It’s time to rethink how schools use data to implement social and emotional learning

Ally Skoog-Hoffman is director of research-practice partnerships at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Data is critical to school improvement. It’s our window into what we’re doing, what is working, why it is working, and what we could be doing better.

But the way we, as educators, are currently using data could itself use some improvement. Often, schools and districts use data at the end of an initiative or a school year, after the work has been done. District research and evaluation teams collect and evaluate data in isolation from those who planned and implemented the work. Results are shared with leadership, who are eager to see what worked, but the information may not be passed along to or discussed with departments or school teams doing future planning.

Even less often does the data itself make its way back to those “in the trenches,” so those who provided input (and who did the work itself) don’t have the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their data for their own efforts.

Described this way, it starts to become clear what’s wrong with this approach. Data analysis is focused on the past. The research and evaluation team is siloed, asked to measure something that’s already happened rather than advising about how best to capture lessons learned along the way. And the ripple effect of this data is perilously small if the insights are not shared to improve efforts ahead.

At the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), we have seen in our work with partner districts across the country that data can and should be a powerful part of the foundational planning, implementation and continuous improvement of social and emotional learning (SEL).

For example, in our partner district, Guilford County Schools (GCS) in North Carolina, an initial set of priorities for their SEL work included developing and sharing a district SEL vision and building competencies and staff capacity in the district and its schools.

To further these goals, the director of SEL & character education convened a new SEL leadership team that included representation from departments across the district’s central office. Research and evaluation was invited to join and played a key role in strategic planning by helping to build an evaluation model that was developed as the team worked to map out programming and implementation.

By getting research and evaluation involved at this early stage in the planning, the GCS team was able to start with two critical questions: “Where do we want to go?” and “Where are we now given where we have been?”

In partnership with CASEL, the team was equipped with a rubric to take stock of past efforts — both what had worked and what they needed to rethink. And since research and evaluation was involved in these discussions, they were able to develop an evaluation process — including plans for data collection, reflection and analysis — that would build a bridge from what had been successful in the past to ways the district could expand upon these successes in the future.  

Other success stories

Our partners in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have seen similar success in rethinking how to incorporate data collection, reflection and analysis to support the real-time continuous improvement of SEL implementation. Here, the focus was on how to empower teachers to engage with data and make data-driven decisions “in the moment” rather than limiting data evaluation to large-scale analyses at the end of the school year.

MPS’ district research and accountability team took a “rapid learning cycle approach” using a tool they developed, the SEL Quick-Check, which asks students and teachers to rate students’ SEL competencies. The resulting data, which was disaggregated by student race and ethnicity, provided a summary to teachers that compared student and teacher perceptions of SEL competency in their classroom that teachers could reflect upon.

Through the SEL Quick-Check, MPS district team members and teachers and school leaders were able to engage in rapid learning cycles with each other in which they were empowered to assess their efforts and course-correct or reprioritize work streams, instead of waiting until the end of the year to reflect. To learn more about this work, read this brief on our research-practice partnership with MPS.

In our work with partner districts, we have also seen the benefit of widening the circle of who gets to see and reflect on the data. All too often, data stays locked in the central office. This is a missed opportunity, as data analysis offers a powerful way to communicate about the importance and impact of systemic SEL implementation and build buy-in among the full range of stakeholders, including teachers and school staff, students and their families, and community partners.

Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Nevada offers a strong and innovative example of this kind of work. At the end of each year, WCSD hosts data summits where the board of trustees, district and school leadership, teacher representatives, parents, students and community members come together for a full day of facilitated conversations in which they reflect upon and analyze district performance data and initiatives. These summits are designed to promote a culture of data use throughout the district and in schools, and reflect WCSD’s motivation to learn from evidence and use it to drive the continuous improvement of SEL implementation.

At the summits, participants review and reflect upon climate and SEL data in combination with other data, such as attendance, disciplinary referrals and student performance measures. Each data summit has a data companion book containing all the data and information discussed in each breakout session from the summit. The data summit books can be viewed on the WCSD data webpage.

Analysis and reflection critical

As these three examples show, data collection, analysis and reflection are a critical part of bringing systemic SEL to schools and classrooms.

In our work with these partner districts, we’ve seen that when districts embrace SEL systemically, they cultivate a caring, participatory and equitable learning environment and evidence-based practices that actively involve all students in their social, emotional and academic growth. This approach infuses SEL into every part of students’ daily lives — across their classrooms, during all times of the school day and when they are in their homes and communities.

By integrating data analysis and reflection throughout the planning and implementation of systemic SEL, school districts nationwide will be better equipped to build on their successes, change course when needed and create the kinds of learning environments our students need now more than ever. It’s what our students deserve.

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