Rethinking How Students Succeed


Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom held that cognitive ability displayed by mastery of core academic subjects paved the way to success in school, career, and life. Today, we know better. Success comes when cognitive skills work in tandem with so-called soft skills like self-control, persistence, social awareness, relationship development, and self-awareness. Practitioners and researchers typically frame their discussions of these characteristics around either social and emotional skills, or academic attitudes and behaviors. Each charts a separate path of inquiry and classroom practice. Yet they share a common destination: developing students whose mastery of noncognitive skills, strategies, attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors enhances their academic and life success. We call such students “effective learners.”

Leaders in the broad field of noncognitive learning not only share this common goal, but they feel it with an uncommon sense of urgency. Only three-quarters of US students who start high school earn a diploma. And only 25 percent of those meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. Incorporating the dropout rate, the percentage of students who leave high school ready for college-level challenges falls to just 19 percent. 1

In their quest to do better, educators typically focus on improving their skills at teaching core subjects, such as reading, math, and science. But research shows that students who develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and academic mindsets (for example, a belief that one’s abilities can improve with effort) do better in school. (See “What’s an Effective Learner” at the end of the article.) Yet, the potential for schools to foster more effective learners has not been developed to any significant scale—especially for the students from low-income districts who would benefit the most.

We are at a moment in time when that could change. The quest for scaling up noncognitive learning has inspired researchers and educators to embark on a range of initiatives. Thirty-seven leaders of several of the more prominent organizations leading this work, including the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Character Lab, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and New Teacher Center recently gathered at Bridgespan in Boston for a daylong convening to discuss the current and future direction of their work, and look for ways to work more closely together.2

These field leaders work against an educational backdrop in which the stakes have never been higher. Forty-two states are moving forward with implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which require students to master more challenging math and language arts/literacy content. At the same time, a number of states have embarked on improving teacher effectiveness—often measured by student learning gains.

If the pressure to improve student outcomes has never been greater, the prospects for funders to help scale noncognitive competencies across school districts—in school and after school—have never been brighter. Four such promising initiatives have zeroed in on the barriers to progress and advanced two priorities to overcome them: integrating SEL and the development of academic mindsets into teaching practice, and acknowledging that before educators can help students develop as effective learners they need support to change their own beliefs and mindsets.

New Efforts to Expand Noncognitive Development

Pioneering efforts by members of the convening to expand noncognitive development fall into four broad categories: collaborations between researchers and teachers; professional development for teachers; systemic reforms in school districts; and complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time.3 Some initiatives are primarily in service of developing students’ social and emotional competence, while others aim to build academic mindsets and behaviors such as the belief that failure can lead to improved learning. For educators, the lines between these two parallel strands of exploration often blur as they focus on the desired result—more successful students.

Collaborations between researchers and teachers | One promising path to scale up effective learning targets students’ attitudes and beliefs regarding school and learning. A growing number of researchers and teachers are collaborating to identify exactly what can help students develop an “academic mindset,” characterized by the persistence needed to participate in class, complete homework, and study. Many evidence-based SEL programs were developed through a similar collaborative approach. Such collaborations are a way for researchers to break free of university-based settings, where most academic mindset research has been conducted. Researchers have found that school teachers are eager to contribute their knowledge to advance innovation in the field, enabling them to become a source for the best (and perhaps most scalable) ideas grounded in the work they do every day. These classroom-based research initiatives often include multiple cycles of testing and feedback with an emphasis on rapid learning and improvement. The 8th/9th Teacher Network (8/9TN) and Character Lab, cofounded by MacArthur Genius award winner Angela Duckworth, Dave Levin, cofounder of the KIPP Charter Public Schools, and Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, provide examples of this approach.

The 8/9TN initiative in Chicago represents a partnership between researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) and 35 eighth- and ninth-grade teachers across seven Chicago public schools. The 8/9TN project grew out of CCSR’s work on noncognitive skill development and increasing recognition that teachers need actionable strategies to develop students’ academic mindsets. To that end, teachers work together, with input and support from researchers, to identify and develop practices that may be suitable for other schools to adopt.

Character Lab strives to develop evidence-based teaching tools and practices that can be easily and effectively integrated into the school day—a key to scaling up. For example, a mental strategy to boost students’ successful pursuit of goals helped fifth graders in a low-income New York City middle school move up half a standard deviation on their academic performance in one semester. Character Lab aims to help teachers weave this kind of exercise more systematically into their lesson plans and daily interactions with students.

Professional development for teachers | A second promising effort aims to upgrade the training programs teachers routinely enroll in. Many school districts partner with professional development providers to deliver in-service teacher training. Some of these providers serve multiple districts across many states and reach thousands of teachers each year. Given their reach, these providers can play an important role in helping to embed the development of noncognitive skills into the daily practice of thousands more teachers. By incorporating noncognitive competencies into their training programs, providers set a higher standard for other professional development organizations to follow.

The New Teacher Center (NTC), for example, considers SEL and academic mindsets as integral to its training programs. The center provides coaching and professional development, in person and online, to first-year teachers in more than two dozen school districts across the country. This year some 7,000 NTC mentor teachers will work with more than 26,000 new teachers who instruct an estimated 1.6 million students. NTC’s Mentor Academy, for example, has integrated SEL development with its guides for implementing the Common Core. “Teachers need to have these competencies front and center the minute they come into teaching,” says NTC CEO Ellen Moir. To complement its training and mentorship programs, NTC is building an online site with a set of tools and resources, including observation guides and assessment rubrics, focused on SEL and academic behaviors.

Systemic reforms in school districts | A third effort focuses on helping school districts integrate noncognitive competencies into district-level policies and practices, extending to every classroom. The Collaborating Districts Initiative, launched by CASEL in 2011, involves eight school districts striving to move beyond the programmatic and often modular focus of most SEL efforts. Rather than teach SEL as a separate classroom exercise once a week, for example, the initiative seeks to embed SEL into teachers’ daily work with students. That means adopting SEL learning standards and assessments, designing professional development programs for teachers, and integrating SEL with existing district initiatives—such as the Common Core. CASEL hopes the collaborating districts initiative will provide successful models that other school districts will follow. Two of the districts involved—Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn.—illustrate somewhat different routes to achieving the same goals.

In Austin, SEL Director Sherrie Raven has led the school district’s initiative with a three-pronged strategy: teaching SEL to elementary school students using the evidence-based Second Step program;4embedding SEL in curriculum at all grade levels; and integrating SEL throughout the school day from the classroom to the cafeteria.

Austin hired 14 coaches to work with teachers on incorporating SEL into their daily activities. “The most critical thing for success has been the involvement of SEL coaches,” says Raven. “These coaches keep SEL at the forefront for principals and teachers, and they are building administrators’ and teachers’ capacity to sustain SEL implementation efforts over time.” Among their many activities in schools, coaches reinforce a common language for SEL competencies, work with principals to determine how to integrate SEL into school culture, and partner with teachers individually and in groups to identify what works and how to better support SEL throughout the school day.

In Nashville, the school system chose not to hire SEL coaches, says Kyla Krengel, the district’s SEL director. Rather, the district tapped its academic and instructional specialists to provide SEL support for teachers and administrators. The district is also working to embed SEL into existing programs and initiatives, including its project-based learning initiative in which students explore real-world problems and do a significant amount of individual exploration as well as group work. Project-based learning efforts began in high schools and will be rolled out in Nashville’s elementary and middle schools as well. Nashville’s academic specialists also help to integrate SEL support with the training teachers receive for implementing the Common Core. The district plans to review its teacher evaluation framework, seeking to identify links between teacher effectiveness and their SEL competencies.

Complementary efforts between in-school and after-school or expanded-learning time | The fourth effort involves after-school and expanded-learning time initiatives. Several of these programs already build noncognitive development into interactions with students. There are increasing examples of programs that work more closely with the schools where they are housed to ensure that students experience the same support for skill and behavior development during school as they experience after school.

WINGS for Kids, for example, is an after-school program teaching kids how to behave well, make good decisions, and build healthy relationships. Students participate for three hours each day throughout the school year. The staff typically spends the first hour providing direct SEL instruction, and then reinforces these lessons with teachable moments over the next two hours as students complete their homework and engage in enrichment activities.5 WINGS also works to bridge the gap between students’ in-school and after-school experiences. Program directors collaborate with school administrators and teachers to ensure that students in school are exposed to the same SEL concepts encountered in WINGS. The WINGS staff and teachers also assess students’ SEL competencies with a series of behavior rating scales. This allows the WINGS staff and school’s teachers to develop joint plans for providing additional supports as needed to students who may be struggling with specific concepts.

An increasing number of schools are also using expanded-learning time as a venue for developing effective learning behaviors. Through its ExpandED Schools initiative, The AfterSchool Corporation (TASC) has developed a survey to help teachers and expanded-learning time educators measure students’ academic “habits of mind.” TASC then collaborates with instructional teams at schools to create action plans to help students become effective learners. Citizen Schools is another leading expanded-learning organization that provides low-income middle school students with hands-on, after-school apprenticeships focusing on social and emotional skill development. The apprenticeships emphasize 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, data analysis, advanced literacy.

What’s Preventing Greater Scale?

While nascent, these four initiatives show promise for charting multiple ways educators—and entire school districts—can help students develop noncognitive skills, attitudes, and mindsets. However, those involved in advancing the noncognitive field realize that their efforts touch only a small number of students. Four barriers impede scaling up to a larger number of students.

District agenda overload | Administrators and teachers are weary from coping with multiple competing priorities, initiatives, and programs. Few districts have escaped deep budget cuts in recent years, eliminating teaching positions and long-standing programs. Many schools face high teacher and leadership turnover. Superintendents and school boards often fail to involve teachers in decisions that affect classroom practice. In this context, any new effort to develop students’ noncognitive capabilities may come across as just another district initiative when there’s simply no room to squeeze in another well-meaning program.

Lack of consistently positive school environments | Students need to experience consistent support throughout the school day to develop the SEL skills and academic behaviors that characterize effective learning. It takes a supportive environment for these skills and behaviors to translate to actual learning outcomes. Conversely, classrooms with negative environments “stifle perseverance and undermine academic behaviors, which results in poor academic performance,” concludes a Consortium on Chicago School Research report.6 Creating the right classroom environment starts at the top with district and school leaders who make noncognitive factors a system-wide priority. And it extends to every adult who is interacting with students throughout the school day. Such consistency is hard to find in any school, much less an entire school district.

Lack of adequate preparation for educators | Educators need to understand and be able to model the attitudes and behaviors they endeavor to instill in their students. Unfortunately, most haven’t been trained to put noncognitive factors at the forefront of their work, and supportive professional development opportunities are scarce. At the top of the list of behaviors educators need to model are a growth mindset—believing that their own and their students’ abilities are not fixed but can be developed through dedication and hard work—and a sense of self-efficacy—believing in their own and their students’ ability to complete tasks and reach goals. These are building blocks for student success because they reflect a fundamental belief that effort produces results.7 Educators also need building blocks to develop trusting relationships with their students, including learning how to show empathy and respect. This implies significant changes for teaching training and coaching, which today largely focuses on pedagogy and classroom management.

Inadequate measurement | Assessment remains a huge challenge for the field, as evidenced by the questions yet unanswered. How exactly do you measure development of noncognitive factors? How do those measures change with students’ age? Are some interventions more effective than others? Participants at the convening viewed this lack of clarity around measurement as a serious obstacle to field advancement, both in terms of progressing research to develop practical classroom practices and of attracting funders to support continued research. “This community needs to have a set of metrics that show SEL and other noncognitive skills are foundational to student success,” says Moir. “We’re never going to get into funders’ portfolios unless we build a common language to measure success.”

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