I am starting my 25th year in education and I am finishing my first school year as an associate principal. So it’s time to reflect on what I have learned with these experiences and to address what we are neglecting in education.
I won’t get into my resume, I have a LinkedIn account if you’re interested, but trust me when I say I’ve worn many hats in my 25 years of education.
When I reflect on my job, and how to improve, I end up focusing on two things: 1) myself, and what more I can learn and how I can learn it, and; 2) where can the educational system itself improve?
I already know where I can improve, it’s a long list starting with Exceptional Ed students and discipline. The same is true about our American educational system — the list for improvements is long.
But like a Venn Diagram, one area of improvement is on both lists, which is:
Prioritizing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) of students over testing and grades.
This isn’t new and most school divisions have been implementing forms of SEL for many years. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “social and emotional learning provides a foundation for safe and positive learning, and enhances students’ ability to succeed in school, careers, and life (Edutopia).” It’s the soft skills students need to succeed; the skills between the lines of a report card.
When we focus on SEL for students, we focus on Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. The video above goes into more detail about these skills.
In our shrinking world, and deep into the 21st century, we can’t treat students as consumers who need lectures, homework, grades, and tests to succeed. We have to teach the whole child, which means focusing on the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Students need empathy, self-confidence, and a growth mindset.
Students today sit in classrooms that are much more diverse (e.g., ethnically, languages spoken, identity, economically) and connected to global issues (e.g., human rights, environmentalism, poverty) than the classrooms of their parents. Educators are also more aware of how stress, depression, anxiety, and acceptance impact our students This wasn’t created by COVID, but these issues became more clear during the Pandemic. Maybe the focus on testing worked a generation ago, but not today.
SEL can help alleviate these problems while creating a stronger educational foundation for students to succeed.
Here’s a sample of what it could look like for Social Studies from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in the field. A Self-Awareness lesson could have students reflect on the different cultures represented in their community and similarities across groups. So if you hear SEL in the classroom and think of giant purple dinosaurs, that’s not what it is.
We need an educational system that can prepare all of our students to succeed in adulthood. But our number one priority needs to be on the social and emotional skills, not SATs, AP tests, state-mandated tests, and the dozen other standardized tests our students take in any given year, beginning with Kindergarten. One school district, for example, counted 112 standardized tests pre-k through 12th grade. That’s too much.
This means changing what we do and trusting educators. Since public education is tax-payer supported, elected officials create accountability measures to ensure tax money isn’t being wasted. But, that sets us up for an endless trap of accountability that is shortchanging our children.
The problem comes from state and national policies, thus; the only solutions will have to come from national and state leaders.
We do not need to get rid of testing altogether. I am suggesting we replace the frequent, high-stakes tests with frequent, low-stakes tests, which are teacher-driven. This should not be seen as lowering expectations. Nor should redefining our grading scales.
We need to re-evaluate how we grade students, which could be a part of SEL. The F kills kids. For most grading systems, there are anywhere from 5–10 points for an A, B, C, or D. But, an F can have up to 65 points of failure. A student could fail a class for a year because one test is a 25 F. But, move it to a 64 F, and they pass for the year. Should that no-mans-land of 26 points to 63 really determine whether a student fails a course, or grade? There are many alternative grading systems, but the only one that would help students puts a minimum cap on an F, like a 55. The F becomes punitive because of the number of tests students take.
Some states are reducing the number of standardized tests, which is great. Virginia for example is reducing the number of social studies and science tests in the K-12 program. This does become a case of “Be careful what you wish for.” Once testing in these content areas was reduced, teaching time was reduced. In a time where people are denying science and storming the Capitol Building, we should not be short-changing social studies and science classes because of math and English. Those tests should be reduced, too.
As one person in one school, I can try to add more SEL in my building, and maybe it would have a positive effect. But that is just my little world. What we need is a national or statewide push allowing SEL and interpersonal skills to drive the curriculum, not testing.
Today’s students need a true 21st-century education. The lessons learned from the Pandemic should give us the momentum to redefine schooling. Let’s focus more on Social and Emotional Learning over mandated testing.