When Social and Emotional Learning Is Key to College Success

CHICAGO—For the eighth grader Kimberly Wilborn, a lesson about Nelson Mandela made it all click.

“Ms. Plante was talking about Nelson Mandela and how he forgave his jailers,” remembers Wilborn, who is being raised by her aunt on Chicago’s South Side. “And I thought if he can forgive them, I can forgive my birth mom and my dad for not being there for me. I actually cried. It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Megan Plante isn’t Wilborn’s history teacher. She was using Mandela’s story to teach what is known around Perspectives Charter Schools as ADL—A Disciplined Life. The class—part advisory, part ethics class—is meant to impart 26 principles, including generosity, peaceful conflict resolution, and compassion.

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A Disciplined Life isn’t an elective; it’s the reason Perspectives Charter was founded in the first place. Every student is required to take the class daily. In 1993, Diana Shulla-Cose and Kim Day, two Chicago public-school teachers, came up with the list of principles and started a “school within a school” at a middle school in Washington Park. Four years later they opened Perspectives, which now consists of five schools serving grades six through 12. The pair was convinced—years before buzzwords like “grit” and “growth mindset” became the rage in education-reform circles—that instilling a set of social and emotional skills and attitudes in their students would be the key to getting them to and through college.

Perspectives Charter has largely ignored preparing its students for standardized tests—and it shows. Only 8 percent of Perspectives’s students passed multi-state college-readiness tests last year, which were designed to test the new, tougher Common Core standards. But to Shulla-Cose, another set of statistics is much more important: 99 percent of Perspectives students are accepted to college, 93 percent attend college and 44 percent graduate from college in six years, according to the schools’ internal data. And although Perspectives loses about a quarter of its students between freshman and senior year, about 24 percent of students who enroll freshman year graduate from college within six years of leaving high school, a figure that’s 10 percentage points above the citywide average.

Ronald Brown, a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, says Perspectives’s focus on social-emotional skills set him up to tackle the demands of the selective, mostly white and affluent liberal-arts college.

“Perspectives prepared me,” said Brown. “Be open-minded, try new things, challenge each other and yourself intellectually, time management, all of that came easy. And when I hit academic barriers, I persisted and kept moving forward. I took advantage of tutoring, the counseling center, the math center, the writing center, anything that could help.”

This persistence is the difference between being college-eligible and college-ready, says Laura Jimenez, the director of an American Institutes for Research center focused on college-and-career readiness and success.

“We know a ton about what it takes for kids to be college eligible, [like] the level of knowledge you need to do well in a college course,” said Jimenez. “What [that knowledge] can’t tell you is if your class is at eight in the morning, are you going to be able to get up and get to class? Are you going to seek help when you need it? That’s where the social-and-emotional-learning conversation is starting to take off—there are plenty of kids who are eligible but not ready.”

Other educators and academics across the country have come to agree that content knowledge isn’t enough to prepare students for life after high school. Several of the nation’s most highly regarded charter-school networks, like KIPP and YES Prep, came to this conclusion after taking a hard look at their data. These schools excelled under a No Child Left Behind school-accountability system that rewarded them for getting high numbers of mostly poor black and Latino students to pass state math and reading tests. But too often, their students were unable to translate those test results into college success.

Now, in addition to teaching students fractions and conjunctions, many educators are increasingly grappling with how to address social and emotional skills like collaboration and students’ sense of belonging—trends that are even making their way into nationwide criteria by which schools are evaluated. New federal education legislation passed last December, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces No Child Left Behind, gives state policymakers authority to redesign accountability systems. Under ESSA, states are now required to incorporate non-academic measures—like social and emotional skills—rather than just scores on standardized math or reading tests.

increase college achievement, there isn’t much research directly linking some of the other elements of social and emotional learning with college completion. Still, David Osher, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, says an increasing number of studies have shown that social and emotional learning can improve the factors known to help students through college.

