How Can States Foster SEL under ESSA?

By Hanna Melnick, Learning Policy Institute

It’s an old adage that “what gets measured, matters,” or “what gets reported, gets supported.” Under No Child Left Behind, math and reading tests were what mattered – and as a result, many schools have had a laser focus on the 3Rs, at the expense of social and emotional learning (SEL). What we know about the science of learning and development indicates that this approach is not just wrong-headed, but could actually undermine students’ academic achievement. For students to learn academically, schools must also support their social and emotional development.

Luckily, the tide might be turning: A new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires that states include at least one measure of school quality and student success in their accountability and improvement systems. States are taking advantage of this opportunity to include measures from chronic absenteeism to school climate surveys. In the Learning Policy Institute’s recent report, Encouraging Social and Emotional Learning in the Context of New Accountability, we examine how these measures and others might be used for accountability and continuous improvement.

Once states begin to implement their ESSA plans, what can we do to ensure they support SEL?

A first step is making sure that school leaders understand their school-level data, from student, parent, and teacher survey results to absenteeism, and what they say about the way schools are (or are not) supporting SEL. They need to take a hard look at the way different groups of students are experiencing school, and whether some groups are being left behind. Interactive data dashboards, which many states are developing, can be useful in making sense of these data. Some districts, such as San Francisco’s, even have a coach who helps principals interpret and discuss data with their staff.

A next step is to use more fine-grained measures to understand why schools may be performing well or poorly, since there are many ways school practices and culture can support students socially and emotionally. To get “under the hood,” schools and districts might use tools such as classroom observation rubrics, a School Quality Review in which an outside observer rates a school’s environment, or an examination of the steps a district has taken to support SEL. On school climate surveys, districts might ask students, staff, and parents about the degree to which they think a school supports SEL. This information can helps schools begin to identify contributors to successes and challenges and identify appropriate professional development, strategies, and interventions for improvement.

Finally, to support students’ social and emotional development, schools might choose to measure perceptions of students’ own social and emotional competencies. They can do this through observations in the classroom, teacher reports, and surveys of students’ own perceptions of their skills and mindsets, like those used by California’s CORE districts. These can be a great tool for   sparking conversations about ways teachers and students can improve their work in the classroom – although we do not recommend that such assessments be used for high stakes accountability.

Our report offers some suggestions of the kinds of measures schools and districts might use, and the Assessment Work Group offers great guidance. But what works for one state or school might not work for another. What measurement tools have you used to learn how schools are supporting SEL?


Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action


Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

Posted in:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *