What Tennessee’s decision to pull out of a social-emotional learning collaborative means

Social-emotional skills are what enable people to calm down when they’re upset, persist when a task is hard, feel empathy in situations needing compassion, and have positive relationships when working with others — all qualities that teachers have nurtured for years in their students.

But when Tennessee was tapped in August to become a national pioneer in developing social-emotional to standards for its students, a firestorm reminiscent of the Common Core pushback erupted, with some criticizing the initiative as a national program to have public school children taught how they should feel.

Last week, the State Department of Education, which had gotten an earful from state lawmakers responding to concerns from some of their constituents, confirmed it pulled out of the multi-state initiative designed to help teachers support students’ emotional well-being. A spokeswoman cited concerns about transparency and the project’s one-year timeline.

The decision means Tennessee will continue the work on social-emotional skills — but without the collaboration of education leaders in seven other states and without the “standards” label. Instead, the state’s calling the guidelines “competencies.”

The pullout also means that the other states in the initiative — California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington — won’t get the benefit of collaborating with Tennessee in the area of social-emotional learning, according to leaders of CASEL, which had selected the states from a field of about 20.

“I can tell you the Tennessee’s application was great,” said Roger Weissberg, chief knowledge officer for the Chicago-based nonprofit organization. “I think they would have contributed a lot to others, and I think others would have contributed a lot for them. … We’d always be excited to work with them.”

CASEL formed in 1994, initially as a scientific research organization delving into what effective programs to support kids’ social and emotional growth look like and how they impact academics. Research shows that boosting social-emotional skills help kids succeed in school.  (The organization’s funders can be found here.)

In 2001, the group began working directly with school districts across the nation to help implement such programs, and in 2003 helped Illinois become the first state to develop statewide standards in the area. Illinois’ standards have three goals: To help students develop self-awareness and self-management skills; to teach students how to establish and maintain positive relationships; and to demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school and community contexts. Each standard includes benchmarks describing what students should know and be able to do according to their grade level

Now, all 50 states have social-emotional standards for early learning, and three states have them for all grades: Illinois, West Virginia and Kansas. (Here are Tennessee’s early learning standards.)

How schools use the standards varies a lot, Weissberg says. “They specify what kids should know and be able to do, and that provides guidance so teachers aren’t starting this work from scratch,” he said. “We’re not talking about a cookie-cutter approach. It’s scaffolding and support.”

Unlike academic standards, no state formally measures social-emotional growth, although that might change as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law, goes into effect. ESSA requires states to evaluate schools based on non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Despite the variation in practice, results have been consistent. A 2014 analysis of districts and states with formal social-emotional learning programs found an 11 percent gain in achievement compared with schools without any programs.

This year, CASEL decided to dig more into state standards work and bring together eight states to share ideas and best practices, creating state-specific state standards by the end of the year. To date, 18 states, now excluding Tennessee, are involved somehow in the state standards project.

“Sometimes one group may have good ideas and the other might say, ‘That’s great. Can we see what you’ve done?’” Weissberg said. “We have a strong belief that collaboration and cooperation are good things among kids, educators, and states.”

Weissberg said other states will be watching what Tennessee does in developing social-emotional competencies. CASEL will also continue its work with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, a partnership that began in 2012.

“We think there’s a lot of interest in Tennessee,” he said. “We’re always open to collaboration.”