K-12 Education

Taking SEAD To Scale: the Educator Perspective

November 30, 2016  • Joshua P. Starr

The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is focused on helping our nation’s schools support the holistic development of our young people. The Commission’s Council of Distinguished Educators includes practitioners in a wide array of roles, from classroom teachers to big city superitendents, who are identifying challenges and opportunities for taking efforts to support the whole student to scale.

Call it grit, social and emotional learning, mindfulness, or having a growth mindset—whatever you call it, it’s a real phenomenon. Lately, increased attention has been paid to the role that emotions play in education.

Researchers, practitioners, parents, students, and now policymakers have begun to recognize and promote the idea that students’ emotional states are a key factor in learning. Does increased attention to one’s emotions create a better team player—a skill prized by employers? Or lead to an increase in state standardized test scores—the dominant accountability metric of the past 16 years of federally driven reform? Or enable one to succeed in school and life? While the science behind social and emotional learning is building, the point is, emotions matter.

For two days in Washington, DC, the Aspen Institute’s new National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development (SEAD) met to grapple with these issues. The commitment to SEAD is real, deep, and felt by those who represent all levels of the education world. Those who work in public schools have come to realize that the generation of focus on standardized test scores has narrowed the ability to focus on the “whole child.” When I was a central office accountability leader and then a superintendent, I embraced the equity agenda of ensuring all students achieved high academic standards but always felt something was missing. Academic achievement may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Our challenge as a council is to help the commission understand the direct link between academics and SEL and the practical implications of attending to those “whole child” needs. I used the bully pulpit as a superintendent, while also implementing measures of hope, engagement, and well-being and allocating resources to spark innovation. The commission has an opportunity to spark that kind of innovation throughout our nation by creating a call to action and disseminating best practices for research, policymakers, and practitioners.

For years, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been working with a handful of large urban school districts to promote successful SEL practices in schools. While many of us have admired their work and modelled initiatives after their approach, social and emotional learning has only recently become a powerful force in the public education discourse. Now the challenge is to systematize it among those who may not be early adopters.

The Council of Distinguished Educators discussed and debated this challenge for a day and a half in DC with no easy conclusions. The multiple perspectives of educators from across the country with different roles and responsibilities provided for an extremely rich conversation about the possibilities, cautions, and unknown aspects of implementing SEAD.

One theme that emerged was whether SEAD is an aspiration or an intervention. Does the effective implementation of SEAD skills throughout a school community lead to the creation of the kind of culture we want to learn and grow in? Or, is SEAD about intervening with kids who are struggling to manage their emotions so they can improve academically?

While we did not reach any conclusions about this question, it led to other questions about equity: whether SEAD is being seen as a panacea when there are limitations, how to address adult issues with social and emotional skills, and which adults within a school are responsible for attending to the SEAD needs of students. The ongoing work of the Commission and the Council of Distinguished Educators will address these big questions, although I imagine they will never be fully resolved.

Perhaps the most important unknown is how SEAD relates to issues of equity and race. Educators are mostly white middle-class females, and students are increasingly of color and vulnerable. According to the most recent data, 82 percent of K-12 educators are white compared to 51 percent of the student population. And student diversty is only expected to grow in the coming years. How will we address issues of cultural competency and the need to simply seek understanding of each other, while we also help students—and adults—manage their emotions?

In an increasingly complex world and divided country, how will all educators ensure that all children have the academic and social and emotional skills they need to embrace the world on their own terms? And for white educators working with children of color, what skills do we need to enable us to realize those goals?

Perhaps James Baldwin said it best in 1963 when he wrote in his Talk to Teachers, “The purpose of education is to ask questions of the universe and then live with those questions.” The full realization of SEAD skills is to both know the right questions to ask, however hard they may be, and then grapple with them as we become self-actualized. If the Commission can help American public schools do that, we will have truly accomplished something remarkable.

Joshua P. Starr, CEO of PDK International, serves on the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development’s Council of Distinguished Educators. He is the former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, MD and Stamford, CT.