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School Culture and Social-Emotional Learning

The following is excerpted from “Why School Culture is Crucial to Social and Emotional Learning,” published this month by the American Enterprise Institute.

There is an episode of the TV series, Seinfeld, where Kramer, Jerry’s Seinfeld’s eccentric neighbor, hires an unpaid intern to work at his fictional company, Kramerica Industries. Kramerica is focused on, among other things, building an “oil bladder” to prevent maritime oil spills. Their theory is that, if oil tankers lined their oil tanks with large rubber balls, the rubber balls would remain intact in the event of a tanker crash, thus saving the ocean from devastating oil spills.

It’s a ridiculous idea, and in the end, when they test their theory and it fails, they simply turn to their next ill-thought-out scheme, saying: “Well, that didn’t work… about this…”

We like to think that we education reformers are far more knowledgeable about teaching and learning than Kramer is about maritime engineering, but too many of us still fall victim to the Kramerica challenge. That is, in an effort to demonstrate progress or to achieve quick results, we look to “duct tape” programmatic solutions atop far deeper and more vexing challenges. And if and when they don’t work, we abandon ship and move on to the next “innovation.”

A quick read of the tea leaves of education reform suggests that social-emotional learning (SEL) is on track to become the next “duct tape” solution to America’s education problems. It has emerged from a topic on the sidelines to center stage with remarkable speed. 

What seems to be missing from too much SEL guidance is a consideration of how crucial school culture is to SEL’s success. To best develop the “whole child,” SEL must be powered by a clearly articulated school mission, vision, and purpose. Anything else—such as programmatic quick fixes or metrics-driven nudges—risks being yet another “duct tape” school reform solution that falls apart when put to the test. 

Unfortunately, most policy-driven approaches to SEL don’t ground guidance in how to align SEL programs with a school’s culture. Rather, they try to inspire change through metrics-driven nudges or force change through explicit programmatic shifts. This isn’t surprising because these are the levers that state policymakers, advocates, and district leaders have to drive change.

Unless you are actively running a school, it is difficult to lead a school-site culture shift. But if a culture shift is what’s necessary to drive long-term outcomes for students, we are shortchanging principals, teachers, and ultimately students if we don’t give time and space for school leaders to understand and embrace the  culture shifts necessary to drive change.

This is something that Catholic educators understand intimately. And lessons from Catholic schools that continue to drive life-changing outcomes for students, even when they are financially strapped or otherwise struggling, can provide useful guidance to the national debate over how to form the “whole child.” More specifically, the Catholic school approach to SEL is grounded in three lessons about culture and SEL.

First, strong character and good citizenship are formed as much as—perhaps more than—they are explicitly taught. And that means that a stand-alone character development program, or skill and habits developed in isolation but not reinforced throughout the entire school day, will not successfully drive the results we want. 

Second, the schools that effectively cultivate the habits and mindsets of strong character and good citizenship are those that have a clearly and unapologetically stated purpose and root beliefs. Too many SEL initiatives fail because, in an effort to avoid controversy, schools fail to make clear what they believe and how those beliefs drive action in the school. It’s not enough for values to be implicitly reinforced; they need to be explicitly stated. Vague generalities are a poor substitute for clear values.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, once a school has a clear and unapologetic statement about what it values and what the teachers and leaders believe, those values must be directly aligned to everything that happens in the building. If, for example, a school says it believes all children can learn but then does not hold all students to high expectations for academic rigor, then the culture of the school is not strong enough to support the formation of strong character. 

Even in the Catholic school world, where our faith grounds the school climate and culture across all our schools, this approach to SEL is an evolution, not a revolution. When it works, it is a process of small but significant steps to better align our norms,practices, programs, and policies to our core beliefs.

That may not be the transformational break-through in schooling that some SEL proponents seek, but against the backdrop of an endless cycle of poorly thought through education reform experiments, it may be that pragmatic, evolutionary change is exactly what our students need.

To read the AEI report in full, access it here