The dominance of test-based performance under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) negatively influenced public schools because of its narrow approach to school accountability, which forced schools to focus their curricula mostly on preparation for standardized tests. The resulting inadequate treatment of many other issues became apparent as political leaders began to understand how the law’s provisions affected state and local priorities. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, federal law advances a different accountability approach, one supporting balanced measures of school performance that assess graduation rates, attendance, and suspension rates. For the first time, many states are encouraged to track how well schools are developing the “soft” facilitators of learning, such as educator and student engagement, school climate and culture, and students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) growth. Evidence of the necessity of these “soft” skills for students, along with awareness of the shortcomings of NCLB, has become more prominent in recent years, further suggesting these soft skills be incorporated into school accountability law. This expanded approach to nurturing student learning provides educators with access to new forms of information that may help balance traditional accountability system assessments. This study is an exploratory, qualitative, comparative case study that explains how two high schools with different performance trajectories apply SEL in their attempts to improve student learning. The study explores how school-based teachers and administrators working in different learning contexts use and operationalize SEL at the classroom and school levels. Data include interviews and observations with 23 educators and administrators at two schools in Fresno Unified School District. Participants addressed SEL conceptualization and operationalization, school subject inclusion of SEL, leadership practice contribution toward SEL, SEL data usage, variance in academic performance and school size, and SEL assessment inclusion in school accountability. The school with higher performance and smaller size initiated an SEL meeting earlier, which promoted a common understanding about SEL among staff. The school with lower performance and larger school size experienced more disagreement about SEL among staff. The priorities of school leadership determined the success of the school, not school size or academic performance.
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