Imagine telling a child (or a school for that matter) that they failed because they weren’t gritty enough. As a teacher, I fail students when they do not master academic content. It doesn’t matter how gritty or empathetic or socially competent they are. If they get the grade in my classroom, they pass the class; behavioral growth is a separate discussion with the student and their family. While I see the value in fostering a student’s social and emotional growth throughout their time in school, these efforts should arise from quality teaching practices, not necessarily state-mandated accountability measures stemmed from federal legislation.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to have, apart from four academic indicators of school success, an additional nonacademic indicator (the so-called “Fifth Indicator”) that assesses school quality or student success. Proponents of this provision argue that it allows schools an opportunity to demonstrate a more holistic view of student growth through non-traditional indicators associated with achievement like attendance or school climate. Others caution against its potential to inadvertently promote harm. The Fifth Indicator must be measurable to the extent that it can be disaggregated by student subgroups, tiered so states can identify differences between high and low performing schools, and linked somehow to student achievement. The specific measure states will choose is still largely up for debate. With all the recent buzz around Social and Emotional Learning, could it become the Fifth Indicator?
Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL for short, can be broadly understood as intentional practices that facilitate and promote positive student growth in how they process and manage their emotions, interact with others, and cultivate attitudes that lead towards positive mindsets and outcomes. Often called other names like “life skills” or “social skills,” SEL encompasses a wide variety of social and emotional skills necessary to prepare students for college, careers, and adulthood in general. One of the nation’s leading organizations on the topic, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), identifies five core competencies associated with SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These five competencies work together to create environments for children that develop what many would consider essential skills for future success. There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of SEL, encompassing everything from reducing criminal activity to predicting career achievement and improving student attitudes, behaviors, and academic achievement.
But what does SEL actually look like at the school level, and how can we measure its effectiveness? Many regions are trying to figure this out, some with CASEL’s help. One SEL-targeted program is the RULER system out of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which targets many of CASEL’s core competencies by promoting the Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, (appropriate) Expression, and Regulation of emotions. Several individual schools and school districts have adopted some or all aspects of RULER because there’s initial evidence that links its SEL program to academic achievement. The appeal around SEL is significant enough that now California’s CORE districts, which serve over a million students in major urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, now require social-emotional skills to make up 8% of a school’s evaluation. The districts equally weigh self-management, growth mindset, self-efficacy, and social awareness for overall school accountability. To measure this, students are asked survey questions such as “I was polite to adults and peers” and “I stayed calm even when others bothered or criticized me.” California’s CORE districts represent the potential of large-scale implementation of SEL measures for accountability use.
So why not make SEL skills the Fifth Indicator, given all the benefits? While it’s hard to argue against SEL on the merits that it develops socially competent and emotionally regulated students, the measurement of SEL is a lot more complicated. As a teacher, I would like to think I know when I’m intentionally pushing children to develop SEL skills like responsible decision-making and relationship skills. But do we currently have valid methods to assess that? “Not yet,” according to an essay by Angela Duckworth, the pioneer of the “grit” movement. Between reference bias and the lack of more nuanced and rigorously evaluated assessments, Duckworth and co-author David Yeager don’t see grit finding its way into the world of high-stakes school accountability. Paul Tough, another voice in the discussion around SEL, echoes the sentiment that SEL has a place in the classroom, just not when it comes to accountability. Putting high stakes accountability on measuring SEL skills could lead to corruption that distorts or hides the outcomes meant to be monitored. If SEL skills are used for accountability, will teachers have to realign their instructional practices to ensure that their efforts to promote SEL skills will be accurately measured by a state survey? This has the potential to create an even greater sense of teaching to the test and potentially taking the focus off of quality instruction.
Can we expect teachers to include SEL practices into their classroom without having the state hold teachers or schools accountable for it? I believe we can. There certainly is a lot more that educators can learn from the various SEL frameworks out there to become stronger teachers. However, I do not see mandating SEL in accountability as the way to go about doing this. In many ways, teachers incorporate SEL into their classrooms through other intentional practices that I believe are simply habits of good teaching. For instance, in my science classroom, I have my students sit in groups and work daily on group work because I believe that teaching students how to be good scientists requires fostering collaboration skills. Apart from being a 21st century skill, it also lends itself to building CASEL’s relationship skills and social awareness. But I worry that requiring teachers to intentionally create a SEL-friendly classroom for accountability purposes pushes the focus away from developing quality instruction and puts unnecessary pressure on teachers to change their practice for school accountability.
Schools can and should measure SEL inside their walls to gauge how effectively teachers do this practice and assess the need for additional professional development and support. But given the lack of rigorously validated measurement tools capable of connecting teacher actions to student SEL outcomes, SEL’s use as the Fifth Indicator seems questionable. Regardless, teachers should foster SEL in their classroom because it’s the right thing to do, not because of state mandates. It’s up to teachers and administrators, not necessarily ESSA and state accountability systems, to make SEL work in the classroom for our students.
Andrew Shachat is a 2016 Policy Intern at the American Youth Policy Forum.