Many of the conversations we have with researchers, policymakers, and district partners begin with a discussion of which SEL competencies we will focus on in our work together. The following table provides a glimpse of myriad skills that fall under the many related frameworks of “social-emotional learning,” “21st century skills,” “character education,” and so on. This “Tower of Babel,” as we often call it, can quickly become overwhelming.
To help us cut through the cacophony of terms in this field, TransformEd applies a particular framework to help decide which skills are most important for schools to focus on. We call this framework the “3Ms”: we believe that in order for a skill to be immediately actionable for schools, it has to be Meaningful, Measurable, and Malleable. What do we mean by each of these?
A skill that is meaningful predicts important long-term life outcomes and short-term academic outcomes. Research has shown that specific social-emotional competencies—such as self-management and growth mindset – are linked to academic and behavioral outcomes in school as well as health, wealth, and well-being outcomes throughout life. SEL can competencies predict grades throughout K-12 as strongly as IQ does, and they predict performance in the workforce more strongly than IQ does. SEL skills such as social awareness, emotional intelligence, and self-efficacy are in particularly high demand by employers. Further, studies have demonstrated that stronger SEL competencies are correlated with such long-term outcomes as higher employment rates and wages, as well as lower risk of substance abuse, obesity, and criminal activity.
A skill that is measurable can be assessed in ways that are valid, reliable, and feasible within the school day. The measurement of SEL skills is still in its infancy: we currently rely primarily on student self-report and adult report on students (e.g. from teachers, parents, etc.). There are some real limitations to these types of measures, but we feel strongly that they are preferable to no measurement at all. Having a common set of measures used across a large, diverse group of students is the first step towards having sophisticated growth measures of these skills that are developmentally informed and culturally sensitive, which will ultimately enable us to target instruction appropriately to support student growth.
A skill that is malleable can be shaped by specific interventions, whether in the classroom or through other programs that support schools in preparing students for success. Teachers believe in the value of these skills, with 93% of teachers agreeing that it is important for schools to promote their development. Civic Enterprises reports, “Educators know these skills are teachable; want schools to give far more priority to integrating such development into the curriculum, instruction, and school culture; and believe state student learning standards should reflect this priority. Teachers also want such development to be available for all students.” Nearly all teachers (88%) report instruction on these skills occurs in their schools on some level, although less than half (44%) of teachers say they are being taught on a school-wide, programmatic basis. Research on how to build SEL skills is still emerging, but there is existing evidence demonstrating that skills like growth mindset are teachable and that the impact of a targeted intervention can be long-lasting.
As the field of SEL develops, researchers and policymakers have focused initially on whether these skills matter, and compelling research now shows that they do. With each day that passes, we’re having fewer conversations about whether these skills matter and more conversations about how to measure SEL skills and how to support students in building these competencies.
Unfortunately, there is ample evidence to suggest that students are not currently building enough of the SEL competencies they need to succeed. A recent study of almost 150,000 middle and high school students indicated that only 29% of students believe their school provides an environment that supports the development of key SEL-related factors. Employers who rank applied skills like teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving as “very important” evaluate many applicants with a high school diploma as deficient in all of these skills. In 2002, NCES estimated that up to 35% of dropouts can be explained by
The state of SEL today mirrors the state of literacy several decades ago: nearly everyone is teaching it, but we have no systematic way of determining whether the myriad instructional strategies and curricula in use are effective. In fact, a national survey of teachers, school leaders, and district leaders that we conducted recently suggests that US K-12 public schools are spending $20-50B annually on teacher time and curricular resources devoted to building SEL skills, without any common outcome measures to gauge the impact of this investment.
We believe that the path forward in SEL today – as it was in literacy decades ago — is to continue to clarify what students should know and be able to do, and to develop a common set of measures that can help us assess students’ SEL competencies in order evaluate the effectiveness of our existing investments in building these skills and scale best practices in ways that will support students’ development.
We believe that leading with measures can catalyze demand for more and better information on how to teach SEL effectively. However, common, valid, and reliable SEL measures are not the only resource required to enable this theory of change. Data from those measures must be translated into timely and actionable reports for educators. Educators must also have the time and capacity to integrate information from those reports into their own classroom practice, using data to tailor instruction for students who need additional support. To enable this work, educators will also need access to a curated and dynamic knowledge base of curricular tools and resources that include practices that have proven effective in other classrooms through research or educator experience.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done. At TransformingEd, we’re at the beginning of a long journey, and we look forward to collaborating with partners and colleagues who share our belief in the power of SEL skills to transform students’ lives along the way.
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