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Working at the intersection of policy and politics: social, emotional, and academic development 


The intersection of policy and politics is where some of the most interesting work gets done. It's also where policymakers can get pretty badly beat up. Focus too much on policy and you'll get clobbered by opponents who bring all their political skill to the fight. But emphasize the politics and you can end up with really bad policy.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can be an area where it's tough to strike a balance. Many parents want their children to develop skills beyond basic academics. But opponents are active, with an ongoing campaign to link SEL to their all-purpose bogeyman, the Common Core State Standards.

That's why tools like survey research are so invaluable. Today, a new survey on support for social and emotional learning released today by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE),“How to Talk about Social and Emotional Learning with Community Influencers,” offers interesting insights on what policymakers should do . . . and how they can most successfully achieve their goals.

There’s no question that survey respondents prioritize academic learning. Teaching the basics of reading, writing, math, science and social studies is the overwhelming top priority listed by 83% of survey respondents. It’s worth noting that survey respondents highlight the development of these basic skills as the top priority for elementary schools.

Most acknowledge that schools need to develop other skills as well. Survey respondents (influential stakeholders in five states) agreed that it should be a priority for schools to “develop the full range of social, emotional, and academic skills in students.” Ensuring that students develop skills like critical thinking and responsible decision making is seen as especially important for high school students.

The single most important reason to support the teaching of a wide range of social, emotional, and academic skills, according to respondents: because students will need them in the future. In fact, 91% of all respondents, including 65% of those who are generally opposed to social and emotional learning, agree with the statement, “Teaching real‐world skills and traits helps students be better prepared for college, the workforce, and life.”

There’s also an important equity message that strikes a chord. Overall, 87% of the survey respondents agreed that “We need to make sure that all children ‐‐ no matter who they are, where they’re from, or how much money their family makes – develop the social, emotional, and academic skills they need to succeed in life.”

But while support for social and emotional learning is broad, it is not very deep. In fact, the survey found that fully half of all respondents were in a group that could be characterized as the “movable middle.” They generally agree with the importance of developing social and emotional skills, but they are also responsive to some of the criticisms of this approach.

In particular, respondents worry that there will be “standards,” and that students will be judged or graded on their feelings. They also expressed a worry about whether overworked teachers could take on another responsibility.

Those of us who lived through the Common Core battles know that broad-but-shallow support needs to be transformed into more informed understanding. Here are a few takeaways:

Emphasize the long-term impact of developing social and emotional skills – which are critical for college, the workforce, and for life.

Talk about Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. The addition of academics makes a big difference.

Talk openly about equity. Parents in particular respond to a message that all students deserve a chance to develop these skills.

State boards of education are powerful messengers. Board members should not be afraid to talk about why the board is encouraging schools to develop a broad range of skills in all students.

The survey results released today were part of an 18-month project that was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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