Leveraging Social-Emotional Learning: Insights from Tustin Unified’s Journey from Data Collection to Action

Written by Allison McCarty Ku, Tustin USD on June 21, 2019

This article was co-written with Debra Russell

“Student achievement never matters more than student well-being.” This was the message Superintendent Dr. Gregory Franklin shared with all faculty and staff to usher in the 2018-19 school year at Tustin Unified School District, a district of 24,000 students in suburban Southern California. And it is a much easier sentiment to express in words than it is to implement with concrete actions, as anyone working at the district-level of a school system knows well. But that is precisely what we did at Tustin this year: administered social-emotional learning surveys to our middle school students in order to drive stronger decision-making around supports and engagement for all stakeholders.

Collection of the Data is Key

Tustin Unified made social-emotional learning—referred to widely by the acronym SEL—a district-wide goal four years ago, and like many across the state, have relied on the California Kids Healthy Survey as the primary method for tracking this data. While useful as an annual metric, the data was rarely reported back to our district in time for school leaders to act on it in any meaningful ways.

This year we decided to leverage Illuminate DnA to administer a set of SEL surveys developed by the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) ourselves. Our primary motivation was to have more immediate control over the data we collected for our own study.

Students’ responses revealed several larger trends around self-efficacy and having a growth mindset. Some were echoed in the broader SEL research, such as recognizing that intelligence is malleable, not static.  

But there were others that we hadn’t anticipated, particularly among our subgroups of EL learners. Having direct access to this data enabled us to take a more personalized approach to analysis with our stakeholders. We designed our own interactive trainings, for instance, to challenge commonly-held assumptions and inspire discussions about how to tackle areas of the greatest need for our students with empathy and action.

From the PACE SEL Practices Infographic

Highlights from the Research Around SEL

A quick scan of the news will show that SEL has reached its height as an educational buzzword, and it makes sense as states and districts move toward multiple-metric approaches to fully understanding their students’ growth.

This is not a new trend, however. Research has pointed to the importance of SEL integration in schooling for over two decades. Putting this into practice has since taken on a variety of forms, from character-building curricula to restorative justice programs and PBIS.  

Yet, as Heather Hough, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) has duly noted, we do not have sufficient data to quantify the actual link between SEL and academic achievement. As a result, PACE and CORE have partnered to make measurement of SEL data at scale a priority, administer their surveys to the nearly one million students included in the consortium, and share summaries of their findings with the public.

The expression “what gets measured, gets addressed” is a familiar one for many educators, and more and more studies of SEL are giving credence to this cliche. The independent think tank FutureEd recently released their report on the SEL-related work happening in six large California school districts, all part of the CORE consortium, over multiple years, and found that simply gathering the data “galvanized teachers to focus on these topics” in ways they had not before.  

One concern researchers have about SEL thus far is that much of the survey data revolves around self-reporting from students. This method has attracted criticism regarding its ultimate validity and reliability. It is no wonder, then, that many districts tread cautiously in their plans around collecting SEL-related information, though studies like FutureEd’s demonstrate that there is ample incentive to do so. The advantage, however, is not only how it communicates to stakeholders that promoting student wellness is valued alongside academic growth. As we’ve seen in Tustin Unified, having access to your SEL data can inform stronger, more strategic decision-making around supports for students as well as parents.

Steps for a Successful SEL Data Implementation

Once we made the decision to collect the SEL data ourselves, we knew it was important to frame the initiative, and our intentions, carefully. Here are the steps we identified as essential:

  • Make it a district priority. We worked with our board to include SEL data as part of our Local Control and Accountability, or LCAP, plan. Administering the surveys developed by CORE through Illuminate DnA was selected as the best, research-based tool for tracking it.
  • Address privacy considerations. Our focus was to analyze trends at the school and district-levels only—and we made this clear to all stakeholders. Passive consent letters were sent home with details about the surveys and our goals for looking at this data.
  • Plan for analysis and action. Collecting the data ourselves removed the barrier of access we faced before, but the process for making sense of it was still up to us. To differentiate our analysis from more commonly-examined data sets like benchmark assessments, we developed our own protocols to engage stakeholders with the survey results and deepen the discussions. We also empowered our school leaders to take these insights back to their sites, knowing that this would allow for the most precise allocation of resources and supports for their distinct communities of learners.

Shifting Teacher and Leaders Mindsets Around SEL Data

Looking at SEL data is different than looking at other types of data sets, and it is important to prepare your stakeholders for this shift in mindset. We administered the SEL surveys through Illuminate DnA as it was a familiar interface for teachers and students alike. But we had to make some key adjustments.

To start, we created a performance band spanning healthy to unhealthy, as opposed to one addressing proficiency. When we sat down to examine our students’ responses, we needed to be attentive to how each question stem related to scoring, as stronger marks on some were considered healthiest, while for others it was the reverse. We found the various reports we rely on when analyzing academic data were valuable, but also necessitated an explicit orientation away from concepts like “mastery” and “high- or low-performing.” But as a result, we were able to explore the data from all different angles, considering the frequency of students’ responses on certain topics as well as trends among our specific subgroups.

Drawing Actionable Insights from SEL Data

Our analysis of the SEL survey data has already led us to take strategic action in two important ways: 1) helping to better address the needs of our EL learners and 2) connecting with our parents in more meaningful ways.  

While examining trends among subgroups, we observed that the students struggling to advance in their language development were also falling within the less healthy range for SEL competencies at much greater percentages than other subgroups.  

This isn’t necessarily surprising now in retrospect. But it was not a standard focus for our work to address EL learners’ growth, where concerns gravitate toward the academic interventions they need, not the social-emotional ones.

Looking at the data further, we found that the students who were making progress in language development, and being re-designated as a result, were displaying much stronger senses of self-efficacy. This information has significantly changed our conversations and the way we are thinking about allocating resources for this specific subgroup of EL students moving forward.

Our second insight was another that took us slightly by surprise: the potential to use SEL data to shape our plans for parent engagement. As a high-performing district, it can often be challenging to encourage parents who are already supportive and involved. With data now pointing to specific categories, like growth mindset and self-management, where we know students may need additional encouragement at home, we can tailor outreach activities, helping to strengthen the relationships with our parents and their relationships with their children.

Tustin Unified School District’s experience administering the CORE surveys to collect SEL data highlights the value in monitoring our students’ social-emotional skills and perceptions, and then leveraging this information to guide our decision-making. The insights these data make possible will only become more valuable as year-to-year comparisons offer us opportunities to observe longitudinal trends and evaluate the impact of our programs.

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