Using ESSA to Improve School Climate and Social and Emotional Development

Using ESSA to Improve School Climate and Social and Emotional Development

This originally appeared in The National School Climate Center’s September 2017 newsletter.
By Catharine Holahan

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed in December 2015, laid the groundwork for two significant shifts in education reform in that it (1) shifted significant authority and responsibility for designing key education systems from the federal level to states and districts; and (2) prioritized college and career ready outcomes for all students – allowing for a broader focus than the strictly academic nature of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – and required that all systems be aligned toward those outcomes.

With the passage of this law, every state and district will revisit their efforts to achieve equity and excellence, creating myriad opportunities to assert new priorities and embrace new approaches.  This provides an opportunity for state, district, and school leaders to impact student outcomes by ensuring that new aligned systems are designed to support positive school climates and learning environments that foster inter- and intra-personal (social and emotional) development.

In thinking about how to leverage ESSA, several questions come to mind:  What kind of change are we talking about?  What policies and practices are needed to improve school climate and foster students’ social and emotional development?  Is there funding available to support these efforts in my state, district, or school?  How can measurement of this be incorporated into and leveraged in our systems and processes?

The answers to these questions will vary, depending on your goals and at which level of the system you are.   However, there are a number of opportunities for state, district, and school leaders to develop policies that improve school climate and foster social  and emotional learning and that are informed by relevant data about needs and progress (such as, for example, school climate surveys, disciplinary data, student engagement data, etc.).  It is important to think of ESSA as an opportunity to set directions and then make continuous improvement over time.

  1. Vision. ESSA allows for an expanded definition of student success that goes beyond academics to also include the full range of knowledge and skills that students need for success in college, career, and life. ESSA provides the opportunity to revisit existing norms and to set a new vision, particularly with the engagement of stakeholders, that includes social and emotional development as necessary for student success.
  2. School Improvement. ESSA sets out a process for the identification of schools in need of improvement and the development of plans and support needed for those schools. The two schools identified are those in need of: (1) comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) (lowest-performing 5% of Title I schools, schools with graduation rate of less than 67%, and TSI schools that did not exit); and (2) targeted support and improvement (TSI) (schools with subgroups that are consistently underperforming and/or performing as low as the lowest 5% of Title I schools). This process involves conducting needs assessments of the identified schools (required for all CSI schools, and optional for TSI schools). States, districts, and schools should seize this opportunity to select the best, research-based needs assessments that provide important insights on school climate and to design plans that include evidence-based interventions that improve school climate and foster student social and emotional learning.
  3. Title IV – Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grants. These grants provide funding to districts for activities to support “safe and healthy students”, including those to improve school climate. States can distribute this funding by formula, competition, or a combination of the two, and may also reserve up to 5% of the funds to support state-level activities toward this same goal. Districts receiving $30,000 or more must conduct needs assessments, which includes assessing the school conditions for student learning in order to create a healthy and safe learning environment. District leaders have an opportunity to seek this funding for activities related to school climate and, in doing so, to conduct needs assessments to understand the greatest needs in their district schools.
  4. Title II – Educator Effectiveness. Title II provides funding to support professional learning for educators and school leaders. States and districts can dedicate a portion of this funding to support teachers and school leaders in understanding and establishing positive school climates and implementing approaches that foster students’ social and emotional development.
  5. Accountability. ESSA requires states to design statewide accountability systems to differentiate among schools and to identify schools in need of improvement. The system must include one or more measures of “school quality and/or student success” (SQSS) such as those related to “student engagement” and “school climate and safety” (among others). These measures must be valid, reliable, the same across all schools, and capable of meaningfully differentiating between schools. This creates an opportunity for states to select indicators of school quality that provide information about school climate.
  6. Data Reporting. ESSA requires state systems of data reporting, which can include a broader set of data beyond that used for school accountability purposes. Therefore, states (and districts) have the opportunity to require the collection and reporting of data that provides information about school climate, even if not used for purposes of school accountability.
  7. District ESSA Plans. Once state ESSA plans are approved by the U.S. Department of Education, districts will complete their district-level consolidated plans for how they will use federal funding. This is an opportunity for states to ask (in designing the application) and for districts to consider (in completing the application) how they might use their different streams of federal funding under ESSA – Title I, Title II (educator effectiveness), and Title IV (SSAE grants) – to support activities that will help improve school climate and foster social and emotional development, such as, for example, through building educator and school leader capacity, revised disciplinary policies and practices, and training on evidence-based approaches.

Each of these areas provides opportunities for state, district, and/or school leaders to support the establishment of positive school climates for students to be engaged and successful.  Depending on your vantage point as a state, district or school leader, you may find more leverage in some opportunities than others.  The type of measures that you incorporate (i.e., school climate surveys, discipline data, chronic absenteeism, student surveys, etc.) and the type of change that you are trying to drive (i.e., increased educator capacity, improved discipline policies, improved student engagement, etc.) will also depend on the unique context of your state, district, or school.

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