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Schools Should Teach (and Measure) 'Soft Skills,' Parents and Educators Agree

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social-emotional learning programs

Schools should assess students on both "academic knowledge" and "nonacademic skills"—like teamwork, critical thinking, and creativity—parents and educators said in a new survey.

But they offered widely varying views on exactly what those skills should be.

About eight in 10 respondents in each group—teachers, parents, superintendents, and principals—said it's "equally important" for schools to assess students in both areas.

The poll was administered by Gallup on behalf of NWEA, a nonprofit assessment and education organization, as part of its series of reports on public perceptions of educational assessment. A total of about 2,000 superintendents and principals responded to online surveys in March. Samples of about 1,000 parents and 1,000 teachers were polled via telephone in September and April. Pollsters also did open-ended interviews with some respondents.

Of the teachers polled, only one in 10 said their schools' informal and formal gauges of "nonacademic skills" measure them very well. 

Strategies like social-emotional learning; social, emotional, and academic development; and an overall broader focus on "educating the whole child" have drawn a growing interest among educators and parents. But many schools have resisted assessing students' growth in these areas. That's in part because many researchers have said measures of social-emotional and "soft skills" are not sophisticated enough to adequately track progress over time. 

And, as the poll results show, schools may struggle to narrow down what soft skills to emphasize and, eventually, to measure. Respondents to the Gallup poll had varying priorities in this area.

what soft skills should schools measure?

As I've written before, researchers are working to develop better measures of these skills:

"Schools commonly use self-reported surveys, through which they ask students to report on their own social-emotional learning progress or to assess the progress of their peers. But some researchers have warned that the results of such surveys shouldn't be used for high-stakes purposes, like school funding or determining a student's assignment to special interventions. That's because students may respond to the same question differently depending on their own experiences, personal values, understanding of the question, and familiarity with the subject."

A working group convened by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, known as CASEL, hosts an annual design challenge in which groups submit designs for ways to measure things like students' self-control and social awareness. 

Past winners to that challenge have included video games that ask students to view video vignettes and imagine how the characters are feeling in the situations they are witnessing and simulations that ask students to solve real-life problems. 

NWEA, the organization that commissioned the poll, won the design challenge in 2017 with a proposal to analyze metadata from computerized tests that show how quickly students respond to questions. In trials, NWEA researchers found that "rapid guessing," or responding to a question so quickly that the student likely didn't understand it, correlates with less engagement on tests and lower levels of personal skills like self-regulation.

And, as Education Week's Benjamin Herold reported in June, the interest in measuring social-emotional traits has drawn interest from private companies that have developed software, wearable devices, and other technology to track students' emotions and mindsets. That has sparked some privacy concerns and pushback from parents who are concerned about how the results will be used.

The Gallup report included a list of the widely varying traits respondents listed in interviews when they were asked about what nonacademic skills schools should teach.

what social emotional skills schools should teach

Photo: Fourth graders at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, Ill., wrote words describing their feelings during a class taught by teacher Perry Hollins. --File photo by Alyssa Schukar for Education Week


Related reading on social, emotional, and academic development:

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