’s measured is what matters” in education. But the report sides with prominent researchers, like University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth, who have have warned against using measurements for such purposes. Existing measures, which usually survey students about their own strengths in areas like self-control, are prone to flaws and biases, and using them for high-stakes decisions like school accountability and teacher evaluations could have unforeseen consequences, they’ve argued.

“Until we have tools that we are confident adequately capture these skills and attributes in ways that are sensitive to age, developmental stage, and context, and commit to using the measures appropriately for improvement, we risk putting more weight on these measures than is useful,” the report says.

Recommendations for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

Among the commission’s other recommendations:

  • Schools should create culturally responsive environments, incorporate student voice, and end “punitive” disciplinary practices. The report recommends designing school practices around relationships. For example, it suggests “looping” classes so that students have the same teacher two years in a row, or offering advisories for middle and high school students to meet regularly with a group of their peers.
  • In addition to embedding SEL skills into academic work, schools should also incorporate them into broader practices, the report says. For example, some districts have replaced traditional parent-teacher conferences with student-led meetings in which a child updates both parents and teachers on his or her progress in academic and developmental areas.
  • Policy makers and district administrators should build adult expertise in child development by beefing up teacher-preparation programs, ongoing professional learning opportunities, and induction programs for new educators. Educators also need space to collaborate and share successful strategies.
  • Schools should work with community groups to meet students’ needs, even hiring a coordinator to best align volunteer resources with its goals. The report cites community schools, which work with organizations like food banks and mental health providers to assist students.
  • Policy makers, educators, and researchers need to prioritize bridging the gap between research and practice. That can be done by encouraging better cooperation between schools and researchers, providing flexibility in how public and private research funding can be used, and creating tools to better disseminate research findings.

Photo: Students in a 4th grade class at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, Ill., listen during a social-emotional learning discussion.—Alyssa Schukar for Education Week

This post was updated to clarify one of the commission’s recommendations.

Related reading on social-emotional learning:

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