We’ll Have to Reduce Test-and-Punish. Talking about Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough

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.”

Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

Linda Darling-Hammond is a national figure in the field of education policy.  She is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University, where she is an emeritus professor of education, and she headed up President Obama’s transition team for education. She is the author of several books including The Flat World and Education, in which she declares: “One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Last Friday, Darling-Hammond delivered the weekly address at the Cleveland City Club.  I was disappointed.

Darling-Hammond declared that “we have left No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behind” and implied that its 2015 replacement, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, has erased the punitive philosophy of its NCLB predecessor.  Darling-Hammond then devoted most of her prepared remarks to Ohio’s adoption of one of her own research priorities—social-emotional learning—into the state’s new five-year strategic plan for education.  Darling-Hammond chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which on January 15, 2019 published its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

Of course one cannot blame an academic for focusing a major policy address on her own particular research interest. But I was disappointed nonetheless, because Darling-Hammond’s remarks so completely neglected what I and many others believe are alarming realities today in Ohio public school policy. More broadly she also failed to acknowledge catastrophic school funding shortages brought to national attention by striking school teachers for almost a year now from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona and in the past two weeks in Los Angeles, funding shortages caused by tax cuts and tax freezes and exacerbated when scarce tax dollars are redirected to privatized charter schools and voucher programs. Only after she had finished her prepared remarks and in answer to a question about Ohio’s punitive state school district takeovers, did she briefly comment on the enormous and controversial policies many in the audience hoped she would address.

Despite that Darling-Hammond told us she believes the kind of punitive high-stakes school accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind is fading, state-imposed sanctions based on aggregate standardized test scores remain the drivers of Ohio public school policy. Here are some of our greatest challenges:

  • Under a Jeb Bush-style Third Grade Guarantee, Ohio still retains third graders for another year of third grade when their reading test scores are too low. This is despite years of academic research demonstrating that retaining children in a grade for an additional year smashes their self esteem and exacerbates the chance they will later drop out of school without graduating.  This policy runs counter to anything resembling social-emotional learning.
  • Even though the federal government has ended the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, in Ohio, students’ standardized test scores continue to be used for the formal evaluations of their teachers.  The state has reduced the percentage of weight students’ test scores play in teachers’ formal evaluations, but students’ test scores continue to play a role.
  • Aggregate student test scores remain the basis of the state’s branding and ranking of our public schools and school districts with letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.
  • When a public school is branded with an F, the students in that so-called “failing” school qualify for an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child.
  • Ohio permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts. The number of these privatized schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
  •  If a school district is rated “F” for three consecutive years, a law pushed through in the middle of the night by former Governor John Kasich and his allies subjects the district to state takeover. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.
  • All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Forty-two minutes into the video of last Friday’s City Club address by Darling-Hammond, when a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson asked the speaker to comment on Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts, Darling-Hammond briefly addressed the tragedy of the kind of punitive systems that now dominate Ohio’s public school policy: “We have been criminalizing poverty in a lot of different ways, and that is one of them… There’s about a .9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores.  So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” But rather than address Ohio’s situation directly, Darling-Hammond continued by describing value-added ratings of schools which she implied could instead be used to measure what the particular school contributes to learning, and then she described the educational practices in other countries she has studied.

In the context of the new report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which she chaired, Darling-Hammond’s focus last Friday was social-emotional learning. The Commission’s new report emphasizes the need to broaden “the definition of student success to prioritize he whole child.”  The report recommends that our society: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-schools settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than on rewards and sanctions.”

I wish Darling-Hammond had more pointedly applied the Commission’s findings to Ohio, where, while people applaud the goal, there have been serious questions about whether Ohio’s addition of social-emotional learning in the state’s new five-year strategic plan is workable in our underfunded and terribly punitive, high stakes testing environment. Some of the factors that affect a school’s capacity to support the social and emotional needs of students are small classes that ensure students are known and respected, enough counselors and school psychologists, the presence of the arts and enrichments, and the presence of play in the school lives of very young children. Ohio’s meager school funding and emphasis on high-stakes testing threaten all of these.

In these times we need to be especially attentive to the social and emotional needs of America’s students as the federal Department of Education steps away from policies designed to protect students’ safety and emotional well being. Remember that at the end of December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded urgently important Obama-era civil rights guidance designed to reduce out of school suspension and expulsion, reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, and increase in-school programs promoting restorative discipline.  Ohio’s new strategic plan to prioritize social-emotional learning in public schools is an important first nudge—pushing our state away from No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish. But there remains a long, long list of urgently needed policy changes. I wish Linda Darling-Hammond had been more supportive of our struggle in her address last Friday.