Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process of developing ‘soft skills’ in children and adolescents—skills like self-control, conflict resolution, and grit. For decades, after-school programs – like Simpson Street Free Press – have recognized the importance of developing these skills.
Currently, a thriving sub-field of education research studies how to teach and evaluate these skills. In response, school districts and cities around the country are changing their school-day and after-school curriculum to facilitate SEL.
Madison’s decision makers have taken notice of this national trend.
Signs of SEL are showing up all over Madison, including the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) Strategic Framework, United Way’s latest Academic Success Mobilization Plan, and new City of Madison guidelines for “Effective Out-of-School Time Practices.”
In general, Simpson Street Free Press applauds efforts to align education in Madison with nationally recognized best practices. But, we feel it is important to not let exuberance for SEL blind decision makers to an important caveat: SEL measurements are not suitable for evaluating after-school programs, school effectiveness, or student achievement.
National experts agree. Angela Duckworth is a Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, The New York Times bestselling author, and leading figure among SEL researchers. She is also a vocal opponent of using SEL measurements as school-level assessments.
In an editorial published in The New York Times, Duckworth said “we’re nowhere near ready – and perhaps never will be – to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools.”
Duckworth herself developed several cutting edge assessment tools for SEL. But when she found out that her tools were being used for high-stakes assessment of school performance, she said “I felt queasy. This was not at all my intent, and this is not at all a good idea.”
Now that SEL is recognized as a best practice in Madison, there will be a strong temptation to convene a committee of experts and stakeholders to do just that: Develop a way to evaluate schools and out-of-school time programs on their use of SEL.
SSFP stands in unison with national experts who say: Don’t.
SEL metrics should not be included on MMSD’s “School Report Cards.” They should not be used to inform funding decisions at United Way, the City of Madison, or public foundations. SEL measurements are designed to help teachers, parents, and schools provide effective developmental support to individual children. That is where their usefulness and effectiveness starts – and ends.