Snow doesn’t slow down Salt Lake City, and it certainly puts no damper on that school district’s commitment to social and emotional learning (SEL). Over the course of two snowy days last week, I visited several classrooms in a middle and high school, and met with a group of teachers who are teaching a fast-expanding course in social and emotional learning they are calling “Techniques for Tough Times” (TTT), coauthored by Leigh VandenAkker and Gayle Threet.
The teachers with whom I met (all of whom are using the Tessera SEL assessment system developed by ProExam as part of their program) made a great impression on my colleagues and me. They are deeply committed to this program; one of them, a former school counselor, enrolled in a graduate program and earned his master’s degree in teaching solely for the purpose of earning the qualification necessary to teach this particular course. They were connected with their students, innovative in their methods and reflective about their practice.
One thing these Techniques for Tough Times teachers have utter conviction about is the impact of their work: this is making a huge difference in the lives of their students and in securing their future.
I heard and observed that difference myself, from the eleventh grade student in Leigh VandenAkker's class at East High School who told me that he “almost never went to school” in his middle school years, but since taking this course in ninth grade has turned his attendance around and now almost never misses school. I watched as sixth graders in Dane Hess's class at Glendale Middle School wrote about their greatest goals in life (in almost every case, the goal being something that nearly none of their parents had achieved: college), then identified potential obstacles to that goal, and then strategized actions they can take to overcome those obstacles.
These teachers told me about how absenteeism is down, graduation rates are up, GPA is improving, and college attendance and persistence is rising among their students. Certainly the teachers recognize the continued importance of math and reading proficiency and growth in their students, but for them, social and emotional learning has an equal place in preparing students for college and careers.
(In the photo above, you can see me participating in a TTT class activity at Glendale Middle School in Utah. For more about Techniques for Tough Times in Salt Lake City, see this article.)
Indeed, when teachers nationwide were asked in a survey with more than 600 responders which additional factor should be added to school accountability (as is required for the new ESSA federal law), social and emotional learning is the plurality “winner,” scoring the highest among seven possibilities and an eighth “other” category. Twenty-three percent of teachers selected SEL. For comparison, one factor frequently suggested in the media and by central office administrators as being most important, namely school climate, received barely a quarter as much support from teachers and chronic absenteeism, the factor being most frequently touted, doesn’t even register in the poll.
As the Education Week article about the survey states, “Some advocacy and interest groups have pushed for state leaders to use the new [non-academic factor] measure to dramatically reshape their education systems to include more ‘whole-child’ factors, like measures of social-emotional learning, student support, and schools’ ability to move the needle on student traits like grit and self-management.”
As author Evie Blad points out, this isn’t an all or nothing proposition: even if it is not an official part of the new ESSA-mandated system, SEL assessment can still be implemented by states and districts for many valuable ends: “[S]ome states may begin collecting data in those social and emotional areas to get baseline information, to gauge its reliability, and to explore the possibility of incorporating it into accountability systems in the future, [Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education] said.”
Amundson also says in this piece that the new indicator “has great potential to allow states the flexibility of looking at some of the things we know are important in terms of what really constitutes a high-quality education.”
State boards of education in particular, and policymakers in general, will be continuing to experiment and iterate over the next several years as they fashion the right mix for whole child accountability, both to meet the ESSA rules and to best define school aims and influence school practices to best serve students. As noted, it seems the momentum among policymakers is for things taking place outside of the clasroom, things that are primarily in the responsibility of administrators.
But as these decision-makers determine their accountability programs, they should listen to teachers, the folks who know best because they are on the front lines actually delivering student learning and observing most closely what matters most. Teachers everywhere, from East High School and Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City to a national survey, agree: social and emotional learning matters enormously, and its assessment deserves and demands a much greater place at the table of school improvement and accountability.