Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license.
A whole child education demands a strong focus upon and increased accountability for social and emotional learning, it is argued in an important new report in the ASCD Policy Priorities newsletter entitled “A Bright Future with SEL:”
Decades of research argue that students need a balance of academic and social and emotional competencies for success in college, careers, and life.
Policymakers and practitioners are now discussing the best resources, tools, and supports for embedding SEL across pre-K–12 schooling.
The piece rightfully acknowledges that the facts on the ground—the recognition of the importance of social and emotional learning—are not new at all. However, they are coming into much greater prominence in the national conversation because of ESSA, the new federal law which “requires multiple measures for accountability, including at least one nonacademic indicator, generally understood to be an SEL measure, such as student engagement, educator engagement, and school climate and safety.”
Michaelman carefully reviews the very important and longstanding contributions of CASEL—the Council for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—to this movement. One key message that must not be overlooked is that attention to SEL should not, and does not, take anything way from academic learning:
Adding SEL components to teaching does not mean that educators will be “giving up on academics,” notes Shirley Brandman, executive director of the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. “Rather, this is a way of better engaging students to ensure that they will be very well academically prepared.”
CASEL’s chief knowledge officer, Roger Weissman, agrees, “People recognize that if you care about the academic performance of our kids, than you have to care about a lot more than just academic performance.”
So if that’s the consensus this policy “brief” establishes, where’s the controversy? Inevitably, the tension lies in whether and for what purposes these social and emotional competencies can be measured. As the author writes, “dissension remains regarding the real possibility of valid assessment of SEL skills and competencies.”
Angela Duckworth is identified as the “vigorous” leader of the opposition, particularly in regards to the way school districts in California (the CORE districts) have been using new SEL measures. She says, “Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.”
Michaelman does note, at least by implication, the irony that Duckworth should be so opposed, as she had served on CORE’s advisory board and is, after all, the nation’s leading and loudest proponent of educators doing more to strengthen student character and “grit.” For some readers, particularly those who have long worked in and observed educational improvement efforts, her two positions (we must do much more, much better, to achieve a particular educational outcome, but we must not measure it in any consequential way) seem an odd tandem, and awfully hard to reconcile.
However, the newsletter “brief” brings in many voices to defend and promote the careful and appropriate use of effective measurement in this arena, including those of CORE leaders Rick Miller and Noah Bookman; Jennifer Poulos of the Rennie Center; ASCD senior director of government relations David Griffiths; and me, the author of this post.
Bookman emphasizes the provisional nature of the CORE project, and that of course academic data will still count for a lot, and indeed the majority, of any accountability program, but “we just want to put something else on the table to balance the equation . . . the CORE districts are focused on trying to measure them and put them right next to academic performance on the scale of what matters most in schools.”
Poulos is quoted as praising CORE for “‘raising the profile of not only the importance of SEL but in being committed to finding the best ways to measure it effectively.’ CORE, she says, has added SEL indicators as part of its accountability system ‘with a good buy-in from educators across different roles and communities.’”
ASCD’s Griffith weighs in with a fairly strong endorsement, which is no surprise really given that he is the author of the valuable ASCD report, Multimetric Accountability:
Griffith argues that educators need to embrace ongoing progress in SEL measurement and assessment, “and to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. ESSA's support for multiple measures of success, such as nonacademic indicators, means that SEL will be measured—and this is a good thing because it provides the ability for policymakers to incentivize SEL efforts.”
“The lesson from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act,” Griffith adds, “is that if it doesn't ‘count,’ it falls by the wayside. ESSA was a huge win for SEL, and we have a great opportunity to seize.”
In all the hubbub about which skills should be measured, what methods should be used, and to what extent schools and districts should be held accountable, lost in the shuffle is exactly how teachers, administrators, and other educators should work with these data on the ground and in real time. Even Duckworth agrees we should “improve the practice of giving feedback to students on character,” and Weissberg endorses “tools that teachers can use formatively to foster students’ self-reflection, goal setting, social skills, and decision making.”
I’m also cited by Michaelman on this subject:
To Martin, how districts that measure SEL respond to the data they receive and what types of improvement plans they generate are more important considerations than the measurements themselves.
“I haven't seen a lot of SEL data action plans,” he admits. “Just as schools need help with academic achievement data for effectiveness, they need guidance on ways to incorporate SEL data into school improvement planning and strategies. They need training in how to evaluate the data for teachers. Everyone struggles with ‘now what do we do with the data?’”
Often the main argument advanced on this blog is that we can and should measure SEL/noncognitive skills/character strengths. But, following the ASCD newsletter, it has to be said that advocating for and informing about the effective use of the data that SEL measurements will generate deserves a near-equal place in the conversation, and on this blog. Good data can be used poorly, and sometimes aren’t even used at all. Advancing the continuous improvement of social and emotional learning demands both quality measures and quality actions.
Accordingly, we at ProExam and its Center for Innovative Assessments—which developed the Tessera Noncognitive Skills Assessment for middle and high schools—are readily generating a suite of services and playbooks for schools, districts and individual teachers to better enable educators to interpret and apply the results of noncognitive skills assessment. Check back here regularly for informative guidance on best practices and regular updates on these services.
As for the availability of these types of quality measures, the ASCD report mentions only one that meets high standards of reliability and validity, our own Tessera system: “the Tessera noncognitive skills assessment system from NYC-based nonprofit ProExam, designed by two scientists formerly with the Educational Testing Service.”
The paragraph discussing Tessera, however, is a tad confusing: interviewed by the author last spring, I explained then that there are no such valid and reliable assessments available currently, but that some “should be on the market soon.” Readers, please note that with four months having since elapsed, soon is now! Learn more about the opportunity for your classroom, school, district, to have a free “Taste of Tessera.”
Kudos to Michaelman and ASCD for their excellent new policy paper; like-minded educators and policymakers in the U.S. and globally should join hands to advocate the continued research, development, and implementation of effective SEL measures.