What a California School Survey Can Tell us About Measuring Social and Emotional Skills

This post was initially published on OECD’s Education and Skills Today blog.

Educators across the globe increasingly agree that the social and emotional dimensions of learning are critical for a student’s success – a trend that is underscored by the OECD’s forthcoming Study on Social and Emotional Skills. But there is little consensus around how to measure these important factors – and how to strengthen them.

A consortium of six urban school districts in California has taken a pioneering approach to measuring social and emotional development, using school climate surveys to assess how students feel about their experiences at school and how they view themselves as learners. The consortium, known as the CORE Districts, initially planned to integrate the survey results as part of systems to rate schools. Instead, they’re now trying to harness the information they collected to improve student performance.

One major finding from the annual study, which involved nearly one million students, is that girls lose their self-confidence when they reach adolescence far faster than boys do. Another is that students of color are less likely to feel a sense of belonging at school, and report less confidence in their ability to master the toughest material in their classes. (Self-efficacy and a sense of belonging are among the elements measured in the CORE Districts’ surveys.)

So, how did educators respond to these findings?

To find out, we visited the Fresno Unified School District, which teaches 74,000 students in California’s San Joaquin Valley. During in-depth visits to three schools, and interviews with dozens of administrators, teachers and staff, we discovered Fresno is a valuable case study of how efforts to encourage social-emotional development are playing out on the ground.

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; and they have galvanized educators to act on problems that their surveys identify.

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

Findings on students’ self-perceptions as learners were often discouraging, but the dozens of teachers we spoke with did not feel absolved of their responsibilities as educators. They said they didn’t lower their standards or think less of students after receiving the survey results. On the contrary, we heard a lot of discussion about building school cultures that promote learning.

But many teachers and administrators told us they were initially at a loss for how to remedy the problems identified in the surveys. And it was clear that the school district needed to build substantial infrastructure at the district and school levels to deepen teachers’ understanding of new concepts, help them interpret results accurately, and enable them to respond to the findings in the most effective ways. District leaders recognised and responded to this need by providing a range of supports, including training sessions and a team of experts to help school staff respond in ways that help children. We also learned that overloading schools with many different improvement strategies can be counterproductive.

More work is needed to identify the most effective ways to improve school climate and students’ social and emotional skills in response to the survey results. And researchers need to determine whether future surveys can measure the effectiveness of schools’ responses reliably. There are also concerns that educators could be encouraged to shape students’ responses if there are substantial consequences tied to survey results.

Still, the CORE surveys have clearly opened up an important new avenue for improving schools and student performance through the development of social and emotional skills – and perhaps a new model for other policy makers and practitioners to follow.

Thomas Toch is the director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, where Raegen Miller is research director.