Aug 29 2017

Measuring What Matters: Leveraging ESSA to Foster Social Emotional Learning


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

Luckily, the tide may be turning: 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 related to SEL, 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 measures 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 rates—and what this information says about the way schools are (or are not) supporting SEL. School leaders also need to take a hard look at how students’ experience in school varies by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and whether different student groups tend to feel excluded or unsupported. Interactive data dashboards, which many states are developing, can be useful in making sense of these data. Some districts, such as San Francisco Unified, 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 can support or inhibit 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 help 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— through observations in the classroom, teacher reports, or surveys that ask students to reflect on their skills and mindsets such as those used by California’s CORE districts. These can be a great tool for sparking conversations about ways teachers and students can improve their classroom culture and instructional supports—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. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has also developed useful guidance through its Measuring SEL initiative. Whichever measures schools adopt, they should drive a culture of continuous improvement and focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.