The New York Times
By KATE ZERNIKEFEB. 29, 2016
Jade Cooney with her fifth-grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. She leads “good-behavior games” as part of an effort to develop students’ social-emotional skills. Credit Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.
As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors. And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.
A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance. So other states are watching these districts as a potential model. But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.
“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.
She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.
And there is little agreement on what skills matter: Self-control? Empathy? Perseverance? Joy?
“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”
Schools began emphasizing social-emotional learning around 2011, after an analysis of 213 school-based programs teaching such skills found that they improved academic achievement by 11 percentile points. A book extolling efforts to teach social-emotional skills in schools such as the KIPP charter network and Riverdale Country School in New York, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough, appeared the next year.
Argument still rages about whether schools can or should emphasize these skills. Critics say the approach risks blaming the victim — if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools — and excuses uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop “zest,” or enthusiasm. Groups that spent decades urging the country toward higher academic standards worry about returning to empty talk of self-esteem, accepting low achievement as long as students feel good.
But teaching social-emotional skills is often seen as a way to move away from a narrow focus on test scores, and to consider instead the whole child. It may seem contradictory, then, to test for those skills. In education, however, the adage is “what’s measured gets treasured”; states give schools money to teach the subjects on which they will be judged.
Next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of students in grades four, eight and 12 that is often referred to as the nation’s report card, will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills. A well-known international test, PISA, is moving toward the same.
The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for “superficial parroting” rather than real changes in mind-set.
“You think test scores are easy to game?” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is working with the districts in California. “They’re relatively hard to game when you compare them to a self-report survey.”
Students might be tested on performance, as in the “marshmallow test,” in which children were told they could have a sweeter reward if they waited. Those who waited scored higher in self-control. But those tests are too time-consuming to use on a large group of students.
Other researchers have proposed calling or texting students at regular intervals to check their behavior and frame of mind, or monitoring Facebook or Twitter to observe patterns of behavior. But privacy concerns would almost certainly disqualify those.
Transforming Education, a Boston-based group that is among the biggest proponents of teaching social-emotional skills, argues that they are so important that schools have to begin testing for them, even if perfect measures do not exist.
The group worked with the school districts here — which count one million students, or 20 percent of the state total, in cities including Los Angeles and Oakland — to choose four measures to evaluate: growth mind-set, social awareness, self-efficacy and self-management.
Just two years ago in her classroom in a trailer here at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, Ms. Cooney struggled with the kind of management problems that often confront young teachers.
Her students, mostly poor and living in a nearby housing project, were bouncing around the classroom, playing with their phones instead of paying attention, fighting out interfamily beefs. Even if they wanted to learn, they were not.
Ms. Cooney, 27, took a two-hour training session in a student-behavior program and began playing “good-behavior games.” They look like regular lessons, except that they begin with students identifying goals for good behavior, and end with her assessing what went right and wrong.
On a recent day, students took notes on their reading as Ms. Cooney moved with a kind of Zen bustle around the classroom, grading papers and consulting one-on-one while she watched for things she would compliment the class on later — keeping bodies still, focusing on the task — and quietly noted bad behavior.
For every 1,000 minutes of good behavior earned, the children win 15 extra minutes of recess.
“I’m really saving minutes that would be lost to transitions, settling disputes and behavior problems,” Ms. Cooney said. It can be exhausting, but not nearly as much as teaching before. As she said, “Would you rather put out fires, or prevent them?”
Social-emotional learning will count for 8 percent of a school’s overall performance score; no teacher will lose a job for failing to instill a growth mind-set.
Noah Bookman, the chief accountability officer for the districts, said he understood the concerns about testing. But, he said, “This work is so phenomenally important to the success of our kids in school and life. In some ways, we worry as much if not more about the possibility that these indicators remain on the back burner.”