Some Social and Emotional Learning Programs Can Be Funded Via ESSA, Report Says

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Funding opportunities for social and emotional learning are available through the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — but how exactly?

After-school providers would like to know more.

“There’s still a learning curve around ESSA,” said Kari Denissen Cunnien, executive director of Minnesota’s afterschool network, Ignite Afterschool.

Katie Landes, director of Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network, said: “There are still questions floating around about what it will look like and how it will work.”
After-school providers in states like Montana feel a strong need for social and emotional education.

Laurie Bishop

“We don’t have a lot of large [corporate or philanthropic] funders based in Montana,” said Laurie Bishop, director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance.

Montana is in the bottom five states when ranked on private-sector funding for youth, she said. But it’s one of the top three states for suicide for all ages.

“It’s a challenging landscape,” Bishop said.

To gain clarity about funding under ESSA, The Wallace Foundation commissioned a Rand Corporation report on funding possibilities for social and emotional learning and on existing programs that meet ESSA requirements. The report, “Social and Emotional Learning Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review,” came out in early December.

Funding streams

Laura Hamilton

“Even though the ESSA legislation doesn’t specifically use the phrase social and emotional learning, it does provide a variety of ways you can use funding to support that kind of programming,” said Laura Hamilton, associate director of RAND Education and an author of the report.

ESSA makes three funding streams available under various sections of the law:

  • Title I provides formula grants to states to aid disadvantaged students in (1) schoolwide assistance programs, (2) targeted assistance programs, and (3) school support and improvement activities.
  • Title II provides funds for professional development of educators. “If you’re thinking about programs to help your staff become more effective at teaching SEL curricula or assessing students’ SEL competencies, then Title II funding is an appropriate funding stream to be thinking about,” Hamilton said.
  • Title IV authorizes 21st Century funding and is the most likely source for after-school providers, according to the report. Congress has not yet appropriated funds, however.

“It’s going to be important to keep an eye on how this rolls out over time,” Hamilton said. “There’s always the potential for changes in how these funds are allocated.”

Programs that meet ESSA evidence standards

ESSA puts an emphasis on flexibility to meet local needs, but it requires programs to be based on evidence.

Sixty existing social and emotional learning programs meet ESSA evidence requirements, according to the report. The authors reviewed research on programs and classified them based on ESSA’s three levels of evidence: Strong (Tier 1), promising (Tier 2) and moderate (Tier 3)

The most common positive outcome shown in research on SEL programs is improvement in interpersonal skills.

Some programs, such as Playworks and Skills for Growing, have an evidence base gathered in after-school settings. The report flags others, such as Peacemakers and Steps to Respect, as having applications outside the classroom, such as in an after-school setting.

“A lot of the programs we reviewed could be implemented during the school day or in an after-school program,” Hamilton said.

The list of 60 included both branded and unbranded programs. Some provide professional development and implementation support, the report said. Some have websites.

No evidence?

To meet local needs, the law also allows for a fourth tier of programs that lack a base of evidence as long as:

  1. research exists to support the type of intervention and
  2. evidence is gathered as the program is implemented.

“Even though there’s no published literature base, you should be able to document that the intervention is currently being evaluated and there’s an effort to try to gather that evidence,”  Hamilton said.

“There aren’t really specific requirements for what that evaluation needs to look like so it’s certainly something that school districts could undertake,” she said.

Partnering with a research organization is a good approach, she said. An evaluation can be designed to meet local needs but also be done to eventually meet evidence requirements, she said.

“Different schools or programs might have different goals for what they want their students to accomplish,” she said. “You might have a large population of English language learners. You might need programming that’s been tested with that population. You might be In a school or district in which there are a lot of students who have experienced trauma, and you might be thinking about interventions that have more of a trauma focus.”

Beyond existing programs

Although the report focused on existing SEL curricula, secondary schools in particular often address social and emotional learning in other ways. It may be integrated with academics or schools may focus on improving school climate.

These activities are also supported under ESSA, Hamilton said.

“The programs that we review are not by any stretch of the imagination the only ways that schools and after-school programs should be thinking about improving SEL. It’s one subset  of the approaches you can take,” she said.

The report makes several recommendations:

  • Do a needs assessment and consider social and emotional skills in the assessment.
  • Address local conditions.
  • Don’t ignore programs that have not yet developed an evidence base if such a program meets local needs.
  • Support educators in learning how to gather and use evidence of effectiveness.
  • Think about an integrated approach to social and emotional education. It can be incorporated into academic instruction, school climate initiatives and discipline programs as well as be taught separately.
  • Improve the way social and emotional competence is measured.

The report noted that elementary schools and urban schools have the most options of SEL programs that meet ESSA requirements.


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