The image above is a screen capture from the Assessment Work Group page of the CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) website. It’s the list of criteria for participation in the 2nd round of an Assessment Design Challenge that could, one imagines, yield a rich, primal stew of innovative perspectives, ingredients, tools, and methods of engagement and assessment from which a whole new vision of school could evolve.

Unfortunately, the submission criteria betray a foundational commitment to the currently malfunctioning education delivery paradigm.

The Grim Reaper of NCLB

For a decade, NCLB* forced the entire education community to behave as though 100% student academic proficiency were a reasonable idea and achievable. More than that, we were expected to embrace it as an objective worthy of universal dedication and sacrifice.

AYP** enforcement cannibalized thousands of publicly-funded learning communities that failed to demonstrate linear progress toward the patently unreachable goal of 100% student proficiency (whether by 2014 or by 3014 is immaterial). Schools across the country crumbled beneath the shame and blame of failing to keep pace with a hypothetical statistical objective that had been self-evidently unattainable from the outset. U.S. educators have practiced their craft for the last 20 years depleted by successions of fear-based compliance measures and mandates for strict accountability to impossible standards.

But how many of us noticed that our educational productivity target (100% student proficiency by 2014) … the target that had served as the sole rationale for shutting down thousands of schools and chartering replacements … How many of us noticed 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 is not achievable, widespread failure to meet that goal by 2014 was a runaway train on track to take out all our schools and school systems. After a decade as the inescapable Grim Reaper of education acronyms, AYP mysteriously and completely lost its currency in US edspeak, almost overnight. The Obama administration discreetly shifted the goal of education to “continuous growth,” pointing to promising research. None of the people or entities responsible for all the school closings were in any way held accountable to the public or to the learning communities (as always, the most vulnerable went first) that were robbed of their continuity, dignity, and purpose.

The new field of SEL, ostensibly driven by research

Rooted in Deci and Ryan’s turn-of-the-century Self Determination Theory, 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 to pursuing understanding and meaningful improvement in this domain of schooling. Educators and families alike are recognizing that there’s something unhealthy about the system. Finally, credible educators and policymakers are championing the development of direct assessments of social and emotional health and growth, and studying practices that promise to reverse the most concerning trends.

Count me in. This is a conversation I want to be part of. I have some ideas to add to the pot.

Of course, 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’ve been getting wrong, everything we think we know about education has to be subject to being reimagined and iteratively redesigned. Isn’t that how innovation works?


I couldn’t resist marking up the screen shot with a highlighter.

According to the Assessment Design Challenge submission criteria, the judges will entertain only reform designs that can “feasibly and easily be used by entire districts with minimal intrusion on instructional time.” This made me laugh out loud. I don’t think it’s cynical to say that this is professing openness to any conceivable method of putting the soul back into schools without disturbing the soul-sapping 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 scientific management/hyper-productivity of school climate norms that evolved in the miserable decade when NCLB held sway. In that case, the real educational design challenge will remain unanswered:

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

We can try to compensate for the damage we did, pushing all our children through a narrow funnel, but we won’t serve their social and emotional growth until we have the courage to countenance the dismantling of a culture and school system that, through its relentless and intensifying demands for measurable and prescribed content acquisition and productivity gains, is universally stultifying the development of our children’s integrated and self-regulated competence and agency in the world.

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

Alfred North Whitehead

Reform without disruption? That’s not even a thing.


* 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s