The Importance of What ESSA Plans Do Not Include

On September 27, 2018, the US Department of Education congratulated the State of Florida on approval of its consolidated plan for implementing the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (1965) as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) (ESSA). The approval letter was for the 50th, and final, plan establishing each state government’s commitment to assuring quality and equity in publicly funded education. These plans outline how each state will evaluate the success of their schools. Now that each state has articulated an approach to the common national aspiration of having every student succeed, it is possible to pause and look at what the educational priorities are across the nation as well as what is conspicuously absent from these state plans. Most notably? social-emotional learning (SEL).

ESSA enabled—even promoted—the inclusion of SEL measures as part of the state accountability plans. However, every state passed up this opportunity. Though SEL approaches and goals are prevalent in education literature, research, and professional development agendas; though 95% of teachers report that SEL skills are teachable and can benefit all kids; though districts and schools are implementing SEL curricula in large numbers, measures assessing SEL growth and development are universally absent from how states will hold themselves accountable to the community.

Beyond Academic Achievement: ESSA & the Fifth Indicator

ESSA maintained much of the requirements established under No Child Left Behind for state accountability systems. Tweaks to definitions and new flexibility in the methods for compliance were introduced. A new balance of autonomy between the federal, state, and local decision makers was established. ESSA retained requirements that each state needs to assess and report academic performance for each school and for students by sub-group. However, ESSA is different in establishing added expectations and flexibility in educational standards, assessment instruments, and differentiation of student and school cohorts. A major addition is that ESSA explicitly requires that state education agencies (SEAs) “Include one other indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation, such as student or educator engagement, or school climate and safety” as part of its accountability framework.” This is the new, fifth indicator, of gauging school quality.

This fifth indicator was introduced by Congress in direct response to concerns that NCLB had overly narrowed the definition of school success to metrics based on student academic achievement. Criticisms had bemoaned that these measures failed to take into account that being ready for life upon graduation requires more than a proficiency score in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Advocates, from a variety of ideological perspectives, were successful in ensuring that ESSA allows states the latitude to reflect on their values and prioritization of characteristics beyond academic achievement and to use those measures to define the success of their schools. Though SEL indicators are included in these possible options, no state stepped up to hold itself accountable by measuring SEL skill development.

Why SEL Is Struggling to Break Through the Accountability Wall

Educators know that SEL is instrumental to the social, emotional, and interpersonal development of students. Research shows that it underpins academic growth and is foundational to the development of requisite skills in the innovation economy. With this knowledge, teachers, principals, and district administrators work to understand and respond to the stages of human development and the range of experiences students bring to the classroom. Teachers want to ensure that students are present, engaged, and learning in an environment which develops and reinforces healthy behaviors, self-regulation, and civic contributions. Their daily practice reflects a concerted effort to address these concerns.

There was significant consternation that test-prep for summative assessments had left little time for engaging students under NCLB. Educators have come to understand that student academic achievement in K-12 and subsequent post-secondary success in higher education and career pursuits needed explicit time and experiences beyond what was driving school report cards based on standardized test. The ability to have students learn, adapt, and support themselves and others requires explicit, systemic experiences in social-emotional learning.

Why, then, have state education policymakers across the country not embraced the opportunity to assess what so many practitioners and researchers assert is necessary for student success? In short, too little coherence and too much risk aversion. There are many competing frameworks for defining SEL, SEL attributes are considered too hard to measure with validity, and, thus, no state has been brave enough to pioneer holding itself accountable in such an uncertain terrain.

There are several diverse groupings of skills and lessons that fall under the broad “SEL umbrella,” including concepts such as grit, resilience, mindfulness, agency, creativity, and non-cognitive skills. With this breadth, it is impossible to assess the success of SEL skills generally. Therefore, as schools and districts implement SEL programs, they must determine which specific categories of SEL skills their curricula aim to teach and, therefore, which measures align to gauge success and inform practice.

