Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Headlines, opening paragraphs, and confirmation bias

What lesson will most educators draw about schools and social skills after looking through last week's Education Week?

If they simply scan the headlines, they will see an article entitled "Study Finds Social-Skills Teaching Boosts Academics."

If they read the first two paragraphs of this article they will find what might look like solid evidence:
From role-playing games for students to parent seminars, teaching social and emotional learning requires a lot of moving parts, but when all the pieces come together such instruction can rival the effectiveness of purely academic interventions to boost student achievement, according to the largest analysis of such programs to date.

In the report, published Feb. 4 in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development, researchers led by Joseph A. Durlak, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Chicago, found that students who took part in social and emotional learning, or SEL, programs improved in grades and standardized-test scores by 11 percentile points compared with nonparticipating students. That difference, the authors say, was significant—equivalent to moving a student in the middle of the class academically to the top 40 percent of students during the course of the intervention. Such improvement fell within the range of effectiveness for recent analyses of interventions focused on academics.
Only if they read as far as the ninth paragraph will they encounter the idea that academic gains may result simply from better behaved students being easier to teach, and not from some broader, fuzzier connection between social skills and academic achievement:
Corinne Gregory, the president and founder of the Seattle-based schoolwide SEL program SocialSmarts, suggested the improvement ...[occurred] in part because educators could teach more efficiently with calmer, more cooperative students.
And only if they reach the twelfth paragraph will they learn that:
One finding ran counter to both the researchers’ expectations and prior research: Simple teacher-led programs vastly outperformed multifaceted programs involving schoolwide activities and parent involvement. While classroom-based programs showed significant improvements across all five social measures and academics, comprehensive [school and home based] programs showed no significant effect on students’ social-emotional skills or positive social behavior, and were less effective at improving academic performance.
Any guesses as to whether this article will result in fewer cooperative-group -centered classrooms and comprehensive social skills programs--including in schools in which student behavior is not a major distraction from academics--or even more?

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