Silly me! I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that SEL is a thing. SEL is a new term in educational circles: Social Emotional Learning. I heard Linda Darling-Hammond—Stanford University emeritus professor, CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and chair of an Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development—present the work of the commission, and then I started reading more about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
It would appear that many of the educational academics promoting SEL are doing so as an effort to shift our schools’ focus away from the incessant drilling on basic language arts and math that has been driven by the high-stakes testing embedded in the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB and Race to the Top, that compounded NCLB’s punitive grasp on our public schools, have created fear-driven pressure to raise scores at any cost. The stakes are high: Schools have been closed or charterized, teachers fired or their salaries cut, and school districts trapped in state takeover. And worse—in terms of the social and emotional health of children—students whose reading scores are too low at the end of third grade have been retained in grade for an extra remedial year.
The Learning Policy Institute has been intent about trying to help state education departments take advantage of the way the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tweaks accountability. ESSA eliminates direct federal punishments for low test scores by turning accountability over to states, but it says states must have their own plans to hold public schools accountable. Beyond the required reporting of test scores and graduation rates, states can now add new factors, as long as the new factors are research-based. For example, the Learning Policy Institute has been explaining how research backs up the establishment of wraparound Community Schools. Its publications have shown states how to demonstrate through research that Community Schools are a worthy of inclusion in states’ dashboards of factors by which schools can be judged and held accountable.
Now, it would appear that Darling-Hammond’s support of Social Emotional Learning, through her leadership on the Aspen SEL Commission, is an attempt to help states position SEL as a factor in their Every Student Succeeds dashboards by which schools can be held accountable. In Education Week a year ago after Aspen released coverage of its new SEL Commission, Evie Blad reported: “The new federal education law requires schools to report new factors, like chronic absenteeism rates, in their public report cards, and it requires states to broaden how they measure school success. No state decided to include direct measures of social-emotional learning in its accountability system. Most cited cautions from researchers who’ve said existing measures are not sophisticated enough to be used for high-stakes purposes. But mindfulness of students’ emotions, relationships, and development can help schools show improvement in other areas covered by the law, like attendance and achievement commissioners said.” The Aspen Commission, we should assume, hopes its new report will beef up the research base on SEL.
I suppose it s worth establishing a research base to support education of the whole child if in some way measuring SEL will help states be more humane in evaluating what is being accomplished at school. However, it is also essential to remember that the Every Student Succeeds Act makes two other factors primary in the states’ ESSA accountability reports: standardized test scores and high school graduation rates. I wonder if inserting Social Emotional Learning right on top of test-and-punish doesn’t merely represent a contradiction in strategies. And figuring out metrics by which a state can judge how a district is doing at SEL and then holding schools accountable for SEL in the state’s accountability system seems bizarre.
Some of the puzzling language in the Aspen Institute Commission’s report is about showing states and school districts how to measure SEL so that it will count for school accountability: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than rewards and sanctions.” So far the advice seems pretty positive compared to what we’re doing now which is focusing on rewards and sanctions. But the report later vaguely suggests some kind of measurable outcomes: “Use a broader range of assessments and other demonstrations of learning that capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills… Use data to identify and address gaps in students’ access to the full range of learning opportunities in and out of school.”
Recently in his personal blog, the writer and education professor at UCLA, Mike Rose raised concerns about Social Emotional Learning: “(D)o we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matter?… More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion.”
Rose harks back to a piece he wrote in 2013 in which he worried that, “Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models….” Rose worries about dividing education into a “cognitive/non-cognitive binary.” “The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, non-cognitive. We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.”
For Rose, social and emotional work must be an essential part of every teacher’s daily practice—and something children learn in their experience of schooling. In an excellent 2014 article published by The American Scholar, Rose describes the characteristics of the best classrooms he visited on a journey across the United States to research his fine book, Possible Lives: “For all the variation… the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Respect also has a cognitive dimension. As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’ Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility… (O)verall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
The people who are trying to make Social Emotional Learning part of states’ Every Student Succeeds accountability dashboards undoubtedly have good intentions. They are trying, once again to make normal child development and attention to the needs of the whole child primary goals in America’s public school classrooms. Unfortunately, however, because standardized test scores and high school graduation rates—both highly measurable data sets—remain at the very center of ESSA’s federal demand for school accountability, Social Emotional Learning will always be on the side.
To improve the social and emotional climate in our schools today, we’ll need do go after what is really the problem—what Harvard’s Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade.”