Investment to Expand Student Success Network’s SEL Research

Student Success Network (SSN) and the Research Alliance for NYC Schools received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support and expand our social-emotional learning (SEL) research.

For the past five years, SSN members have measured students’ SEL at the beginning and end of the academic year using the SSN SEL Survey. Practitioners and leaders use fall survey results to identify students’ strengths they can build on and competencies to target for improvement; they use end-of-year survey results to see how students develop during the academic year. 

Two research questions posited by SSN practitioners have guided this work: 

  1. Does growth in specific SEL competencies contribute to growth in academic outcomes, and 
  2. Do specific practices lead to exceptional growth in specific SEL competencies? 

Practitioners and evaluators in the Data Advisory Working Group (DAWG) prioritize existing research questions and suggest new ones.

The Research Alliance has been partnering with SSN to answer these questions.

With funding from the Gates Foundation, SSN and the Research Alliance will investigate the first question in greater depth than we have done in the past. We will also examine the relationship between SEL growth and school climate. This grant builds on the powerful data set created in partnership with practitioners and youth linking SSN’s SEL data with NYC Department of Education administrative data. It also builds on SSN’s commitment to advance racial equity by presenting findings in the context of systemic racism as a root cause of inequities instead of in a race-neutral way, which invites hypotheses that blame students and their families for disparities.

Connecting Growth in SEL with Academic Outcomes and School Climate

Question 1: Does growth in specific SEL competencies contribute to growth in academic outcomes?

Research shows correlations between SEL and academic outcomes. But to truly understand the impact of increasing students’ SEL, correlations from one point in time are not enough. Correlations from one point in time indicate that SEL and academic outcomes are related, but these relationships could be spurious and due to other student characteristics, such as prior achievement levels.

Because we measure SEL twice during the school year and have multiple years of academic data, we can conduct more rigorous analyses. We plan to analyze the relationship between growth in SEL and growth in academic outcomes, which will provide stronger evidence on the relationship between SEL and academic achievement. Our academic outcomes include students’ attendance, 8th grade students’ math and ELA test scores and high school students’ course passing/failings, test scores and GPA. 

Because of our large sample size (about 5,810 pre-post matched surveys), we will also test if the relationship differs depending on student background characteristics, including age, gender, special education status, and socio-economic status.

Question 2: Does school climate influence growth in specific SEL competencies and subsequently growth in academic outcomes?

Theoretically, school climate and SEL are mutually reinforcing and can lead to greater student success. School climate provides the conditions for students to improve their SEL and students and adults with strong SEL to create a more positive school climate. Together, school climate and SEL could have a greater impact on student academic outcomes than either on their own. 

Though some research shows that increases in school climate improve student academic outcomes, there is little evidence based on empirical data that measures how SEL and school climate relate to one another and to student academic outcomes.

By linking the SSN SEL survey data to the NYC School Survey data, we will be able to explore the relationships between students’ SEL, students’ perspectives on school climate, and their academic outcomes. The student SEL and academic outcomes are identical to those listed for the first exploration. School climate measures include school safety, student-teacher trust, peer relationships, and bullying. We will also conduct subgroup analyses based on students’ background characteristics.

Contributing to the Field

This work is critical for SEL investment. 

Educators and funders should know, in as rigorous and specific a way as possible, how SEL and school climate affect one another and academic achievement. In the best of worlds, our findings will inspire holistic interventions that incorporate elements of school climate and SEL improvement as well as encourage partnerships between schools and community-based organizations. 

Stay tuned for more information about what we are learning and opportunities to join the conversation.

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Alexandra Lotero

Alexandra is passionate about the power of putting actionable data in the hands of practitioners and youth. Her mission is to support practitioners, researchers, and youth in creating data-informed, relationship-driven cultures that continuously improve student experiences that put all youth on a path to success. She is the proud daughter of Latin American immigrants, a City Year New York AmeriCorps alum, and the former Operations and Program Director for the 115-member NYC Civic Corps and 10-member NYC VISTA AmeriCorps programs at the NYC Mayor’s Office.

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