At Washoe County School District (NV), we began systemic social-emotional learning (SEL) implementation in 2012.
Since then, we've been fortunate enough to see graduation rates increase by 20 points. We've also conducted research indicating that students with higher social-emotional competencies tend to have higher scores on Smarter Balanced ELA and Math assessments, higher GPAs, and lower chronic absenteeism—which aligns with national research on the positive link between SEL and academic outcomes.
From the start of the implementation process until now, SEL data has been a critical part of our journey. In partnership with CASEL and Panorama, we measure students' SEL competencies (such as Relationship Skills and Self Awareness), and run a staff climate measures with questions like, "Is SEL a priority at your school?" We continuously share out the data with students and staff to build buy-in, guide decision-making, and improve our SEL programs and curriculum.
In this article, I'm going to share the ways we use SEL and school climate data to understand and address the holistic needs of our community, especially as it relates to equity.
Our Guiding Philosophies on SEL Data
At Washoe, we believe that our SEL assessments are more than just an annual survey. We intentionally engage in conversation with staff, students, and community members to debrief what we learn from the data and produce action to improve SEL.
- We've developed several data dashboards to drive the conversation process. (See our website, WCSDData.net, for our publicly accessible SEL data.)
- We rely on Panorama's dashboards to explore and analyze the data (e.g.,using the heat maps in Panorama to break out our SEL competency results by population group).
- At the district level, we work with our School Improvement Office to help schools write SEL goals and set targets for improvement.
How We Think About SEL and Equity Together
Understanding our SEL data through an equity lens has always been a big focus for us. Our SEL assessment data can tell us a lot about our overarching systems and practices as a district. The data may hint at whether our SEL standards and practices are inclusive of cultural differences in SEL development. It's a great jumping off point for having deeper conversations about those issues.
For example, if our students of color are constantly being sent to the office for disciplinary issues and their white counterparts are not, we need to ask ourselves, "What is our system telling students about their abilities to manage emotions or form relationships—and how might that show up in how they're rating their social and emotional competencies?"
A Snapshot of Our SEL Data
Last year, our research practitioner team published a paper on how students rate their SEL competencies. We discovered gender, age, and race differences in how students respond to the questions, most notably in the emotion-related competencies. In Figure A, you can see that males rate their Self-Management higher than females as they get older.
This becomes even more striking when we examine specific questions within that competency. When we ask the question (see Figure B), "How easy or difficult is it for you to stay calm when you're stressed?" by 11th grade, there is a 13 point gap in the percentage of males and females who say it's easy for them to stay calm when they're stressed.
When you layer on race, the difference becomes more substantial. Only one-third of our white females feel calm when stressed, but two-thirds of Hispanic males are reporting the same in high school.
We've had many theories about why these patterns exist. But we always believe that when we share this data back with our students, they're going to provide the best insight into why it's happening. In the next section, I'll share a few ways we do that.
How We Share SEL Data With Students and Staff
1. Annual Data Summits
During our annual Data Summits, we bring together staff, students, community members, teachers, and board of trustee members to have conversations on data. These events always include a session on climate survey data. Last year, for example, we ran a session on staff vs. student perceptions of climate at school; we learned that students feel less safe and cared for when our staff are stressed. Having students at the same table as staff creates much richer conversations and helps us think about creative ideas to improve the data.
2. Student Voice Conferences
At our Student Voice Conferences, students have the opportunity to create sessions in partnership with our staff, and present the climate and SEL data to other students for feedback and ideas.
For example, at last year's Student Voice Conference, we paired middle and high school students with graduate research assistants and SEL specialists. Together, they developed a fun, interactive session on our emotion-related data called "SLIME" (So Like, I'm Majorly Emotional) using movie characters, messy technichrome slime, emojis, and other activities to help 150 other students have powerful conversations about gender expectations and how those expectations affect how students acknowledge, understand, and express emotions. Many of our students also talked about the cultural differences in emotion expression in their families. We learned a ton from listening to the students, and the students felt empowered providing feedback about the survey data.
3. School Data Books
Every year, each school receives a "Data Book" that contains hundreds of pages of data points—including, but not limited to, assessment scores, behavior data, and chronic absenteeism data. We always make sure to include climate and SEL survey data with those academic data points because we want our teachers and staff to have conversations about how all of these data points relate to and impact each other.
4. Our Public WCSDData.net Website
On our website, anyone can access the presentations from our Data Summits and Student Voice Conferences, as well as our district-wide student SEL competency results.
Our SEL department uses the information on this website to collaborate with educators on lesson plans that target the competencies students say they need the most support on. For example, our students tell us every year that joining new lunchroom groups or sharing feelings with others are difficult competencies. Educators can reflect on that data and come up with strategies to help students navigate those competencies.
Next Steps: Moving Towards a Culturally-Responsive SEL Curriculum
Currently, we're working on a long-term project to make our SEL curriculum more culturally responsive and linguistically sensitive.
Below is a Panorama heat map that shows our climate and SEL data broken down by English Language Learner (ELL) students versus Non-ELL students. You can see that, while ELL students report higher perceptions of school climate (the green boxes), they're also reporting lower social-emotional competencies (orange boxes) than Non-ELL students.
With this data in hand, we've been gathering direct feedback on our curriculum from students, particularly our English learners. We had our teachers with the highest populations of English learners each teach a lesson from our SEL curriculum. Then we held focus groups with students, asking questions like: "How did that lesson land? Did you think it was relevant to your life? What do your parents think about you learning SEL at school? What suggestions do you have for improving that lesson?"
From there, we rewrote a lot of the lessons to make them more approachable and impactful for our English learners. For example, we surfaced language barriers that needed addressing; many SEL videos didn't have closed captioning. We also learned about culture barriers. Some lessons talked about ski trips or theme parks, or other experiences that our students couldn't relate to.
We also learned that we need to better support SEL at home. A majority our students thought SEL was valuable to learn, but their families didn't think that SEL was important as learning math or English. This goes to show that even though we're using an evidence-based curriculum, it's incredibly important to study it locally—and especially from the student perspective.
Laura Davidson is the director of research and evaluation at Washoe County School District in Nevada. This article is based on a presentation co-sponsored by the Nevada Department of Education in October 2020. You can watch the full presentation here.