Social-emotional learning matters, but Ohio’s new strategic plan goes too far

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In the final days of August, the Ohio Department (ODE) of Education and the State Board of Education released their five-year strategic plan for education. It includes a state-level vision, a goal focused on high school graduates, four learning domains, ten priority strategies, and three core principles.

The bulk of the plan is a breakdown of the ten strategies that ODE and SBOE plan to use to achieve their declared goal. Although each of these strategies is worth studying in depth, there are three in particular—those that are aimed at improving standards, assessments, and accountability—that deserve a close look:

Strategy 4: Identify clear learning standards and guidelines that reflect all four equal learning domains.

Strategy 5: Move toward a varied system of assessments to appropriately gauge the four equal learning domains and allow students to demonstrate competency and mastery in ways beyond state standardized tests.

Strategy 6: Refine the state’s accountability system to be a fairer, more meaningful process that reflects all four equal learning domains.

Each of these strategies contains a reference to the “four equal learning domains:”

The key word, certainly implied by its use in each of the strategies, is “equal.” Going forward, ODE and the state board intend for these domains to be equally important within the state’s standards, assessments, and accountability system. That’s a pretty significant change because two of the four don’t factor into our current system.

The top two domains cover the kind of traditional, concrete academic competencies that are core to schooling. Ohio already has state standards and assessments for many of these subject areas, and they are included in our state accountability system through annual student assessment in subjects like math and English language arts. But the bottom two domains are far more abstract. The examples provided for these two categories—things like creativity, self-management, and relationship skills—are generally considered to be non-cognitive, or “soft skills.” While these have long been understood as critical to student success, they aren’t part of Ohio’s current accountability system in any formal capacity.

The inclusion of non-academic domains and non-cognitive skills in Ohio’s overall plan is not without merit. Research shows that possessing non-cognitive and social-emotional learning (SEL) skills can affect both academic and life outcomes. Teachers who complement their academic instruction with access to SEL opportunities are helping students develop skills that have long-term benefits. Not to mention the well-documented SEL benefits of extracurricular activities. In fact, these skills are so important that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is responsible for administering the PISA assessment, has taken an interest. They recently released a working paper that includes a conceptual framework for their new international study on social and emotional skills, and the survey’s findings will be released in 2020.

Given the research and international attention, it’s no surprise that ODE and the state board have included SEL as part of their plan for educating the “whole” child. The decision to commission a standards advisory group to recommend SEL standards for all grades (Ohio only them for kindergarten through third grade at the moment) is a wise move. Ohio should be giving teachers and school leaders guidance and resources on SEL.

Unfortunately, the plan goes beyond just establishing standards and collating resources. Under strategies 5 and 6, it suggests that these soft skills should be assessed and included in the state accountability system.

That would be a serious mistake. Ohioans have been vocal about their desire for fewer assessments and a less complicated report card. Numerous state board members have expressed grave concerns about over-testing. Superintendent DeMaria has recommended cutting a number of state tests. Legislators have proposed bills aimed at streamlining report cards. Why, then, would ODE and the state board publish a strategic plan that increases the number of assessments students must take and adds even more measures to state report cards? Even if the state opts for non-traditional tests—like student portfolios, projects, or experiences—it doesn’t change the fact that they are tests that will take time to administer, prepare for, and collect data on.

More concerning, the plan ignores the advice of leading researchers who have repeatedly warned about the danger of including SEL measures in high-stakes accountability systems. A 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute concluded that although states could use SEL measures at the local level to inform teaching, learning, and program investments, “states should not use measures of students’ social-emotional competencies for high-stakes accountability purposes.” This is because they are still too new, weren’t designed for cross-school comparison, and are particularly vulnerable to reference bias—meaning that a person’s individual frame of reference or beliefs can influence how they report on or evaluate themselves and others.

Angela Duckworth, the researcher who is credited with popularizing the concept of grit, has also conducted research that demonstrates the danger of reference bias in SEL measurements. In 2016, she wrote a piece for The New York Times that carefully outlined why measures of character shouldn’t be included as part of high-stakes accountability metrics. She explained: “Policy makers who assume that giving educators and students more reasons to care about character can be only a good thing should take heed of research suggesting that extrinsic motivation can, in fact, displace intrinsic motivation. While carrots and sticks can bring about short-term changes in behavior, they often undermine interest in and responsibility for the behavior itself.” Carol Dweck, whose research covers fixed and growth mindsets, has also expressed reluctance about using mindset measures for high-stakes accountability.

And then there are the implementation issues. The plan’s assessment strategy says that skills within the non-academic domains “can be observed by individuals trained to do so.” There are no details about who these individuals are or what kind of training they would have to undergo, but considering how tight Ohio’s purse strings were during the recent budget cycle, ODE probably won’t be hiring a bunch of professionals to conduct these assessments. That means all the work is probably going to fall on teachers. Given that SEL measurements are prone to reference bias—and all kinds of subjectivity— there should be some serious concern about how the state plans to overcome differing norms and prevent efforts to game the system. After all, there’s a reason that not a single state opted to measure SEL for school performance despite new flexibility under ESSA.

To be fair, the strategic plan is just that—a strategy. There are no mandates and few details included in its contents, so it’s not clear how ODE and the state board will assess SEL skills or incorporate them into school report cards. In fact, the plan is carefully worded to say that embracing the four domains will merely “inspire the state to explore innovative approaches to assessments that go beyond academic content” (emphasis mine). At the end of the day, the power to add assessments and change the accountability system still rests solely with the General Assembly.

But it should worry lawmakers, advocates, families, and the general public that ODE and the state board appear to be recommending adding assessments and changing the accountability system in this way. There is no question that both organizations should be promoting SEL. They should create a clearinghouse of resources for teachers and leaders. They should invest in effective and meaningful teacher training. They should consider all the evidence and keep a close eye on upcoming research from respected organizations like OECD.

But they should not be calling for SEL skills to become part of our assessment and accountability system. And they especially shouldn’t be “shying away” from traditional academic competency to do so. SEL is a key component of student achievement and growth, but it’s not the only component. Content mastery matters too, as do “hard skills.” NAEP scores, ACT scores, and remediation rates indicate that Ohio still hasn’t figured out how to make sure all of its students are achieving at high academic levels. Until it does, policymakers should be focused on how SEL skills can complement academic mastery, not replace it.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.