Non-academic skills are vital to success in school – and beyond
BY MANY MEASURES, the Commonwealth is leading the pack when it comes to public education. Massachusetts students score higher on standardized tests than their peers across the nation and high school graduation rates have been steadily increasing over the past decade. But does that mean students are prepared for life after graduation? My organization looks at key indicators of student progress in Massachusetts each year in our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report. While we’ve seen significant improvements in many areas of education, a troubling trend remains: Too many students are leaving our high schools without the tools they need to succeed in college or in the workforce.
Thirty-two percent of Massachusetts public school students require developmental—or remedial—courses when enrolling the state’s public colleges and universities. These courses are meant to prepare students for college-level work but don’t count toward a degree. Students are graduating from high school underprepared for the challenges they’ll face in college, and as a result they may find themselves facing a large debt burden with few college credits to show for it. Meanwhile, a majority of Massachusetts business leaders report difficulties finding local graduates with workplace-ready skills, particularly so-called “soft skills” like self-awareness, goal-setting, and critical thinking.
In our efforts to create the best education system in the nation, the vital importance of educating students in traditional academic subjects has overshadowed the need to educate the whole child. But in the 21st century, teaching students reading, writing, and arithmetic isn’t enough; we need to help them learn cooperation, compassion, and persistence as well.
These and other social-emotional skills form a foundation for learning and—when taught hand in hand with traditional subjects—give rise to better understanding of academic content. In addition to increased academic performance, the development of social-emotional skills leads to improved attendance, higher college retention rates, and increased employment rates and wages, as well as lower levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, obesity, and criminal activity. Because of these proven outcomes for students, research has found an average return of $11 for every $1 invested in school-based social-emotional programming.
Since social-emotional skills are inextricably linked to academic success, shouldn’t they be deeply embedded in all academic lessons? This important work is happening across the state—like in Chelsea, where the algebra curriculum addresses positive self-belief and persistence, or in Newton, where a centralized Department of Social Emotional Learning has been created to put non-academic skills on par with academic priorities. In districts and schools around Massachusetts, early educators read books with their students that focus on getting along with classmates and managing emotions while some elementary school teachers lead circle time where students talk openly about problems in the classroom, like teasing, and work on finding solutions. Despite this promising work, state-level policies have not kept up with the pace of innovation in districts, leaving many classrooms without the resources or time to teach the whole child.
As Ludlow Public Schools superintendent Todd Gazda recently pointed out in CommonWealth, many educators feel that the social-emotional needs of students are being neglected because of a focus on assessments. What if we could use assessments to make social-emotional learning a priority? Assessments measure student progress, but they can also help educators adjust their lessons and identify what is or isn’t working for each child. The same way effective assessments can help improve the way we teach math, certain measurements can also help improve the way we attend to children’s social-emotional development and well-being. For example, the Survey of Academic Youth Outcomes can be used by teachers to track observable behaviors aligned with key social-emotional skills. This data can help guide how we integrate social-emotional learning into curriculum.
Including non-academic measurements in assessments is a critical step toward identifying and addressing the social-emotional needs of students, and the new national education law opens the door for us to do just that. The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December by President Obama, gives state and district leaders greater flexibility to set and measure their own education goals by allowing states to add a new type of indicator to accountability systems. In addition to traditional indicators like test scores and graduation rates, states will be able to choose a measure that focuses more on preparedness and opportunity, like student and educator engagement, school climate and safety, postsecondary readiness, or access to advanced coursework. This is an opportunity for the Commonwealth to recognize how integral non-academic skills are to student learning and college and career success.
Assessing social-emotional skills is a very new area. Despite the promising work being done to teach these skills, without support and guidance from the state, few programs have the resources or training to measure students’ social-emotional progress. This remains an obstacle to implementing or growing otherwise promising models.
Boston is one of the few communities that has taken steps to assess social-emotional learning. Last summer, the Boston Summer Learning Project, a citywide effort led by Boston Public Schools and the non-profit organization Boston After School & Beyond, brought together 50 schools and 16 community organizations to give 1,000 students community-based learning opportunities. The programs give students both academic and hands-on learning experiences while emphasizing the social-emotional skills associated with college and career success, including perseverance, critical thinking, relationship building, and self-regulation.
A crucial piece of this effort is measurement and evaluation. The Boston Summer Learning Project not only looks at whether or not programs are working, but also how and why programs succeed. Program leaders assess participation, program quality, and students’ social-emotional growth using a range of tools including student and staff surveys and third-party observations. Together, these evaluation tools provide richer data than community programs could access on their own, while easy-to-use reports make the feedback manageable.
Programs can use the data to make improvements and demonstrate their impact. The program leaders also meet regularly to discuss findings, share best practices, and explore strategies for addressing common challenges. This data-informed focus on improvement is working. Since the introduction of the evaluation system, the programs have seen significant improvements in students’ math, reading, and social-emotional skills.
The tools to measure social-emotional learning already exist. State leaders should take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the new national education law and shift the focus of evaluations to include non-academic skills. If we want to measure whether we are truly preparing students for success after graduation, we can’t simply look at math and language arts; social-emotional learning also needs to be part of the equation.
Now is the time to focus on a vision of education that reflects the needs of the whole child, one that encourages educators to embed social-emotional learning into every community, every classroom, and every lesson. This is essential as we prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow and work to give all children the chance to have successful and healthy lives. This next frontier in education is within reach, and I hope that Massachusetts will lead the way.
Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.