Every Student Succeeds Act

No State Will Measure Social-Emotional Learning Under ESSA. Will That Slow Its Momentum?

By Evie Blad — October 04, 2017 6 min read
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When the Every Student Succeeds Act was enacted, speculation swirled that states might use it as a launching pad to use measures of students’ social and emotional competencies to determine whether their schools are successful.

Nearly two years later, not a single state’s plan to comply with the federal education law—and its broader vision for judging school performance—calls for inclusion of such measures in its school accountability system.

That raises some new questions: Did backers of social-emotional learning miss a chance to encourage wider adoption of its strategies? Or did they avoid the concerns and pitfalls that would have come with attaching it to high-stakes accountability?

Schools that adopt social-emotional learning seek to nurture students’ development in areas like self-management and responsible decisionmaking alongside traditional academics. Doing so helps to deepen students’ learning experiences and prepares them for interpersonal situations they will later face in the workplace, educators say.

As the U.S. Department of Education works to approve state’s ESSA plans, some of social-emotional learning’s biggest boosters are expressing relief that states are steering clear of trying to measure such personal skills for accountability.

Existing measures of social and emotional development, which largely rely on students’ responses to surveys about their own character traits, are not sophisticated and consistent enough to be used for such purposes, they have long argued.

“There is a groundswell of recognition that the academic, social, and emotional development of children are intertwined in all experiences of learning,” said Tim Shriver, the co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. “I think that’s booming... Someone might say, ‘Why aren’t you holding states accountable for teaching it?’ The answer to that is we are not ready for it yet.”

At the same time, several of ESSA’s other provisions will serve as incentives for schools to consider “the whole child” as they comply with the law, said Shriver, who is also the co-chair of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Development.

Broad Latitude for States

In addition to traditional measures of success like student test scores, ESSA requires states to use at least one additional “indicator of school quality or student success,” such as measures of student engagement or access to advanced coursework.

The law gave states broad latitude in which factors they selected, requiring that those measures allow for “meaningful differentiation in school performance” and are “valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide.”

Schools must also be able to disaggregate data related to that indicator to show how it affects students in different groups, such as racial and ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

After Education Week reported on early drafts of the law in 2015, a flurry of policy watchers and district leaders who had experimented with measuring social-emotional learning wondered if its inclusion as a school quality indicator would give schools an incentive to more meaningfully integrate it into their daily work.

Many pointed to a group of large California districts that had worked under a 2013 waiver from the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, to include social-emotional learning survey results in a complicated system they designed to measure school quality.

Leaders of that effort said the data would serve as a “flashlight, not a hammer,” meant to identify and spread successful school strategies. They committed to tweaking and replacing social-emotional learning measures as researchers perfected them.

And there’s a public interest in broader accountability as well. In an annual poll released by Phi Delta Kappa International in August, 8 in 10 respondents rated “the extent to which schools help students develop interpersonal skills, such as cooperation, respect, and persistence,” as extremely or very important in school quality.

But some of the researchers who’ve popularized social-emotional learning also said measures of that work are prone to biases that make them unreliable and unusable for accountability purposes.

Currently, “perfectly unbiased, unfakeable, and error-free measures are an ideal, not a reality,” researchers Angela Duckworth and David Yeager wrote in a 2015 essay published in Educational Researcher that detailed an array of flaws with current measures.

Not Ready for ‘Prime Time’

States appear to have responded to those concerns.

Louisiana State Superintendent John White said that social-emotional learning, growth mindsets, and other non-cognitive factors were never under consideration as part of Louisiana’s new accountability plan under ESSA.

“The instruments for measuring are not ready for prime time,” he said, “but that’s not to say that [social-emotional learning] doesn’t have value in schools.”

An Education Week analysis of state ESSA plans—including those that have not yet been approved by the Education Department—found that most opted to rely on data many districts already collect in their accountability systems. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia chose to include a measure of chronic absenteeism in their plans. Six chose to include school climate surveys—which ask students questions about how safe and supported they feel at school.

A better measure of social-emotional learning “could very well be developed in the future,” and states could revise their plans to include it, said Deborah Temkin, the education research director for Child Trends, a non-profit research organization that focuses on children’s issues. For now, schools may be motivated to use some social-emotional strategies, like teaching students how to resolve conflicts and manage their emotions, to meet other non-academic goals and to improve academic achievement. And those strategies could help decrease chronic absenteeism by promoting self-discipline and reducing situations that make students feel unsafe at school, she said. ESSA also increases schools’ reporting requirements in areas like bullying and discipline, which can both be affected by a “whole child” approach, Temkin said.

Roger Weissberg, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and CASEL’s chief knowledge officer, said a group of 20 states that are cooperating to explore social-emotional-learning plans largely favor allowing districts to select and design their own measures to ensure they fit into their strategies. Some districts, for example, have adopted grade-by-grade standards that outline how to incorporate students’ social and emotional development into classroom work. In those districts, student surveys can help teachers track if their strategies are working on a broader level, but they aren’t used for accountability purposes.

“First and foremost, measurements have got to be meaningful to the teachers and the kids and families,” Weissberg said.

CASEL also has a measurement working group, which asks researchers and educators to tackle the challenges associated with measuring non-cognitive skills and to experiment with creative alternatives, like video games that track students’ engagement.

Shriver said he’s confident schools will continue to express interest in approaches that recognize the value of social and emotional development, regardless of state and federal policies.

“This horse is out of the barn,” he said. “It’s policymakers who are trying to catch up.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as States Skip Out on Social-Emotional Measures for ESSA


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