The primary goal of K–12 education should be to empower young people to reach their full potential. Meeting this goal requires an inclusive and supportive learning environment designed to meet the promise for each and every child. The passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001 was intended to help meet this promise by revealing disparities in educational outcomes for historically underserved students. Unfortunately, by requiring that accountability systems rely on single test scores, with high-stakes interventions for the schools that could not reach unmeetable targets, it exacerbated these inequalities for many students. Not only did “low-performing” schools narrow curriculum to teach to the test, if low scores persisted, these schools faced staff firings, “reconstitutions,” or outright closures—extreme measures that data show often caused disruption more than improvement.
Especially where testing was pursued in lieu of investing, schools were incentivized to push out low-performing students to boost their scores, sometimes by counseling them out and sometimes through harsh disciplinary measures.
In addition, students subjected to extensive test prep rather than exciting learning opportunities became even more disengaged from school. While these policies applied to all schools, students with disabilities, children of color, English language learners, undocumented students, and homeless youth and youth in foster care suffered disproportionately.
The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an opportunity for states to turn around the legacy of inequity through a more comprehensive accountability system that focuses on continuous improvement in terms of student opportunities to learn and outcomes.
One way that states can do this is by adopting additional indicators of student opportunities and success, for either school identification or more diagnostic purposes. Specifically,
ESSA requires that states use multiple measures to evaluate student and school progress, for all students and, separately, for each identified group of students. Required indicators include:
- A measure of academic achievement using annual assessments in English language arts and math;
- An additional academic measure for elementary and secondary schools, which can be a measure of student growth;
- The four-year graduation rate for high schools (an extended-year rate may be included as well);
- A measure of progress in language proficiency for English language learners; and
- At least one non-academic measure of “school quality or student success.”
The emphasis on continuous improvement and multiple measures of success in ESSA provides a powerful opportunity to create the kinds of schools in which underserved youth stay and thrive. Indicators beyond test scores, especially, provide an unprecedented policy lever to create school improvement.
In a recent Learning Policy Institute report, we identify a set of indicators that can substantially change the trajectory for historically underserved youth. Among these are indicators of school discipline and school climate, including opportunities for social-emotional learning—key levers for developing student attachment and success. These indicators of supportive and inclusive environments that meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of students can be baked into state plans as accountability measures or used for diagnostic purposes to support school improvement.
Redesigning School Discipline through Restorative Justice
In the 2011–12 school year, 3.45 million students were suspended from school and students of color received a disproportionate number of suspensions and other high-stakes punishments, as they were more harshly punished for similar behaviors than white students. Suspensions deprive students of valuable instructional time and result in lower academic achievement, higher rates of grade retention, lower graduation rates, and greater involvement in the juvenile justice system. Research shows that schools with higher suspension rates are less safe, less equitable and have poorer academic outcomes—and that schools can improve on all of these dimensions by replacing suspensions with more effective approaches to teaching responsibility rather than merely punishing misbehavior.
States can support schools in adopting more effective approaches to discipline by removing zero-tolerance policies and eliminating the use of suspensions and expulsions for lower-level offenses. In place of those policies, schools can apply supportive, inclusive, and effective strategies to address student misbehavior, including conflict resolution, problem solving strategies and restorative justice that allows students to make amends without being excluded from the community.
Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by problematic behavior. It is generally accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders, leading to improvements in relationships and a stronger sense of community in schools. In schools, restorative justice programs bring the affected parties together to evaluate the situation, determine how to make amends and reintegrate students into the classroom and school community. There are a number of evidence-based resources on restorative justice that states, districts and schools can utilize to respond to disparities in and high rates of discipline. The Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and school districts, such as San Francisco Unified, offer resources on how to develop a framework for planning and implementing restorative practices.
School Improvement through Social-Emotional Learning
More and more states and districts are also recognizing the connection between student engagement and inclusiveness and development of social-emotional skills that enable positive relationships. Social-emotional learning (SEL) teaches students how to recognize and manage their emotions, collaborate, communicate and make good decisions. There is ample evidence showing that SEL programs are associated with positive outcomes, ranging from significantly better academic achievement to improved social skills, attitudes and behavior.
Under ESSA, states have an opportunity to emphasize the importance of social and emotional learning and support its development through their accountability and improvement systems. This can be done through student surveys that include questions measuring social-emotional supports and learning opportunities within the school. When properly administered, surveys can allow disaggregation of data by student subgroup—a requirement for inclusion in the federal accountability component of a state’s system.
Other measures of SEL can include teacher surveys, parent surveys or qualitative data from school quality reviews. Both classroom climate and teachers’ support for students’ social-emotional development and learning can be measured through classroom observation tools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which is used successfully by many early childhood programs and elementary schools. As educators receive data from these surveys, they can do real-time evaluations on what is working well overall as well as for specific groups of students and where there are problems to be worked on or difficulties that remain. Having regular access to student voices, as well as to other insights from teachers and parents, allows school staff to make timely, student-centered adjustments for improvement.
From an accountability and improvement perspective, states can use SEL indicators to identify strategies and supports for schools to help students feel safe and supported and to be productive and powerful learners. Resources for helping schools create inclusive and positive climates include the U.S. Department of Education and American Institutes for Research’s National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, and resources provided by organizations such as the Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning (CASEL), Engaged Schools, and the National School Climate Center that provide strategies and activities.
The passage of ESSA and the inclusion of additional indicators of student opportunity and success, presents an opportunity for states to move away from policies that incentivize schools to boost test scores and push out low-performing students and to instead, recognize and advance the dignity, promise and potential in all students as they strive to graduate high school and college, to excel in their school experiences and to be fully prepared to succeed, and shape the life ahead of them.
 To track demographic information while maintaining students’ privacy, students can self-report demographic data, such as gender and race, at the end of a survey. Schools may also choose to attach a unique student identifier such as a barcode or a student ID number to each survey.
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