Social-Emotional Learning: States Consider New Accountability Indicator

Written by: Nancy Duchesneau

Primary Source:  Green & Write December 14, 2016

In December 2015, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), bringing changes to accountability requirements for state systems. While many of the accountability provisions were consistent with the flexibility permitted via ESEA waivers, one noteworthy addition was the explicit requirement to include a non-academic indicator of school quality or success. This indicator comes with validity, reliability, and comparability requirements but is otherwise left up to states’ discretion, opening new possibilities for states to incentivize and guide schools in providing equal educational opportunities for students. One such possibility is an indicator for inter- and intra-personal skills in students. These skills have multiple labels debated amongst scholars in the literature base such as “non-cognitive,” “soft,” or “character” skills, but generally these labels refer to a number of malleable social and emotional skills that research has shown to be influential in multiple measures of success.

Previous research suggests that social-emotional learning (SEL) is an important attribute related to school quality and student success. One report aggregates an abundance of high quality studies that point toward the benefits of developing these skills in children, the ability for interventions to improve students’ SEL, and the predictive value of these skills for academic, career, and well-being factors. Furthermore, teachers believe they are already expected to develop SEL in students, and schools are already attempting to provide support for SEL. There is, however, arguably little structure for what specific skills teachers and schools are expected to foster or the types of interventions that can benefit the SEL of students. Creating a statewide indicator has the potential to create common goals and expectations of schools that are evidence-based and culturally sensitive, which could ultimately provide schools with greater capacity to improve SEL skills in students.

States Pursue SEL

Some scholars argue that ESSA “opens the door” for SEL by encouraging states to improve practices that support student well-being in addition to academic success. Although SEL skills are not new to education, the conversation around how to structurally incorporate the development of these skills into our education system has significantly grown as of late. Several major districts in California, for example, in collaboration with the nonprofit Transforming Education, have developed SEL standards and are currently piloting their new accountability indicator. Additionally, several initiatives have begun in hopes of creating SEL standards that can be integrated into state accountability systems. In a joint effort, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning will work with eight states to create SEL standards and strategies to encourage schools to deepen their emphasis on developing students’ relational skills. Meanwhile, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development will seek to explore ways to integrate social-emotional development in schools with the input of teachers, parents, and students.

Careful Development is Key

Although the potential for an SEL indicator is an exciting deviation from a strictly achievement-based accountability system, it will require careful consideration due to a number of concerns that arise when making SEL a component of a high-stakes system. There are three major areas of concern in particular. The first is whether states will choose competencies that truly provide opportunity to students for success rather than competencies that are based in value judgments. It is possible that certain competencies may further disenfranchise certain schools and communities if they are based in value judgments that parallel some cultures but not others. A second concern relates to  measurement. Currently, SEL skills are typically measured through either self or teacher reports, or performance tasks. These measures are susceptible to gaming, misinterpretation, and reference bias (in which a self- or teacher-reporter’s response is biased due to characteristics of peers the student is being compared to). A third concern is with how such an indicator might affect teachers in the classroom. If teachers do not have sufficient resources and capacity to develop such skills in their students, being held accountable for improving SEL in students may cause more harm than good.

Potential for Great Outcomes or Great Disappointment

Creating an accountability indicator for SEL development in students has great potential, given the incredible benefits research shows these skills can have -over a person’s lifetime. However, the real concerns about such an indicator cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, whether or not such an accountability indicator is successful will depend on how carefully states develop the standards, design the policy, and consider the capacity of teachers and schools.

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Nancy Duchesneau
Prior to joining the Education Policy Ph.D. program, Nancy utilized her B.S. in psychology by working as a private in-home tutor and a sub-contracted tutor in public schools. Currently in her third year, Nancy’s research interests stem from the belief that education must work in tandem with other policy areas, yet must also provide a base level of holistic support to all students. Topics of interest include social-emotional learning, in-school health programs, accountability, and equity.