Common Core State Standards, School Climate, and Social-Emotional Learning

By Svetlana Darche, Greg Austin, & Adam Voight

As California and the nation are adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), there is increasing recognition that success in meeting the standards will be closely intertwined with school climate and student social-emotional learning, adding to the value of the Healthy Kids Survey data for guiding CCSS implementation.

First, research shows that students’ academic attainment, the heart of the CCSS, is higher in the presence of positive conditions for learning.   That is, students perform better in safe, supportive, and engaging school climates. This point was demonstrated in WestEd’s recent study that showed dramatically more positive climates in schools that outperform academic predictions compared with other schools.

It is not enough to just improve curriculum and instruction to teach CCSS content.  We also need to create more positive environments that encourage students to attend school, ready them to learn, and motivate them to achieve.  Otherwise, the very purpose of the CCSS — to foster more college, career, and life readiness among our youth — will not be fulfilled.  Moreover, we will likely see a reoccurrence of the same phenomenon we have seen in past standardized tests:  immediate improvements in test scores followed by a leveling off.

Second, the rigor, depth of knowledge and performance tasks required for success in attaining the CCSS suggest that educators must provide not only an array of learning experiences that support deep understanding but also the conditions that support students’ development of many competencies that undergird academic attainment. Students will have to employ a number of specific social-emotional and other “noncognitive” skills in order to attain CCSS academic standards. The CCSS represent a set of grade-level competencies that all students are expected to attain in English Language Arts and mathematics. The standards are aligned with expectations for college and work. One standard explicitly calls for “rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills,” and also included among the standards are critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, and persistence.

To a larger degree than previous standards, the CCSS assessments include complex tasks that require problem-solving skills. Students will have to be able to take initiative, work collaboratively, communicate, and persist, just as they do to get good grades.  Students who lack these skills will get a “double whammy” — they will face tougher content and will have to do so without the requisite tools — like being asked to climb a higher mountain, but in flip flops instead of boots (they fail the climb and end up with blistered feet and bad memories, reluctant to take on the next hike).

Like academic performance, student social-emotional learning is greater in positive school climates.  Researchers, including those at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), have consistently found that while there are many strategies for teaching social-emotional competencies, they are not fully learned unless SEL instruction occurs within the context of a school climate that nurtures those skills and gives youth the opportunities to see them modeled by adults and to apply them in practice in the day-to-day world of the school.

The research underlying the CHKS indicates that school environments that focus on meeting the basic developmental needs of youth and providing the supports linked to resilience (e.g., caring adult relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) help foster those social-emotional competencies and personal strengths that youth will need to succeed in the CCSS.  Thus the CHKS is an important tool for schools for determining their progress in fostering positive school climates and SEL that will be required to, in turn, foster success.  Moreover, the improvements that have been made to the CHKS this year — expanding the indicators of school climate and adding a supplemental Social and Emotional Health Module —have greatly enhanced its value to that end.

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