“Schools are the first formal institution students spend a lot of time in,” he said. “They either help students develop as healthy human beings with a sense of self and excitement and an ability to handle challenges, or … undermine that.”

While educators across the country are increasingly interested in how to convey these skills to students, how they do so varies widely. The staff at Martin Petitjean Elementary School in Rayne, Louisiana, is trying to instill these concepts by handing over control to students. The idea is to make every child a leader by assigning each a role in running the school.

“They call the buses, they do the announcements, they water the plants,” said Kimberley Cummins, the school’s principal. “They truly think I just come in and unlock the doors.”

Martin Petitjean is one of over 2,500 schools around the world using a program called “Leader in Me,” which employs the teachings of Stephen Covey ‘s 1989 bestseller self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to transform schools. The seven habits are everywhere at the school. The halls bear names like Synergy Street, Win-Win Walkway, and Plan Ahead Alley.

84 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. That’s typical of schools that have embraced social-emotional learning most strongly, says Camille Farrington, a senior research associate at the University of Chicago and a leader in the social and emotional field.

“Take schools like Fenger [Academy] High School in Chicago, in troubled communities with little-to-no investment in a long time,” said Farrington. “The kids those teachers are trying to serve have so many needs that teachers have to spend time and resources on social and emotional learning in and of itself, while in more typical settings that can be less of a focus.”

For almost two decades, scores on math and reading tests have dominated how success was defined in American schools; low test scores led to the restructuring—and in some cases closure—of schools across the country under No Child Left Behind. But, moving forward, observers expect states to find broader measures for defining which schools are doing a good job and which aren’t.

Ten urban districts in California—including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest—collectively called CORE (California Office to Reform Education) districts, have designed a system to make schools answerable for improving students’ social and emotional skills by using data from student, parent, and teacher surveys, among other factors, to assess whether students are improving in these areas.

But two of the leading proponents for incorporating these concepts alongside traditional academics have expressed concern about holding schools accountable for emotional and social learning.

“Given the intense visibility and enthusiasm around growth mindset, grit, and other personal skills, it is important for school leaders and policymakers to realize that while there is great benefit to studying and assessing these attributes, the measures should not, currently, be used for broader accountability purposes,” wrote Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who coauthored a report warning against the use of these “non-cognitive” skills for evaluating teachers and schools.

Two Rivers Public Charter School, an elementary school in Washington, D.C., has been looking at quantitative measures of those non-cognitive skills for years. The school has been administering annual Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) surveys to parents, students and staff since 2009 to assess how they feel about the school environment and to gauge whether they are doing a good job on the social and emotional front.

“We still haven’t worked it out completely,” Jeff Heyck-Williams, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, readily admits. “We look for growth in students’ sustaining attention on tasks. We give the CSCI to kids in third grade and up, to parents, and to all of our staff. This all gives us quantifiable data about how well our school is running. And while these are important pieces of information, they can only say so much.”

Heyck-Williams is ambivalent about using this kind of data to evaluate schools.

“I think it’s super valuable to include some of the social-learning goals in an accountability system so that parents can see how schools are doing on this stuff,” said Heyck-Williams. “But I’m just not sure that these measures are fine-tuned enough to make high-stakes accountability decisions with.”

Stacey Childress, the CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit philanthropy firm investing in school innovation, sees policymakers’ new interest in social and emotional skills as both a blessing and a curse.

“I’m ambivalent about CORE. I‘m excited about their willingness to get going and I’m sure they are going to use the best instruments to date,” said Childress, whose organization is moving away from supporting no-excuses charters and is investing heavily in schools that are grappling with how to teach social and emotional skills. “But I worry that it’s going to take some time for us to sort all of this out.”

Childress hopes that policymakers will wait for the science to catch up to the enthusiasm before they set new social and emotional accountability systems in stone.

