The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Districts across the country have zeroed in on the value of social-emotional learning, incorporating homegrown or pre-packaged programs into their school days. One challenge for these efforts, however, is figuring out how to track progress. Districts in Illinois, Texas and California are among those gathering data to guide their work. In a recent webinar hosted by Education Week and Panorama Education, leaders from three districts outlined their programs and the benefits of tracking progress.
Fresno Unified School District and California’s CORE
Michael Hanson is the longtime superintendent of Fresno Unified and a board member for the CORE districts, which serve 20% of California students across nine districts and have committed to sharing data and working together to improve student achievement. The CORE districts received a waiver from No Child Left Behind in 2013 even though the state of California did not.
From the beginning, CORE districts recognized the importance of social-emotional learning on student success and built it into their accountability model. Participating districts track four specific skills: self-management, self-efficacy, growth mindset and social awareness. Importantly, CORE has stayed away from a “test and punish” approach as schools assess their progress.
“We are very clear that we are using this accountability framework as a flashlight and not a hammer so that we’re trying to illuminate and be very, very clear for everybody about exactly what we’re up against,” Hanson said.
Fresno uses the Second Step curriculum in kindergarten through eighth grade so students get one formal lesson per week, and teachers integrate social-emotional learning into their classrooms throughout the year. Secondary schools are still figuring out how to fit in formal instruction and embed social-emotional learning into daily coursework.
The focus on social-emotional learning has come with targeted training for teachers, which built on prior work in the district — including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, anti-bullying and restorative practices.
Key to the district’s measurement success has been its access to a rich dataset. Not only do all students fill out surveys, but all teachers fill out surveys on all of their students, whether that’s a single classroom of kids at the elementary level or more than 100 high schoolers. Time to complete all of those surveys was negotiated through union contracts and bargaining.
One thing Hanson noticed in the data is that self-efficacy among girls plummets in sixth grade, relative to boys, and it doesn’t recover. Female teachers were not surprised by the data, but Hanson and his male colleagues approached the discovery with horror.
“It’s stunning and it needs to be worked on,” Hanson said.
Now, with data providing a baseline, Fresno can develop interventions and monitor school progress toward improving these numbers, something that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago.
Dallas Independent School District
Fifteen schools in the Dallas Independent School District are considered either transformation or innovation schools. Teams of teachers and other school leaders either applied for the designation to open a new school or transform an existing one, and in every one of them, social-emotional learning provides a bedrock for school improvement.
Tricia Baumer, director of operations planning and implementation in the Dallas ISD Office of Transformation and Innovation, said in the first two years of the program, the winning proposals all had strong social-emotional learning components to their school plans and by year three, that was a requirement of the application.
In each school, social-emotional learning looks different — a reflection of the grassroots nature of the school design.
“They know what the vision is for the school and what they want kids to accomplish,” Baumer said. “What we do in our office is help them bring their vision to life.”
All of the “choice schools” ask students to take a common SEL survey, providing each school a tool to use for accountability purposes. After administering the pilot, teachers demanded access to the data across grade levels. They wanted to see student progress and better understand where students needed support. Conversations also started up across schools as middle and high school teachers wanted to know about students that were new to their buildings.
Like in Fresno, principals have begun to drill down into the data to identify patterns about which students are stronger in grit or the growth mindset, for example. Teachers are asking about using surveys as formative tools to be administered periodically throughout the school year.
“People are really seeing this is an important component of how to make sure that our students are growing,” Baumer said.
Woodridge School District 68
West of Chicago, Woodridge School District has transformed the way it begins the school year. The “Significant 72” refer to the first three days of school, when the entire district focuses on building relationships among students and between students and teachers.
Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Greg Wolcott said the shift followed only halting progress with a prior SEL program that was taught in classrooms once per week. Students didn’t seem to be internalizing the lessons. District leaders new the best teachers were the ones who were able to develop strong relationships with students and their families, so they started to focus on those relationships.
Teachers use the Get to Know You survey at the beginning of the school year and they develop activities that help students and teachers form bonds early in the year. After school breaks and even three-day weekends, schools carve out time for more relationship-building.
“We started connecting with the kids on a deeper basis,” Wolcott said. “Teachers really got to know the kids in a different way.”
A number of teachers have started giving students surveys about grit and self-awareness, which help teachers better understand them and give students the chance to self-monitor and self-identify. When planning interventions, staff members refer back to the survey data to identify the best fit.
Wolcott said the whole process has helped educators see students from a different angle.
“We weren’t really comfortable asking kids about their feelings,” Wolcott said. “This has really transformed what we’re doing.”