The above image is a screen capture from CASEL’s Assessment Work Group page. (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning – CASEL). Specifically, it’s the list of criteria for participation in the second round of an Assessment Design Challenge that could, in theory, yield a rich primal soup of diverse new perspectives, ingredients, and methods of assessment.

But the submission criteria suggest a foundational commitment to the currently malfunctioning education delivery paradigm. Are we this blind, otherwise, who or what benefits from “appearing” to be open to diversity and change?

The fact that CASEL even exists reassures me there are serious people who recognize that we’ve cut the beating heart out of education by dialing up the pace and the competitive stakes of universal, compulsory knowledge transmission in schools. Now, as a first step in reform. they’re quite reasonably scratching their heads: How do you fix a thing, once you’ve cut its heart out?

For a decade, NCLB* forced the entire education community to behave as though 100% student academic proficiency were a reasonable notion, and more than that, a target worthy of universal dedication and sacrifice.

AYP** enforcement cannibalized thousands of publicly funded learning communities that failed to demonstrate linear progress toward 100% proficiency by 2014. Schools across the country crumbled beneath the shame and blame of failing to keep pace with a goal that had been self-evidently unattainable from the outset. U.S. educators have practiced their craft for the last 20 years pounded by cascades of fear-based accountability by compliance.

How many of us actually noticed that our target (100% student proficiency by 2014) … the target that had served as the sole rationale for shutting down thousands of schools and chartering replacements … that our 100% proficiency target quietly went away the year more than 70% of US schools were on track to be graded as failing to meet AYP. Since 100% proficiency was impossible, 100% failure to meet AYP was a looming certainty. Right around 2011, the acronym AYP mysteriously and completely lost its currency in US edspeak. The Obama administration discreetly shifted the goal to “continuous growth” and none of the people or ideas responsible for all the school closings were subject to scrutiny or otherwise held accountable.

Recently, we have seen the slow, countervailing rise of organizations that are dedicated, not only to talking about the social and emotional lives of children, but committed to pursuing understanding and improvement in this domain of schooling. Finally, credible educators and policymakers are championing the development of direct assessments of social/emotional health and growth, and studying practices that promise to reverse concerning trends.

Count me in. This is a conversation I want to be part of.

But for me it should go without saying: to give ourselves a rich universe of reform possibilities, and because we aren’t sure exactly what it is we’re getting wrong, we have to be willing to critically reconsider everything we think we know about education.


I couldn’t resist marking up the screen shot from CASEL‘s Second Annual SEL Assessment Design Challenge .

The Design Challenge submission criteria make me wonder about the real objectives of the exercise. To entertain only reform designs that can “feasibly and easily be used by entire districts with minimal intrusion on instructional time” is professing openness to any method of putting the soul back into schools while preserving the hegemony of the soul-crushing machinery of schooling.

The designs that will be rewarded by CASEL in this project are the most demonstrably promising interventions that can be implemented without disrupting the pressure cooker school climate norms that evolved under NCLB.

Unfortunately, the real design challenge will remain unanswered:

What could assessment look like if we assume that academic content knowledge is only one of numerous domains of growth that we might wish to foster in our kids?

We can try to compensate for the damage we’ve done by pushing all our children through a narrow funnel, but we won’t serve social and emotional growth until we have the courage to dismantle the system that, through its relentless and intensifying demands for measurable content acquisition gains, is universally stultifying our children’s integrated and self-regulated development.

The folks at CASEL are far too smart to be protecting this system inadvertently. No doubt, their work is likely to be lauded for in their words, “disruption.”  Unfortunately, any meaningful advances in education will require precisely that: the disabling and dismantling of the systems that are bringing us down.

“The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”  Alfred North Whitehead




* NCLB – No Child Left Behind: The 2000, George W. Bush-era law mandating, for the first time in US history, that all schools receiving federal funding administer annual tests, on which, by the year 2014, 100% of their students would demonstrate proficiency. States that didn’t create enforcement teeth for the law would lose federal education funding.)

* AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress: The NCLB-defined policy that required schools to demonstrate each year that their students’ test scores were, statistically speaking, on a  path toward 100% proficiency in 2014. Schools that failed to meet AYP targets were given F’s on “school report cards.” Schools that failed three years in a row were shuttered or underwent mandatory, supervised restructuring.


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