“I understand the seductiveness of getting a policy win, but this could squash all the grassroots excitement we are seeing right now.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

The Problem With the GRE

Early one Saturday morning last year, Christian Vazquez hopped on his bicycle and pedaled from his Highland Park home to the campus of Cal State, Los Angeles, one of many designated testing facilities for the Graduate Record Examination. The GRE, as it’s better known, is a test required for admission to what may amount to thousands of Master’s- and doctoral-degree programs—from astronomy and English to journalism and zoology—in the United States.

Vazquez, 24, who studied for the GRE over the course of about four months using a free study guide, was already an academic success story. Raised in east L.A. by a mother who worked full-time as a bank-loan processor, he was the first person in his family to attend college. During his undergraduate education, Vazquez lived at home and commuted via bike or bus to California State University Northridge four days a week, a two-hour trip each way, and paid his way through school by working as a cashier at a Kohl’s department store. Vazquez graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in English, earning mostly As. When he went job hunting, he had one thing in mind: “I knew I wanted a job where I made an impact on other people’s lives,” he says. He ended up with two part-time positions, as a teaching assistant at an elementary school helping mainly at-risk Latino children and as a tutor at Pasadena City College, where he also enrolled in literature and writing classes for fun. On his commutes to work, Vazquez dreamed of a grander future: becoming a college English professor.

Not able to afford the thousands of dollars often required for a prep course, he studied for the GRE on his own. But his test results weren’t what he hoped: “I didn’t feel like they were good enough to be sent in to any of the programs I was considering.”

Stories like Vazquez’s highlight the limitations of standardized admissions tests like the GRE—or at the high-school level, the SAT and ACT—and the obstacles they can pose to otherwise talented students, many of whom are disadvantaged minorities. Most graduate programs accept or require GREs as part of a prospective student’s admissions-application package and the stakes are well-known. Grad-school admissions is a competitive venture; researchers call grad school a “high-status opportunity.” For Fall 2014 admission, 2.15 million students applied to graduate school in the U.S. Only 22 percent of the doctoral applicants and about 48 percent of the Master’s-degree applicants were accepted, however. Score well on the GRE and your odds of entry to this high-status opportunity look better. Don’t score well, and—at least traditionally—you may have to consider something else to do with your life. Critics say an over-reliance on these tests leaves people like Vazquez—somebody who has demonstrated grit and passion for his field and a dedication to learning and teaching—out in the cold without just cause.

in the science journal Nature denouncing the GRE as a test that fails because it takes a toll on student diversity—mainly the numbers of women, minorities, and economically disadvantaged students with high academic potential but relatively low GRE scores. Last December, the president of the American Astronomical Society posted an open letter asking chairs of university departments that grant degrees in the astronomical sciences to reconsider the use of the GRE.

One of the problems critics cite is that as a predictive test the GRE is something of a flop, only managing to (weakly) predict those who will do well in their first year of grad school. That’s it. GRE scores say little about whether a student has the perseverance, creativity, and intellect required to finish a graduate program or, more importantly, to add something to their professional world afterward.

Even the nonprofit creator of the GRE, Educational Testing Service (ETS), warns that there’s only a tenuous connection between test scores and success in graduate school. According to the ETS report, “Toward a Description of Successful Graduate Students,” “The limitations of graduate school admissions tests in the face of the complexity of the graduate education process have long been recognized.” The report acknowledges that critical skills associated with scholarly and professional competence aren’t measured by the GRE. Despite this report, David Payne, the vice president of ETS and chief operating officer for the Global Education division, told me in an email that he believes the GRE “measures the skills that are important for success at the graduate level: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing.”

