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Learning what works

Learning What Works: Evaluating Social-Emotional Learning Initiatives

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is quickly becoming a buzzword in public education, as school districts across the country adopt SEL instruction into their curricula. As Lyon Terry, Washington state’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, wrote in The Seattle Times: “If we don’t teach to the heart, we will never reach the mind.”

Social-emotional learning is multifaceted. Skills such as perseverance, grit, self-regulation, and social awareness work together to develop students into mindful adults and responsible citizens. And, so far, the impacts of social-emotional learning have been overwhelmingly positive.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University, and the University of British Columbia reviewed 82 SEL programs (for 97,406 K12 students) to discover the lasting impact of SEL.

Their research showed students with SEL training perform better academically and are more likely to graduate high school and receive a college degree. Researchers determined that graduating high school can have an average lifetime benefit of $367,687, and a college degree can have an average lifetime benefit of $1,138,054. In addition, students with SEL training were less likely to be diagnosed with substance abuse or to be arrested, a $1,051,688 and $175,702 average lifetime benefit, respectively.

With such positive end goals, it makes sense why so many K12 schools are jumping on board with SEL. But how can school districts measure the success of their programs?

“As more programs are being taken up in schools and districts, there becomes this greater demand to assess them, to see if they’re working, to see if students are, in fact, learning the skills that are being taught,” Lindsay Read, manager of research at CASEL, told The Hechinger Report.

According to CASEL’s research, observation is one way to measure the success of SEL. Teachers look for student behaviors that demonstrate SEL skills and the frequency at which they occur. However, CASEL notes, not all SEL skills are observable and teachers could have different frames of reference for rating a child.

Writing for American Institutes for Research (AIR), researchers Deborah Moroney and Michael McGarrah suggest that bias can form based on the experience teachers and schools have in adopting and assessing SEL. Effective training across schools and districts can alleviate some of this bias, but the financial commitment required might overburden districts with limited resources. Moroney and McGarrah note that conducting assessments of overall school climate is less of a burden on districts and still provides key insights about SEL.

Student surveys play a key role in gauging the success of SEL training and programs because students can self-report their feelings and attitudes.

“They’re good for system- and school-level diagnoses,” Noah Bookman, Chief Strategy Officer at California’s eight CORE districts, told CASEL in April. “But they don’t help classroom teachers try out new strategies. For that you need more frequent direct assessments looking at whether the kids actually developed the skills versus whether they perceive they did.”

Bookman is an advocate of direct assessment, a method that, so far, has not received much attention — or funding. But, this year, CASEL held the first of three annual SEL assessment design challenges to encourage creative approaches to performance-based assessments of social-emotional skills.

The resulting report showed that, while all the submitted ways for assessing SEL skills were innovative, none of them were practical for wide-spread use. Some were unclear about how the skills connected to student’s lives in school. Others were too long to be practical for classroom use — or were too complex to administer and score without the help of an expert.

Even with the submissions’ limitations, the report highlights a promising start to tackling a big question mark for educators.

“Ultimately, we believe that breakthrough systems of assessing social-emotional competence will require sufficient resources and collaborative contributions from the best minds in SEL and assessment development,” Clark McKown, Lindsay Read, and Bookman write in the report’s conclusion.

One thing the experts agree on is that there’s still a lot to learn about SEL and measuring its lasting impacts.

“We don’t know exactly why this works, we don’t know exactly which skill is most important, and we can’t tell right now which student benefits in which way,” said Joseph Durlak, psychology professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago. “These are all questions for the future.”

Are you implementing SEL programs in your curriculum? What steps are you taking to measure their success? Tell us in the comments.