The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why it’s (long past) time for social and emotional learning

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Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, who is leaving his job at the end of the month after four years, wrote the following response to a recent column by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the average performance of U.S. 15 year olds in reading, math and science on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment.

By Jonathan Raymond

In “Can’t We Do Better?” (Sunday, December 8), New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that the recent results of the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA “wasn’t pretty for the home team,” underscoring what should be an embarrassing and tragic wakeup call for U.S. education policy makers and practitioners. Given in 65 cities and countries around the world, PISA measures how well 15-year-olds apply math, science and reading skills to solve real-world problems.

What is embarrassing is that in the last 10 years U.S. results have remained flat while other countries such as Vietnam have moved ahead of us. What’s tragic is the widening inequity among educational systems within our own country: Students in Massachusetts, which for the first time participated in the PISA separately from the U.S., scored within the top 10 in the world in reading, science and math. Meanwhile, the U.S. as a whole ranks 17th in math and reading and 21st in science.

While Mr. Friedman is short on specific next steps we should be taking to reverse and accelerate our trajectory, he cites futurist Marina Gorbis’ theory that America must conquer the “motivational divide” between those who are self-motivated and attack learning with grit and perseverance (social-emotional skills) and those who do not. He also cites PISA manager Andreas Schleicher as saying that all the best performing school systems empower students to feel like “they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes.”  This form of meta-cognition is referred to as a “growth mindset” by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck.

Fortunately, a national movement to teach these skills to our children — and to adults in the educational system — is taking hold.  Recently, eight urban school districts from around the country met in Nashville to share what has been learned in the effort to bring Social and Emotional Learning to schools and classrooms. These districts are part of a cross-district initiative supported by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

While in Nashville, district teams of administrators, teachers, union representatives and PTA leadership visited schools to watch effective practices such as Morning and Closing Meetings, a strategy that is part of the powerful Responsive Classroom approach to building a positive learning environment. These practices give teachers tools and strategies to help make their classrooms safe, supportive and engaging places to learn while children learn to see their successes, establish goals and manage their emotions and relationships.  It is powerful to see the way adults and children interact and speak to each other!

The work within these districts to infuse these practices into daily school life and interactions is just beginning, although long overdue in public education.  Gone are the days where we can fool ourselves into thinking we are preparing children for college, careers and life by just focusing on academics. We as adults must teach, model and practice the very skills we expect our children to have and that the world demands they master. Confidence, perseverance, recognizing and controlling emotions, goal setting, empathy, civility, grace, building and nurturing relationships and making good decisions are essential skills for us AND our children.

Fortunately, the eight school districts are equally committed to making this a priority and learning from and with each other. Others are following suit, including the California districts that received a waiver from No Child Left Behind and will pilot Social and Emotional Learning indicators. What is being launched in places like Sacramento will create a lasting transformation in public education. We can and must continue to make this work a priority.

As parents, family members, educators and policy makers we all want to give the children in our lives the skills and habits to make their mark and sustain the American dream.  Social and Emotional Learning is a powerful tool to make this happen. The time for making Social and Emotional Learning a reality is now!