President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law in 2001. Since that time Colorado has tested students and used the tests and other assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of the K-12 school system. In 2008-2009 the Colorado legislature added new tests in order to more effectively align standards with accountability. Concerns of parents, teachers and students caused legislators and educators to reexamine the amount of time devoted to testing. Last year the state board determined that the amount of testing should not only be reduced but results should be made more quickly available to help teachers and students.
But wait, more seems to be headed our way. Up until now, the skills that have been emphasized on these tests are termed “academic” skills. Enter the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed into law in 2015 by President Obama. This law adds flexibility. Under ESSA at least one additional “nonacademic” indicator is allowed, including, but not limited to, student engagement, educator engagement, school climate, and safety. They have also been determined to include, self-control, grit, growth mindset, and others. Indicators must be valid, comparable, reliable, and statewide. These are advertised as skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century workplace and referred to by some as “soft skills”.
Many educational organizations across the country enthusiastically support the new federal legislation and opportunities for social and emotional learning (SEL). With federal grant funding available, school districts are beginning to use SEL programs in the classroom.
A concern of these programs are the many and variable definitions of social and emotional learning. This is one definition: “SEL is the process of acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to recognize and manage emotions; developing caring and concern for others; making responsible decisions; establishing positive relationships; and handling challenging situations capably.”
Even if uniform definitions and understanding can be articulated, the next challenge is how these skills can be taught and then measured in the classroom. Are these “soft” skills just as critical to success as other “hard” skills like reading and math? Are current educators confident that they can acquire the necessary talents required to effectively teach these skills for the success of each student? How will we measure such qualities for purposes of educational policy and practice?
There are big challenges to prepare our students for a successful future. A considerable amount of money has been spent over time to improve academic outcomes, however we’re still where we were when NCLB was established. Is it reasonable to assume that the new ESSA will improve outcomes for our students or are we, yet again, adding more encumbrances to an already overburdened system?
Joyce Rankin is on the State Board of Education representing the Third Congressional District. She writes the monthly column, “Across the Street” to share with constituents in her district. The Department of Education, where the State Board of Education meets, is located across the street from the Capitol. She is also a Legislative Assistant for Representative Bob Rankin.