Centering Equity Requires All of Us

By Karen Niemi (CASEL President & CEO) and John B. King Jr. (The Education Trust President & CEO)

The coronavirus pandemic, its related economic crisis, and America’s long overdue reckoning with racial injustice have laid bare inequities across systems throughout our nation, and public education is no exception.

As this unprecedented school year continues, we need school and district leaders to have a renewed focus on social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD) to enhance students’ abilities to achieve academically and navigate daily challenges effectively—one that includes skill-building and prioritizes the larger education systems and school context in which our kids are growing and developing. 

Both of our organizations—The Education Trust and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—argue that when school leaders and educators approach social and emotional learning solely toward a goal of skill-building—for example, teaching kids how to develop grit or perseverance as isolated competencies—without also addressing the systems in which the competencies are promoted, social and emotional learning initiatives will be less beneficial and actually may be harmful to kids, rather than supportive.

Consider, for example, students—disproportionately Black students—who attend schools that emphasize zero-tolerance discipline policies or that employ corporal punishment. A social and emotional skills curriculum at one of these schools would not alone impact a school environment that is otherwise hostile and punitive and where students are not treated as learners with voice and choice. Consider classrooms where students are taught skills to build their self-confidence through SEL lessons, but then attend schools where barriers exist for students of color to access advanced coursework.

Inequities are deeply ingrained in our education system and impact young people’s opportunities and outcomes. Without understanding and addressing how these systemic issues show up across learning environments and experiences, students are really only being told to accept injustice.

We believe there is a different and better way.

Our organizations highlight social and emotional learning that centers issues of equity, and this means addressing adult biases and beliefs and the systems and policies that influence students’ well-being.

We are collaborating with states, districts, and schools to document efforts on the ground and advance evidence-based approaches that affirm students’ identities, foster belonging, and elevate agency. These approaches include curriculum and instructional practices that represent our students’ diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, and that is oriented toward social and racial justice in history, literature, and beyond.

CASEL’s recently updated SEL framework emphasizes enhancing the social and emotional competence of children and adults as well as promoting equitable learning environments across classrooms, schools, families, and communities. For example, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a CASEL partner district for almost 10 years, has developed prekindergarten-to-adult social and emotional learning standards that integrate the teaching of social and emotional competencies across race, class, culture, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, learning needs, and age. Additionally, according to The Education Trust’s guide to improving discipline in schools for girls of color, OUSD also has made significant progress in changing discipline policies to support practices that emphasize relationship-building over exclusionary and punitive measures.

Centering equity requires all of us.

This means providing professional learning and supports for educators to co-create, with students, discipline policies that do not discriminate against or harm students of color.

This means hiring and retaining a diverse and socially- and emotionally-skilled educator workforce, so all students see people of color as leaders and mentors in their communities.

This means prioritizing school counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and social workers over measures to “harden schools.”

And this means including students, families and caregivers, and communities—especially those that continue to be marginalized—as full partners in education decision-making.

Ultimately, social and emotional learning should not be seen as something “extra” for educators to do, but as an indispensable means for teachers and schools to support students.

It’s true that this school year looks and feels different.

Educators’ most powerful tool in their social-and-emotional-learning tool chest—the development of strong relationships with their students—is going to be much tougher to hone amid remote learning and physical distancing. 

But, as educators, we can’t let this new reality discourage us. There is still plenty that educators and school leaders can do.

Even across physical distance, we can engage in restorative practices that help students learn and grow when they might make mistakes. We can use representative curricula whether we’re teaching in-person, virtually, or through other means. We can enhance student agency and self-advocacy, for cultivating a space—even online—in which each student is respected as a learner and achiever, or for connecting with students and showing we care.  

Equitable and inclusive learning environments that promote social, emotional, and academic learning will be necessary regardless of the mode of teaching during this year and in years to come. And our students deserve nothing less.

Now, let’s get to work.

(October 2020)