California schools innovating how to measure social-emotional learning

Fourth grader Samir Davis checks out her features in the mirror as she sketches. Like all the students, the nose is the hardest part.
Fourth grader Samir Davis checks out her features in the mirror as she sketches. Like all the students, the nose is the hardest part.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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A group of California school districts – including  Los Angeles and Santa Ana – have opened a competition this month to come up with a good way to measure whether students are picking up soft skills like perseverance and integrity.

Those skills are known among educators as "social emotional learning" and they’re among the fastest growing areas of interest in public education.

“I think people realize that the key to actually giving kids an opportunity to access the academic information has as much to do with the relationships they have with their teachers and their peers and themselves and how they feel about themselves and how they interact with others,” said Melissa Schlinger, the vice president of programs and practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning,.

The challenge many schools are facing, she said, is how to effectively measure if students are absorbing and adopting the lessons.

The focus on testing social emotional learning comes as California schools are spending time and money to ramp up their training of teachers on these skills. The training is leading many school districts to integrate the lessons into academic classes. A math teacher, for example, would talk to students about defining perseverance and identifying in themselves after they’ve had a hard time with a math problem.

Schools are finding out that it's not easy to measure this kind of learning so they're coming up with more ways to get data to know if the lessons are having a positive effect on students. 

“It’s a work in progress,” Mai Xi Lee said of the social emotional learning assessment at Sacramento Unified. She oversees the school district’s efforts.

"There’s a huge national debate on whether or not we can measure these particular skill sets," she said.

Social-emotional learning is taught in about 60 percent of her district’s schools, she said, and schools had measured effectiveness through a student survey but this academic year administrators added focus groups to the measurements.

“We had conversations with them about their experience around safety, around connectedness, and belonging,” she said.

“It’s about how do we build better human beings that are connected to other human beings.”

The competition for a model social-emotional learning assessment is run by the CORE Districts, a group of eight California school districts –  including those in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Ana, and Garden Grove – that are all adopting social emotional learning to some extent in their schools.

The group is offering a $5,000 award for a model way to measure social emotional learning and the possibility to pilot the assessment in one of the CORE school districts.