A Nation At Hope

Mar 4, 2019 by



After two decades of education debates that produced deep passions and deeper divisions, we have a chance for a fresh start. A growing movement dedicated to the social, emotional, and academic well-being of children is reshaping learning and changing lives across America. On the strength of its remarkable consensus, a nation at risk is finally a nation at hope.

Familiar arguments over national standards and the definition of accountability are not as relevant as they once were. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015 devolved a great deal of authority and power to states and communities—placing the future of education more directly in the hands of parents, teachers, and school leaders. This presents an obligation and an opportunity.

Devolution creates an obligation on the part of adults to use their influence in creative, effective ways to serve every student. Local control is not a release from rigor and responsibility; it is the broader distribution of responsibility. This sense of obligation should extend to all of the adults who constitute a child’s whole universe.

Devolution also creates a tremendous opportunity to get beyond the rutted debates of the last generation and to seek solutions that are both hopeful and unifying.

We began with the simple intention of listening—really listening—to young people, parents, teachers, school and district leaders, community leaders, and other experts. This document, in many ways, is a report from the nation. What we heard is profoundly hopeful. There is a striking confluence of experience and science on one point: Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs. As one teacher put it, “I don’t teach math; I teach kids math.” To reach a child’s mind, we must be concerned for the whole person.

More specifically, children require a broad array of skills, attitudes, and values to succeed in school, careers, and in life. They require skills such as paying attention, setting goals, collaboration, and planning for the future. They require attitudes such as internal motivation, perseverance, and a sense of purpose. They require values such as responsibility, honesty, and integrity. They require the abilities to think critically, consider different views, and problem solve. And these social, emotional, and academic capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, to grapple with difficult problems, and to adjust to rapid change.

Helping children to learn these traits and skills may sound ambitious. But it is—and has always been—central to the educational enterprise. It is the reason that education begins with concerned and involved parents, who provide emotional support and set high expectations. It is the reason that community institutions that mentor children and encourage self-respect are essential allies of parents and schools. It is the reason that good teachers can change lives, helping students find unsuspected gifts and inner purpose. And it is the reason that everyone involved in education shares an amazing calling: to foster in children the knowledge, skills, and character that enable children to make better lives in a better country.

This calling is an honor, but not an elective. Since all education involves social, emotional, and academic learning, we have but two choices: We can either ignore that fact and accept disappointing results, or address these needs intentionally and well.

The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself.

The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the “real work” of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed. And it is not another reason for political polarization. It brings together a traditionally conservative emphasis on local control and on the character of all students, and a historically progressive emphasis on the creative and challenging art of teaching and the social and emotional needs of all students, especially those who have experienced the greatest challenges.

In fact, the basis of this approach is not ideological at all. It is rooted in the experience of teachers, parents, and students supported by the best educational research of the past few decades. More than nine in 10 teachers and parents believe that social and emotional learning is important to education.1 At least two-thirds of current and recent high school students think similarly.2 As one student said, “Success in school should not be defined just by our test scores … but also by the ability to think for ourselves, work with others, and contribute to our communities.”

Part of our project was to convene a Council of Distinguished Scientists—leaders in the fields of education, neuroscience, and psychology—to identify areas of agreement. The consensus they define is broad and strong: Social, emotional, and academic skills are all essential to success in school, careers, and in life, and they can be effectively learned in the context of trusted ties to caring and competent adults.3

While many elements of a child’s life improve along with the cultivation of these skills, one of the main outcomes is better academic performance.

It is a mistake to view social and emotional learning as a “soft” approach to education. Quite the opposite. An emphasis on these capacities is not the sacrifice of rigor; it is a source of rigor. While many elements of a child’s life improve along with the cultivation of these skills, one of the main outcomes is better academic performance. An analysis of more than 200 studies of programs that teach students social and emotional skills found that these efforts significantly improved student behavior, feelings about school, and most importantly achievement, and made schools safer.4 It only stands to reason. When children are motivated, responsible, and focused, they are more able to persist in hard tasks and respond to good teaching. These capabilities are a booster rocket for everything we measure, including test scores.5 But the point is larger. No one involved in education can view the values and beliefs held by students as trivial or secondary. They are the very things that can grip the imagination and determine the direction of a life.

This approach to learning also contributes to educational equity. As this report documents, social and emotional learning benefits all children, of every background. But it disproportionally benefits children from low-income communities, many of whom experience trauma and adversity resulting from insecure access to housing, food, health care, and safety.6 All students need supportive relationships and nurturing learning environments, but students facing additional stress have a particular need to be surrounded by caring adults who treat them as individuals with potential and inherent worth. And when adults create this environment, children of every background can thrive.

The evidence also indicates that these efforts can be undertaken by schools at a reasonable cost relative to the benefits.7 A change in educational culture and spirit does not require a major increase in resources, but it does require a prioritization of resources. Studies indicate that investment in social and emotional programs brings broad social benefits.8 The evidence also shows that these positive adult influences must begin early and continue during a child’s entire school career.9

Educating the whole learner cannot be reduced to a simple set of policies or proposals. It is, instead, a mindset that should inform the entire educational enterprise.

This strong consensus has naturally produced many institutions and approaches that come at this issue from different angles. The mentoring movement, a focus on the whole child, social and emotional learning, character education, service learning, deeper learning, national service, an emphasis on the science of learning—all these may focus on different aspects, but they agree that effective education involves values, healthy attitudes, social skills, and a commitment to the betterment of the community. This makes them part of the same, gathering movement in America.

And that is exactly what is needed at this promising moment. The research is compelling. Now we need everyone to take responsibility to spread this practice more broadly. This approach didn’t take shape at the federal level. It is based on the emerging consensus of successful communities, convinced that this is the missing piece in American education. It will only expand to scale on the strength of local ownership, promoting these efforts school by school, district by district, and state by state.

The members of this coalition of conscience are educational leaders, engaged parents, concerned citizens, business leaders, military leaders, researchers, committed youth organizations, and young people themselves. They are working to transform schools into places that foster empathy, respect, self-mastery, character, creativity, collaboration, civic engagement and—on the strength of these values—academic excellence. They are encouraging communities to embrace the ambition, compassion, and rigor of social, emotional, and academic education. They are urging states to prioritize social, emotional, and academic development in their visions for learning and their support for training of teachers, district leaders, principals, and other staff.

This is the message from the nation on learning. We want to add our voice to these voices. And through this report, we want this remarkable, hopeful consensus to be understood and spread as widely as possible.

At a time when national political debates often seem toxic, this movement of local leadership and civic responsibility is a welcome contrast and a refuge from ideological bitterness. It is not just a way forward; it is a way forward together. It is motivated by hope and confidence.

Hope in the appeal of values such as perseverance, hard work, and human decency. Confidence that young women and men of every background—like generations before them—will be challenged, transformed, and empowered by contact with such ideals, demonstrated in the lives of caring adults around them.

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote William Butler Yeats. All of us dream of creating environments where the minds and spirits of children can thrive. Now it is our responsibility to make it happen. That is the high calling of education and the urgent task of our time.


Source: Nation At Hope – A Nation At Hope

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