Perhaps more alarmingly, as with the SAT, high GRE test scores time and again tend to correlate with a student’s socioeconomic status, race, and gender. Research dating back decades from the University of Florida, Stanford, New York University, the University of Missouri, and  ETS has shown that the GRE underpredicts the success of minority students. The University of Missouri study looked at GRE scores and first-year graduate school GPAs of 160 minority students who earned graduate degrees from distinguished universities focused on research. The average first-year graduate-school GPA of these students was decent at 3.51, and they all ultimately finished their programs. But, according to the researchers, “in observing the range of GRE scores of these graduate students, it becomes clear that according to some graduate-school admissions policies, some students should not have been admitted to graduate study let alone actually graduate. This strongly suggests the necessity of focusing on other factors besides the usual criteria and to look beyond the talented top 20% of applicants.”

combination of factors including access to coaching, a disparity in educational opportunities that better prepare some students for the test, the content of the test, the way students are tested, and even the student’s own insecurities regarding race and gender. Sternberg puts it bluntly: “The GRE is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?’”

It’s this aspect of the test that most troubles Julie R. Posselt, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and the author of Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping. “The GRE adds information, but it is a noisy signal that says little about a student’s ability to be successful as a scholar. Yet in many programs it’s treated as a very significant piece of information. And unfortunately, requiring very high GRE scores for admissions undermines diversity,” says Posselt, who recently studied the admissions process at 10 top-ranked doctoral graduate programs.

In her research, Posselt found that mediocre GRE scores were often used as reason to immediately eliminate students in a highly competitive admissions process. And Posselt also found that more than half of the faculty members who sat on the admissions panels she studied erroneously equated GRE scores with a student’s native or raw intelligence. Google “how to raise GRE test scores,” however, and you’ll find the most common recommendation is to hire a private tutor or attend one of the many pricey GRE-prep classes offered by companies such as Princeton Review or Kaplan. It’s widely acknowledged that test-takers can be coached to do well on the GRE if they’re able to fork over the hours and thousands of dollars for prep classes or tutoring. For many students, though, the mere cost of taking the GRE—about $205, roughly 20 hours of minimum wage work in California—is prohibitive enough.

Recently, some programs have become “test-optional,” meaning students choose whether to submit their GRE scores. However, test-optional isn’t a quick fix for increasing diversity, warns Posselt. “When liberal-arts colleges go test-optional with the SAT, it doesn’t necessarily increase diversity the way you’d like it to. What it almost always does is increase the college’s image regarding selectivity because more people apply and those who do report scores tend to have higher ones.”  

In an ideal world, Posselt would like a better test—say, something that consistently shows people who score well are more successful as graduate-school candidates. For now, though, she’d be thrilled if ETS simply provided better information to the people charged with making admissions decisions. “ETS score reports could provide the percentile ranking based on the test-taker’s national origin, field of study, and maybe parent education, race, and gender. That at least would allow faculty on the admissions panels to compare students with similar test-takers versus all test-takers.”

Too many graduate schools, says Posselt, are overly focused on snapping up already successful “winners”—falsely accepting high GRE scores as part of the evidence that these students are indeed winners—and avoiding the perceived risk of imperfect test-takers. But she warns against deciding not to apply to graduate school just because of your GRE scores, like Vazquez did.

“So much about [graduate] admissions is idiosyncratic,” says Posselt. “Depending on where you’re applying, who the other applicants are in a given year and who happens to be sitting on the admission committee, your odds of admission or rejection could be wildly different.”  Students shouldn’t view any one factor, says Posselt, as a certain deal breaker.

Robert Sternberg’s work on intelligence concludes that practical intelligence, the ability to experience setbacks and changes and still figure out how to have a fulfilling and purposeful life, is one of the key indicators of high overall intelligence.Vazquez has replaced his dream of grad school and professorship with something he feels even better about, and is now gearing up to take the CBEST, the standardized test required to become a public-school teacher in California. “I’ve decided I want to be an elementary-school teacher and be that person who inspires kids to go on, do something that matters in this world,” he says. In the meantime, he’s helping kids in El Sereno learn to read and write. “The kids I work with helped me change my perspective. Maybe I’ll try the GRE again sometime, but right now it’s not worth it.”