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Using Data to Improve Student Learning Environments

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By Bob LaRocca

Nowhere is a data-informed approach to social-emotional learning more pronounced than in California's CORE Districts, which embarked on a groundbreaking effort in 2013 to capture a more holistic vision of student success and school quality. There, eight of the largest districts in the state have incorporated Social-Emotional (SE) and Culture and Climate (CC) survey data into their measurement systems. Research on these measures, led by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), reveals encouraging results: that student self-reporting on these measures is valid and reliable for driving continuous improvement in practice. But what does continuous improvement look like on the ground in these California schools?

As a partner of the CORE Districts, we at Transforming Education have offered advice about a variety of social and emotional learning measures and documented the development and implementation of the CORE Districts' data-informed approach. But we've also aimed to gather and share concrete examples of how schools are using the data to initiate changes in practice. Here are some of the ways in which two districts - Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) - are building positive and supportive learning environments with SE and CC data:[1]

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Designing implementation plans

In LAUSD, social-emotional learning facilitators help schools review student survey data and design implementation plans to better support students' social and emotional development. For example, survey data in one LAUSD school revealed that only 46% of students felt a strong sense of belonging. Equipped with these data, district leaders promoted strategies that cultivate stronger relationships between adults and students, and measured progress toward goals through student feedback. Some of the changes included: more intentionally welcoming students when they came into classrooms, improving the physical environment of a school with posters and imagery, and rearranging desks to better support collaborative learning.

Partnering with organizations with social-emotional learning expertise

LAUSD has used data findings on social awareness to establish an ongoing partnership with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit established after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Through that organization's "Start with Hello" program, one LAUSD school received training on actions that children, teenagers, and young adults can take to strengthen social connections. Students have embraced the program: every Friday, members of the Black Students Union greet every student by name as they walk onto campus as a means to tighten the bonds between students and create a more inclusive atmosphere.

Informing local spending decisions

Schools in both districts have used SE and CC data to make budgetary decisions. For example, while every school in SFUSD has access to a social worker, some schools have used school climate data to seek funding for more social workers for specific student needs. In LAUSD, leaders tripled funding for the annual arts festival in part because of how students expressed social-emotional growth through participation in the program.

Sharing effective resources and strategies

SEL coordinators in both districts have used their position to share helpful resources and toolkits with schools. TransformEd's toolkits - which provide "PD in a box" on strategies to support particular social-emotional competencies - have been effective at helping educators to drive conversations about the social and emotional development of their students. SFUSD has had cross-departmental work groups create a resource website, which will allow schools to connect data findings to helpful tools.

In LAUSD, educators come together biannually to discuss promising practices, and ended the 2017-2018 year with a culminating activity - the SELebration Transforming Practice Conference - that included over 40 workshops and displays from schools on how they worked to achieve their particular social-emotional learning goals.

While the exact strategies of the CORE Districts' data-informed approach to social-emotional learning may take various forms over time, its current efforts are nonetheless producing valuable developments in research, practice, and policy. Ultimately, the CORE Districts continue to serve as a model for prioritizing social and emotional development through innovative data use across districts and schools.

Bob LaRocca is Director of Policy and Communications at TransformEd, where he is responsible for collaborating with policymakers and crafting the organization's policy and communications plan.


[1] Interviews were conducted with Susan Ward Roncalli, Social-Emotional Learning Facilitator for the Division of Instruction, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Nicole Fricke-Pothier, Program Administrator, Office of Pupil Services, San Francisco Unified School District.

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