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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Race to Somewhere

The Race to Somewhere
(On the Importance of Balancing Scholastic Achievement with
Social Emotional Learning as we Develop Great Kids and Great Schools)

"In God we trust, all others bring data."
- Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, February 2005

[Please pass this blog on to an educational leader you like—Read on, and I hope you’ll see why...]

It seems like almost every school is dedicated to “excellence.” We all need a clearer definition of “excellence” in our schools. More importantly, we all talk about “success” for our students. Schools and parents need an inclusive, wholistic, and helpful definition of “success” for our youth.

Years ago, the movie The Race to Nowhere made headlines by highlighting the damage schools cause to students, themselves, communities, and our nation when we evaluate the work and success of schools and their students primarily in terms of standardized test scores and college ranks. I believe The Grauer School was the first school to screen that film, and its producer, Vicki Abeles, has endorsed both of my books

Grauer 11th grade students engaged in a cross-cultural exchange with students from Kansai Soka High School, a UNESCO school based in Osaka, Japan - January 30, 2020

Since well before then, I have studied the issue of how to provide balanced evaluation to students and schools and I have concluded something striking: these one-dimensional tests and ranks are not going away. 

So, what to do?

I say: if you can’t beat ‘em, join, ‘em:  If we must test and rank, let’s start testing and ranking things that really matter! 

The overemphasis on grades, test scores, and rote answers has stressed out and marginalized many kids. What’s more, this lopsided emphasis can enable kids who have high grades and test scores but terrible morals or value systems to graduate like rock stars who get into top colleges. This system is badly broken. It has taken our schools in directions that are harmful and demoralizing for kids and teachers. We might need tests to learn about scholastic achievement, but what we do NOT need is the overemphasis, the near obsession, on them. Bottom line: We must not only measure scholastic aptitude and achievement in evaluating our students and schools. If we want healthy, balanced kids and schools, we must also measure:

Social and emotional development, 
Moral and character development, 
Non-cognitive skills, and 
Student engagement.


These areas for human development often get combined into a category called “social-emotional learning,” or SEL, and I will use that term for this article. Elsewhere, you may hear these areas for development generally referred to as “character education,” “non-cognitive skills,” or even “soft skills.” 

If we evaluate our schools and students by relying equally upon scholastic and SEL testing, both, we can reclaim a healthy balance and get out of “the race to nowhere.” A movement to do this is underway.

A transformational move we’ve made to address SEL at The Grauer School is to begin measuring it. We are now employing those measurements as a part of our constant change efforts. In doing so, we have joined a growing movement of school leaders who are “measuring what matters.” (Since we have been measuring the development of student values, individually and schoolwide, for 30 years, you might say a growing movement of schools has joined us.)

Grauer Mandarin Chinese students dancing a popular Chinese dance at the school's Asian Lunar New Year celebration - January 28, 2020

Over the past six or so years, we have seen one of some of the most exciting new developments in education in generations: new, nationally normed SEL survey batteries. We've tried a few of them and could not be more optimistic. I never thought I would be so excited about testing!

In this column, I will cover four normed, nationwide survey batteries that help students and schools focus on the development of SEL and character development as measures of their effectiveness and success. These survey instruments could have the most profound impact upon schools in generations if we will embed this kind of data into our presumptions of what schools ought to be looking for as outcomes—not just scholastic achievement scores:

1. Challenge Success Surveys: "At Challenge Success, we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners. Challenge Success partners with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success." Over 200,000 middle and high school students from more than 200 schools have taken the Student Survey since 2007. (Grauer is administering this survey this year in conjunction with our work with the Mastery Transcript Consortium.)

2. Panorama Survey: "The comprehensive survey covers nineteen key topics: from pedagogical effectiveness and school climate, to student engagement and growth mindset." Over the last two years, more than 450,000 students, family members, and teachers at over 800 schools and 40 districts across diverse geographic areas and school types have used Panorama. (Grauer used this last year and cycled our findings into our whole-school improvement efforts—we found our students have exceptionally high “growth mindsets” and have encouraged this; we found our school climate is perceived as extremely safe and positive; and our faculty has been strategizing all year on how to increase the extent to which our students talk about their in-class learning when they are out of class.)

3. High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE): The purpose of this survery is to "gather data about the attitudes, perceptions and beliefs of students about their schoolwork, the school learning environment, and their interaction with the school community." More than 400,000 students in over 40 states completed the survey between 2006 and 2013, plus approximately 60,000 a year since then. Grauer has administered this survey three times and disseminated/used our findings widely. (Grauer students scored in the 99th percentile for engagement in various areas we consider to be critical to future success and happiness.)

