Incorporating Socioemotional Learning Standards into State Educational Accountability Systems

A conversation with Dr. Jaekyung Lee, Richard P. Nathan Fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, about his team’s research on socioemotional learning standards
By Brian Backstrom
Q: What exactly are “socioemotional” learning standards, and how are they different from traditional academic learning standards?

A: Socioemotional learning (SEL) is an umbrella concept that encompasses students’ acquisition and application of age-appropriate intrapersonal, interpersonal, and decision-making skills (e.g., anger management, self-efficacy, empathy, grit, and cultural competency). It’s related to popular terms such as “emotional intelligence” and “character education.” Socioemotional learning standards specify what students should know and should be able to do when it comes to desirable attitudes and behaviors for a successful personal and social life. Traditional academic learning standards, by contrast, focus on cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and thus are more closely tied to academic achievement in core subject areas such as English, math, and science. Our study emphasizes how academic and socioemotional standards are complementary to each other and how both are integral to whole-child development.


Why is it important to measure socioemotional learning? What things are measured, and how are they typically measured?

A growing body of research suggests that a child’s socioeconomic well-being is fundamentally important to their healthy and productive development. Such research evidence implies that college, career, and civic readiness is tied to better socioemotional competency and well-being. This research, as well as new opportunities under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which allows state policymakers to redesign educational accountability systems and incorporate nonacademic measures, have sparked several states to adopt socioemotional standards as part of their education accountability models.

What we found was that while state socioemotional learning standards place a common emphasis on intrapersonal, interpersonal, and decision-making skills, they are often scattered and lack connections to academic standards. Moreover, data are rarely collected in a way that informs school accountability for progress in these areas.


Is New York State enacting socioemotional learning standards? What are other states doing? 

Whereas all 50 states have established preschool socioemotional learning standards, only 16 states expect to complete and adopt K-12 standards by 2019. New York State added socioemotional learning benchmarks for K-12 grades in August 2018. Although adoption of these standards certainly is in progress in this area, New York State lags behind some early adopters such as Illinois and Massachusetts in implementation and measurement of SEL benchmarks, and in using results for school improvement and accountability. New York’s voluntary and add-on approach to district- and school-level implementation also seems to limit the impact of SEL standards.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that, in addition to traditional academic achievement test measures, states include at least one measure of school quality or student success in their accountability plans (e.g., college and career readiness indicators) This has allowed states the flexibility to incorporate SEL standards as measures of student progress. School systems tend to use a variety of measures for evaluating these standards, including administrative records (e.g., attendance, graduation), school climate survey, teacher ratings of student behaviors, and student self-report of social skills. The measurement of socioemotional achievement is an area that is still evolving as more and more states enact socioemotional learning standards.

Despite its progress in enacting socioemotional learning standards, New York State remains far from a fully developed “Educational Accountability System 2.0” model that is designed to help ensure that all children are ready for college, career, and civic life (3C readiness). 


What is the concept of “protective environment,” why is it important, and how does it tie into the socioemotional learning standards effort?

State socioemotional learning standards tend to focus narrowly on specific skills and competencies, but fail to address learning environment gaps for whole-child development. For example, in New York State, only 50 percent of children live in supportive neighborhoods and 57 percent live in safe neighborhoods, less than the corresponding national averages of 54 and 64 percent, respectively. To counteract the effects of poverty and other risk factors, it is crucial to build a protective environment, including safe and supportive schools, families, and neighborhoods for disadvantaged students. Our study demonstrates that states with protective environments for child development not only have higher academic achievement, but also have higher levels of child well-being. Protective environment embraces the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and socioemotional standards alone are not enough to create protective environments and advance child well-being.


Have outcomes for children — either academic or general well-being — changed in states with socioemotional learning standards?

Using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), we find a positive relationship between academic proficiency and socioemotional well-being measures among the 50 states. States that have higher levels of academic proficiency also report significantly higher levels of child socioemotional well-being. This pattern holds regardless of whether states have adopted socioemotional learning standards or not. In short, what matters is implementation fidelity to the socioemotional learning mission. For example, some leading states, such as Illinois and Massachusetts, have aligned socioemotional learning standards, indicators, instruments, and interventions with their entire school’s general mission, better enabling them to improve student achievement and well-being. New York State’s approach to the adoption and implementation of SEL standards has fallen short of moving the needle much, however, and would do well to adopt a more systemic and comprehensive reform approach, tracking and supporting statewide measures of school climate and student well-being across the state.


What is the most significant finding from your research?

A protective environment — not adoption of socioemotional learning standards — is positively associated with both academic proficiency and child well-being measures above and beyond the influences of child poverty. It appears that just the enactment of statewide socioemotional learning standards did not make any difference for student learning outcomes. Part of the reason for this may be that a lack of adequate infrastructure and support for the full and effective implementation of SEL standards has led to minimal measurable impact. Because many states are in the early stages of SEL implementation, it remains to be seen whether the full-scale implementation of standards helps promote child well-being down the road. To promote healthy, successful children, policymakers seeking to enact meaningful socioemotional learning standards should also ensure their effective implementation. These steps include strategically reenvisioning school accountability policy for whole-child development; integrating a balance of academic and socioemotional learning standards and measures; investing in school/teacher capacity-building and a protective environment for child well-being; and effectively partnering schools, families, and community agencies for interventions (e.g., community school programs).


The full research paper, “Moving to Educational Accountability System 2.0: Socioemotional Learning Standards and Protective Environment for Whole Child Development,” by Jaekyung Lee, Namsook Kim, Ayse Cobanoglu, and Michael O’Connor, can be found here.




Brian Backstrom is director of Education Policy Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government