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Lessons in SEL from the California CORE Districts

This blog post was originally posted on CASEL's Measuring SEL blog.

Nearly a decade ago, a group of California school districts decided there was a better way to measure academic progress than relying on standardized test scores alone. The CORE Districts developed surveys that would gauge school climate and social-emotional dimensions of learning. Since 2016, they have been administered to nearly 1 million students annually.

Now as educators across the nation embrace the importance of school climate and student engagement, the experience in the CORE Districts offers valuable lessons about both the benefits and challenges of using surveys to measure SEL.

The survey results across the six districts identified some troubling trends that educators are working to address. African American students, for instance, feel less of a sense of belonging in school as they grow older. Girls tend to lose their self-confidence as they reach middle school.

Of course, the surveys couldn’t show teachers and administrators how to turn around the problems they identified. Nor have they offered much evidence to date of what responses work best.

To understand how the districts are using the results they glean from surveys, FutureEd Senior Fellow Raegen Miller and I dug into the research on the CORE surveys and interviewed dozens of district administrators, teachers, and staff. We also studied three schools in-depth in the 74,000-student Fresno district in the San Joaquin Valley. The result was a case studyof how efforts to improve social-emotional development play out.

[Read More: CORE Lessons: Measuring the Social and Emotional Sides of Student Success]

Much of what we found was discouraging, with students doubting their own abilities and teachers feeling that their schools were unsafe. Many teachers and administrators lacked a clear sense of how to start remedying the problems.

District-level officials realized they needed to develop the training and support systems that would help teachers understand growth mindsets, self-efficacy and other concepts the surveys measure and help them respond to the new concepts.The work began with the central office, where administrators created climate and culture teams for every school and provided a roving team of experts to help school staff members interpret results and respond in the most effective ways.

Within schools, educators have developed skits, videos, essays and personal outreach to students to encourage students' social-emotional development. The priorities include promoting a sense of belonging among students and building their confidence in themselves as learners.

A growing body of research shows that strong relationships with teachers and other adults are critical to student success, especially for at-risk students. Culturally relevant curriculum and home visits can keep students feeling engaged at school. A more empathetic approach to discipline and a more nuanced approach to providing classroom feedback can keep them from disengaging.

[Read More: Teacher Mindsets: How Educators’ Perspectives Can Shape Student Success]

In interviews, we heard from teachers who were looking for guidance on how to improve students’ perceptions of themselves and their schools. Some felt overwhelmed, if not overloaded, by a wide range of improvement strategies adopted at their schools. Many were surprised by what they learned from the surveys. “Most of the children here are upbeat, so it was very surprising to learn that a group of students said ‘I can’t rise to the challenge,’" a 2nd-grade teacher told us.

Fresno Unified and the other CORE Districts are not using the survey results for accountability purposes, such as assessing school quality or teacher performance, but rather for improving schools. Results aren’t broken down by students or classrooms to avoid stigmatizing students or teachers. Fresno focuses instead on grade-level, school-level and district-level trends.

That dovetails with the current thinking from measurement experts, who worry that students and teachers could skew the survey results if they are tied to school ratings or teacher evaluation. It’s not clear that surveys are a reliable or valid way to measure such things. Nonetheless, eight states now use school climate or engagement surveys in their accountability rubrics required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. California chose not to include surveys in its rubric.

Fresno's experience suggests that surveys don't have to be part of accountability systems to be influential. Researchers have found that the CORE surveys are valid and reliable measures of students' perspectives, and that results align with achievement scores and other indicators.

And Fresno educators told us that by merely administering their annual surveys to students, teachers and parents, and conveying results to schools, the CORE Districts have signaled that social and emotional skills are important contributors to student success. That, in turn, has galvanized educators to act on problems the surveys identify.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.