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A Few Lessons Team SEL Can Learn From the Common Core

Every so often, K-12 schooling witnesses the rise of an intuitive, easy-to-like, bipartisan reform push that's backed by deep-pocketed funders and a lot of recognizable names. While this alignment of forces would seem to make success likely, things rarely seem to go as anticipated. Even as social and emotional learning (SEL) basks in its current popularity, it's useful to ask what could go wrong—and what might be done about that. The best recent illustration of a celebrated launch hitting headwinds may be the Common Core, which was flying high a decade ago—only to wind up enmeshed in fierce, divisive political combat. But that's all history; there's no need to relitigate it here. (If you're interested in my take on that history, it's here.) But there are lessons to be learned.

Now, I don't mean to overstate the SEL-Common Core comparison. One was a set of standards; the other is a bundle of practices. One was birthed via a concerted and coordinated effort; the other is a sprawling network of practitioners, advocates, and more. They're different things. That said, Common Core's bumpy ride holds useful lessons for Team SEL. And just last week, EdChoice's Mike McShane, whose books include Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, authored an incisive new AEI analysis on this very topic. You can find his whole paper here but, today, I'll flag three key takeaways.

First off, McShane notes:

Advocates should first define what they mean by SEL; then they should focus on convincing stakeholders that it is worth supporting. Common Core was adopted by almost every state in America without the citizens of those states even realizing that it was happening. In the 2013 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, 69 percent of Americans and 55 percent of public school parents had never heard of the standards. Common Core meant different things to different people. Some saw it as a vindication of progressive pedagogy. Others saw it as a win for traditionalists who argue there is a "core" set of knowledge that all students should possess. Before these serious differences were reconciled, the effort had already spread like wildfire. This came back to haunt supporters when teachers and parents were confused by the effort and turned against it.

McShane's second lesson is equally straightforward:

SEL advocates need to work with state and local education agencies to develop the capacity to implement sound SEL instruction. When U.S. Education Secretary [Arne] Duncan talked about the transformative technology of the next generation of assessments, that transformative technology did not exist yet. Or it at least did not exist at the scale necessary to use in tens of millions of assessments across the country. It still doesn't. The same was true for instructional materials aligned to the new standards. In a presentation to the Education Writers Association in 2014, both William Schmidt of Michigan State University and Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California found that textbooks purportedly aligned to the Common Core were not—and they were, in some cases, close to identical to their pre-Common Core versions.

Third, McShane sensibly points out:

SEL advocates need to be aware, and wary, of all the types of folks who will try to join the SEL movement once it gains popularity. Common Core was a windfall for cranks, charlatans, and con artists. Because there was so little infrastructure or an organization that "owned" the standards, folks were pretty much free to say that things were part of Common Core, even if the original authors would want nothing to do with them. Nature abhors a vacuum. Everyone from publishers to bloggers rushed in and got money and clicks.

In the end, as I've said time and again, I'm firmly of the conviction that how we reform education matters a whole lot more than whether we set out to do so. I believe that the Common Core experience elegantly reflects that truth and am certain that SEL eventually will, too. Here's hoping that tending to the lessons of so many previous efforts will help Team SEL avoid some of the Common Core stumbles and increase the chances of delivering on our shared hopes.

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