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We’ve been taking a close look at the current enthusiasm for “social and emotional learning” (SEL), hoping to do what we can to help it avoid the pitfalls that have turned so many promising education reforms into destructive passion plays.
Well, last week, a RAND analysis drawn from surveys of the nation’s teachers and principals offers some useful insight into how they view SEL. The report drew on two surveys administered to massive, nationally representative samples of more than 28,000 teachers and more than 12,000 principals.
What do the results show? First off, there appears to be substantial interest in SEL. When asked how SEL ranked among all the priorities they had for their schools, 72% of principals reported SEL was their top or one of their top priorities. (This is, of course, a problematic way to ask the question: respondents could conceivably have lengthy lists of “priorities.”) When given a list of SEL skills such as “understanding and managing emotions,” “making responsible decisions,” and “establishing and maintaining positive relationships,” 90% or more of principals and teachers ranked each as “fairly important” or “very important” for students to learn in school. Again, the question of “relative to what?” inevitably arises, but the results do suggest that educators seem to have SEL on their minds.
Both teachers and principals indicated that the most common approaches used to promote SEL tended to be non-programmatic ones like “model[ing] appropriate behaviors” and “building community and relationships with students and parents.” Far less common were specific strategies, such as “targeted behavior interventions,” “restorative practices,” or “mindfulness practices.” Those, in fact, were the least popular strategies.
When it comes to measuring SEL, principals and teachers report that the most common strategies involved “observations of classroom and student behavior.” RAND noted that this could entail formal rubrics or more general teacher judgments. Meanwhile, only about one in ten teachers or principals reported using specific “performance tasks that measure students’ SEL.” In other words, there’s a heavy reliance on the informal and judgment-laden.
The lack of formal SEL instruction has led to a lot of varied approaches to SEL. Of course, as the RAND authors note, the “breadth of approaches … can make it difficult for state and local education leaders and technical assistance providers to design training or other supports that are relevant across schools.”
Given all this, and given the natural concern that many places are going to do SEL poorly or not at all, SEL champions may be tempted to push for more consistent, formal interventions and assessments. That’s an understandable impulse, especially when seeking to protect students from goofy practices. Yet pushing for the kind of systemization that simplifies training and technical assistance brings its own perils — not least of which is promoting top-down agendas or alienating the educators who will need to do this work.
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