Selecting an instrument to assess SEL involves more complicated decision points than a straightforward, longitudinal metric: Schools must make decisions about whether to use universal or sampling based methodologies, the desired reporting frequencies and styles to practitioners, and resource allocation processes. Examples of leading providers of SEL instruments scales, and reporting structures, include Panaroma, Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scale, TransformEd, and Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale. Each vendor has a distinct combination of attributes, instruments, scales, and analytic platforms. And each vendor heralds the “unique” nature of its approach. To enable impact at scale, advocates of SEL need an interoperability movement to enable create a common set of definitions and scales. Other aspects of the educational enterprise, most recently literacy and educational technology, have benefitted from such efforts and enabled a coherent eco-system while maintaining an innovative friendly market of offerings.

If Not SEL, What Are States Using as the Fifth Indicator?

In order to meet the mandate to include an “indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation” other than state test scores, many states are relying upon measures of achievement and behavioral attributes already being gathered by schools. These attributes, such as daily attendance, behavioral and disciplinary records, local report card and course grades, middle and high school GPAs, literacy measures, and state test scores, have an extensive longitudinal availability, and are being used by many states as this fifth indicator of quality.

Ways this is being done include:

  • Attendance: An increase in the overall daily attendance rate, the increase in very high attendance (>98%), a decrease in high absenteeism (>10% absences), and a decrease in truancy correlate to positive school climate.
  • Behavior: A healthy environment is considered one in which students are able to handle their emotions without eruption, navigate interpersonal dynamics without disruptive conflict, and interact with teachers and other authority figures without confrontation. Metrics include behavior referrals, disciplinary incidents, and the severity of disciplinary types within the community.
  • Course Grades: If students are present and engaged then achievement should rise. Metrics include the whether more student work is submitted on time, if the average course grade per marking period rises, the failure or retention rate falls, and if these local efforts correlate with external assessments such as state examinations.
  • School Climate: At least eight states have opted to use school climate as an indicator within their approved ESSA plans. These measures, like SEL measurements, rely on student, parent, and educator surveys. However, rather than gauging how students perceive their own capabilities they ask participants to report on what, and how well, the school system creates an environment for learning and relationships. This is important, but distinct from, the attributes of SEL.

While states’ choices to use these measures to assess school success absolutely fall within ESSA compliance, they fail to reflect if, and how well, social-emotional learning is happening in schools. The measures that states seem comfortable to be accountable for are either based in reducing problematic metrics or in asking for endorsement of environmental factors. Neither approach reaches into the attitudes and behaviors of students about their capacity to create, develop, and adjust the individual and social attitudes and habits for lifelong learning.

Our Measurements Should Reflect Our Educational Aspirations

Americans have a long history of committing to the idea of educating its children. This record has been characterized by significant efforts to organize leaders around ensuring that this commitment is supported with resources and accountability. From the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s 1647 mandate for towns to provide education, to the state school board meetings convened by Horace Mann, to the broadening of the intent of education in Dewey’s laboratory schools, to the challenges of ensuring equity in resources and expectations of desegregation, to the effort to measure every student’s academic achievement through NCLB, through to ESSA’s current emphasis on equity of expectations and opportunity, the United States has expanded who is expected to be educated and increasingly worked to ensure that education promotes contemporary conceptions of life-readiness.

What we measure in our schools reflects these goals and intentions. The data we collect, and the metrics by which we gauge success, are closely tied to these ambitions. And, educational practice, curricula, and funding streams follow those priorities and outcome measures.

In order for schools to attain these broader conceptions of achievement—of this more holistic approach to education, referenced in the law, that includes social-emotional learning—schools must articulate and define these goals as desired outcomes. Metrics that reflect human development, rather than just academic achievement, are inherently complicated. However, schools and districts can make choices to find meaning in this uncertainty. They need to choose from competing theories of action in doing so, ensure interoperability with existing analytic frameworks and student information systems, and ultimately include measures that assess these kinds of skills and behaviors in order to truly provide insights, with confidence, on student growth as a person and a learner.

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Erin Gohl

Erin Gohl is a Getting Smart columnist, and an independent writer focusing on issues of equity, engagement, and technology in educational policy and practice

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