The education establishment is enamored of “social and emotional learning programs” that, in the words of a recent edition of Edweek, “focus on teaching students how to manage emotions and their behaviors and interactions with others.” One example is Responsive Classroom, which focuses, in particular, on “teacher language and modeling expectations.”
So it’s no surprise that this very Edweek article enthusiastically reports on a study showing positive effects for Responsive Classrooms. Its opening paragraph:
Fifth graders in schools where teachers faithfully used the Responsive Classroom teaching approach performed better on statewide assessments of mathematics and reading skills than their peers at schools that did not use the social-emotional-learning program’s strategies as much, according to new research presented at a national conference here [in Washington] last week.Particularly grateful for these results were several prominent education leaders who had been hungry for data to confirm their beliefs: “When there’s top-notch research like [Ms. Rimm-Kaufman’s] showing positive effects academically for social- and emotional-learning programs, it’s a great contribution,” said Paul Goren, the vice president for research and knowledge use at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, in Chicago.
(Presumably a top-notch study showing neutral or negative effects wouldn’t have been such a great contribution).
The article continues:
The findings were also welcomed by Gretchen L. Bukowick, the director of professional-service delivery for the Northeast Foundation for Children, the Turners Falls, Mass.-based organization that developed the Responsive Classroom approach. “This helps us put some evidence behind what we believe,” she said. “Academic, social, and emotional learning all go hand in hand.” It’s a remarkable reversal of the scientific method, and of what constitutes scientific progress.The study itself, to its credit, appears to have been well designed. Schools were randomly assigned to a Responsive Classroom treatment group or to a control group. However, it’s not at all clear that the results mean that more schools should implement Responsive Classroom.
For one thing, as the researchers themselves acknowledge, Response Classroom may be tapping what good teachers already do anyway:
The researchers also used surveys and observations to determine the degree to which Responsive Classroom practices were used in every elementary school in the district [even those in the control group], as the approach involves practices that may also be used by teachers who were not teaching in the Responsive Classroom schools.The results of the study, indeed, showed that:
Schools in which teachers adhered more closely to the approach [independently of whether they were in the intervention group or the control group] had significantly higher math scores, especially for students who had had low math scores in 2nd grade.
Even within the group of schools that was not assigned to use Responsive Classroom, more-frequent use of the approach’s strategies was correlated with higher math achievement [a 23-point gain on state standardized tests.]And, on the other hand:
Students in schools that were assigned to implement the program but did not do so with strong fidelity actually saw a small negative effect on their scores. In connection with this, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, one of the study’s authors, notes that: The dropoff in scores could also be tied to “something about schools and teachers that is both predicting use of practices and predicting achievement gains.” A school with a principal who was adept at helping teachers prioritize, for instance, might be more likely to implement Responsive Classroom with fidelity and also have higher test scores.But this means that a rise in scores in those schools that use Responsive Classroom techniques might also be due to “something about the schools and teachers” rather than something about Responsive Classroom.
Finally, it would appear to be the more academic aspects of Responsive Classroom, not its social and emotional elements, that had the biggest effects:
Preliminary findings show that the program’s focus on academic choice, which involves allowing students to choose among different activities to accomplish the same learning goals, may be particularly effective.None of this, of course, has any effect on Edweek’s conclusion--a conclusion which has been foregone among education theorists for at least a century:
The findings are part of a growing body of research showing that social-emotional learning can positively influence academic, as well as behavioral, results.