Researchers have amassed considerable evidence on the use of student performance data (e.g., benchmark and standardized state tests) to inform educational improvement, but few have examined the use of nonacademic indicators (e.g., indicators of social and emotional well-being) available to educators, and whether the factors shaping academic data use remain true for these newer types of data. While the field continues to advocate for greater attention to the social–emotional development of students, there remains little guidance on conditions supporting the use of data on these important mindsets, dispositions, beliefs, and behaviors.
Purpose/Focus of the Study
In this article, we use sensemaking theory, prior research on academic data use, and research from a study of “early adopter” California districts to develop a framework for understanding conditions likely to shape educators’ use of social–emotional learning (SEL) indicators to inform practice.
We develop our findings and framework by drawing on prior research and theory, as well as data from a multiyear research–practice partnership with a consortium of California districts that began measuring SEL as part of the No Child Left Behind waiver they received from the U.S. Department of Education. We draw on more than 125 interviews with consortium leaders, central office administrators, leaders, teachers, and staff in 25 schools and six districts to understand how they made sense of SEL and SEL survey data, as well as the practices employed to support SEL.
We find that five categories of conditions appear to shape how educators interpret and respond to SEL indicators: policy context, organizational conditions, interpersonal relationships and interactions, data user characteristics, and data properties. Much like academic data use, we find: (1) the accountability policy context can convey a sense of importance, but may also lead to distortive responses; (2) district and school leaders are critical for allocating time and staff, and cultivating a data culture; (3) collaboration facilitates sensemaking; (4) individual-level knowledge and beliefs can shape interpretation; and (5) timeliness and perceived relevance of data matter. Some of these conditions, however, are uniquely relevant to the use of SEL data, which brings greater ambiguity, uncertainty, and a decoupling from the traditional academic role of educators. We find that including SEL indicators in multiple measure systems can lead to uncertainty and interpretive complexity, and divide educators’ attention. Deficit conceptions may also shape sensemaking and are especially germane in the SEL context given documented gaps by race/ethnicity on measures of SEL. Another condition especially relevant to SEL indicator usage is the lack of coherence or clarity around SEL. The frequent misunderstandings of and disagreement about SEL—sometimes shaped by disciplinary background—could lead to different interpretations and responses. All of these conditions suggest that sensemaking and response to SEL data indicators are complex processes that require multiple enabling factors.
Conclusions and Implications
Given the significant investments in supporting and measuring student social-emotional development, it behooves policymakers, education leaders and practitioners to better understand the conditions facilitating and inhibiting productive use of SEL indicators. The framework provided herein presents a set of concepts and conditions that may be useful in supporting this process. The findings also raise a cautionary flag that while sometimes consistent with the process of using academic data, the use of SEL indicators may present added challenges worthy of attention. We conclude with implications for policy, practice, and research. Notably, education leaders and practitioners may want to invest in building common understanding of SEL and capacity to interpret and act on these indicators, and consider how equity orientations shape understanding and usage of SEL indicators. Policymakers may want to consider more formative uses of SEL data that are provided to educators earlier in the year, and attend to the human capital needs that accompany SEL data usage. Finally, researchers might build on this work by further examining the relationship between SEL and culture/climate and the ways in which educators respond to data on both, and also investigate the outcomes of SEL data usage, such as actions that lead to meaningful improvements in SEL.