Soft-Skills are Becoming a Stronger Component in School Accountability

There is room for innovation in the classroom with the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), with opportunities for states to choose “non-academic accountability measures” as a priority. Moving away from No Child Left Behind, the states have more leeway to decide how to design their budget to achieve their own goals, addressing their needs outside of traditional academic achievement.

Many schools are now looking to make “soft-skills” a stronger component in their curriculum, including social emotional learning (SEL). Often found under the umbrella of 21st century skills, these skills not only encompass intangible qualities like empathy and compassion, but also include problem solving abilities, teamwork, systems thinking, and the use of technology to solve problems creatively. The need for these skills has been evidenced through a growing body of research, as well as surveys and state policy plans.

This should get the attention of curriculum developers, educational technology designers, and education business decision makers, as these changes and initiatives will affect the products you sell to schools and districts now and in the future.  The goal should be to investigate your target districts’ needs in terms of what skills they hope to measure in the classroom, and what tools they require to do so.

When performing a needs assessment, here are some important considerations in how to measure soft skills in the classroom.

According to the Brookings Institute:

Attention to soft skills among education reformers is presently skewed towards attempts to enhance and measure broad student dispositions that are abstract, context-free, not directly observable, assessed through self-report questionnaires, and dominated by genetic influences. A much more productive approach would emphasize soft skills that are specific, contextual, socially observable, easily malleable within the environment of classrooms and schools, and widely accepted as a responsibility of schools to support.

How do you measure behavior or thoughts that are not observable? How do you re-create the context for responding with empathy, or consideration for multiple points of view? While these skills are important, they are relatively abstract, and difficult to measure from an accountability perspective. Some other skills may be more straightforward to measure, including:

  • Time-management – it can be relatively simple to measure whether a student completes a task on time.
  • How a student interacts with other students as observed by teachers and other adults.
  • Executive functions or self-regulation – the student’s ability to take control over seemingly automatic reactions by planning, focusing, re-orienting their thinking, and using other mental strategies. The absence of these skills is a good tactic for measuring their presence – for example, when a student blurts out responses, this suggests a lack of thoughtfulness.
  • Remember to keep the individual and the characteristics observed or measured in mind, instead of turning the results of any research or assessment into more nameless/faceless data.

Some Examples of Soft Skill Measurement in Schools:

Metro Schools of Design in Corpus Christi, Texas, aims for all teachers to measure student achievement in both their academic content areas, and in five “core 21st century skills,” including collaboration, creativity, communication, professional ethics, and critical thinking.

New York City Public Schools have published “priority benchmark skills” in the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum, that links the skills required for library research with specific soft skills, including the essential steps of inquiry: connect, wonder, investigate, construct, express, and reflect.

In recent years, the KIPP Charter School Network has created report cards that measure student growth in seven character strengths that correlated with student outcomes, including “zest, grit, self‐control, hope/optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence.”  KIPP leaders note that the character card is not intended to simply quantify student character, but serve as a helpful talking point for teachers, parents, and students.

Jeremy Taylor, Director of Assessment and Continuous Improvement at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) aims to improve the reliability of Social Emotional Learning measures. His focus is less on measuring abstract skills with self-reported answers to open ended questions, but more on tasks that depend on skill demonstration. There is a big difference between watching a student conduct a science experiment, and explaining how they would do it. By directly observing behavior that answers questions about abstract skills, issues like language barriers become easier, as well as children’s self-reporting challenges, and potential teacher biases.