4. YouthTruth Survey: School climate data: student perceptions are linked to academic outcomes. The survey asks about school climate and culture, as well as students’ academic experience and relationships with teachers. 1,289,743 students have completed this survey. (Grauer plans to administer this in the next year.)

Grauer Junior Lisa C. '21 playing a Chinese instrument at the school's Asian Lunar New Year celebration - January 28, 2020

Again, at Grauer, we've tried the first three of these and will try them all. Ultimately, we may settle on one or two “best.” We get great data on how we are doing in many areas of student perception, school climate, and what school feels like for teachers and parents. For instance, I love the data the Panorama surveys provide on how students feel about their teachers--extremely useful in teacher development (because these feelings have dramatic impacts on student learning). SEL data is useful as well for institutional development and student development. It is also extremely helpful as we attempt to influence other schools and our field as a whole in finding ways to bring balanced evaluation into our field, addicted to and tangled up in “standardized achievement” as it has been. 

Naturally, we measure academic achievement as well as SEL, using data from standardized achievement tests, College Board SAT and PSAT data, ACT scores, and various other external benchmarks that have been treated as demigods of the field. I hope someday it will be unheard of to ask about a school’s scholastic achievement test scores without asking for its SEL scores at the same time—one is just no good without the other.

Each year, we study findings about students, teachers, and our whole school by looking at not just standardized achievement data, but the SEL data we are getting from surveys such as the above. In this way, we can strive for a balanced program. Likewise, we analyze student grades (GPAs) and we balance that analysis by looking at the evaluative data we have collected on student values in all classes. (All Grauer families and alumni are familiar with our “evals” using our school’s core values.) 

I know that many people are used to thinking of SEL as unmeasurable, but of course as we learn more about it and define it, we find it to be just as measurable as math or literature. Geometry and world history are gigantic almost endless fields, for instance, and yet we don’t bat an eye claiming that someone got a “B” in them! It is a huge problem that people write off character and values development as “unmeasurable” and I hate it when people call these “soft skills.” What does that mean? All four of the above SEL surveys generate powerful, nationally normed, reliable data on the achievement of things that matter. 

If we can evaluate all our schools on areas that are generative and human, life affirming, not just part of the current ranks and standards race, it will be the greatest educational advance I’ve ever lived through. I believe SEL tests can help us get to some new outcomes in school evaluation and perhaps even to the generation of a new kind of transcript which can reflect graduates who have balance in their lives and scholastic development. Advancing these tests right now is about as important as any work I can do.

Grauer 7th grade Life Science students drying herbs and harvesting marigold seeds they collected from the Grauer Garden - January 31, 2020

Balance! Who wants good purposes/values without the skills and intellectual background to achieve those purposes/values? Who wants skilled filmmakers or chemists with terrible, egocentric values?—that’s scary! All schools claim they want “excellence.” What is it? What is “excellence” or “success” if not the synthesis of beautiful thought with beautiful execution? All schools offer both sides of balances like these, but it is time to reflect them in the way we measure our schools.

I have been promoting SEL surveying to many schools and school heads, to NAIS, to education reporters and researchers, and of course to our whole team at Grauer. In fact, just recently, NAIS research officials interviewed our school research associate Dr. Tricia Valeski and I for over an hour on this topic. I have been disseminating SEL findings widely through the Small Schools Coalition. I view the up and coming SEL batteries as a major part of developing balanced education and promoting them is as important as any work I do. 

We have to think about our real purposes as teachers. As Christine Cipriano, Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence notes, “At the end of the day, we're talking about teaching people how to be better citizens and more positive contributors to their society.” If we can measure that (and we can), why aren’t we?

I hope every educational leader you know will promote at least one of these great batteries in our schools.


Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Grauer 11th grade students engaged in a cross-cultural exchange with students from Kansai Soka High School, a UNESCO school based in Osaka, Japan - January 30, 2020

Grauer Mandarin Chinese students dancing a popular Chinese dance at the school's Asian Lunar New Year celebration - January 28, 2020

Grauer Junior Lisa C. '21 playing a Chinese instrument at the school's Asian Lunar New Year celebration - January 28, 2020

Grauer 7th grade Life Science students drying herbs and harvesting marigold seeds they collected from the Grauer Garden - January 31, 2020

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