The Next Step for Social-Emotional Learning in Massachusetts

The Rennie Center Helps Launch Network of School Districts Focused on Addressing SEL
By Catherine Rauseo

Twenty-first century skills. Educating the whole child. Social-Emotional Learning. These phrases have become a staple in conversations about the future of education. By now we’ve all seen the research: academic learning alone is not enough to prepare students for life after graduation. The next generation of our workforce, citizens, and leaders needs to learn interpersonal skills like persistence, empathy, and healthy decision-making.

Over the past two years, we’ve seen momentum build around this need in Massachusetts. School districts eager to reduce achievement gaps, increase college and career readiness, and help students cope with anxiety, substance abuse, and bullying are looking for ways to make social-emotional learning (SEL) part of every classroom and every lesson. State policy is beginning to catch up to that need, with support for SEL included as a key strategy in the Commonwealth’s ESSA plan.

Our research reports—Social and Emotional Learning: Opportunities for Massachusetts, Lessons for the Nation and Toward a More Comprehensive Vision of Student Learning—include policy recommendations to help districts advance SEL. But what’s next on the path toward widespread implementation of SEL practices? With our newest initiative, we want to take our work a step further and put our research into action.

We’re teaming up with Excellence through Social Emotional Learning (exSEL)—whose members include the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, and Massachusetts School Administrators Association—and working alongside Transforming Education and Teachers 21 to help make SEL part of the fabric of education in the Commonwealth.

Together, we are launching the exSEL Network, a group of nine school districts committed to expanding SEL in their schools. Along with our partner organizations, we will provide expertise, support, training, professional development, and facilitation to help each district develop a unique plan to address the needs of their students. The districts will benefit from one another’s experiences, coming together as a network to share successful practices and work together toward common goals.

The sheer number of districts that applied to be part of this network shows the importance educators are placing on SEL. Thirty-six districts submitted applications as part of a competitive process that highlighted the needs of each district and their goals for SEL. A common thread through the applications was a deep commitment to meeting the needs of all students and addressing achievement gaps.

We chose a group of nine to represent a cross section of districts in Massachusetts. Together, these districts—Brockton, Canton, Fitchburg, Mendon-Upton, Millbury, Milton, Monomoy (Chatham and Harwich), Tri-Town (Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield), and Whitman-Hanson—serve more than 40,000 students.

We hope the impact of this network will stretch beyond these nine districts. We plan to evaluate the effectiveness of new practices put in place through this project, work together to establish new ways to measure and understand student learning, and share lessons learned with districts across the state. This work will strengthen statewide policy around SEL from the bottom-up.

We’re thrilled to see the progress made on SEL since we released our first report on the subject nearly two years ago. This crucial next step in education reform is beginning to take hold, and we are excited to work directly with districts on practices that will have a lasting impact on schools and their students.