Chad d'Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center. Photo: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy
Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center. Photo: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy


“Cognitive and non-cognitive skills are inextricably linked,” Harvard’s Nonie Lesaux said during a panel discussion at the Condition of Education event hosted by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.

There’s a growing consensus in education that children can’t develop strong cognitive skills without non-cognitive “soft skills” such as focus, persistence, and getting along with others. Indeed, the two categories of skills may be more linked than we realize.


Last week, the Rennie Center released the findings of its 2016 “Condition of Education in the Commonwealth” report at an event in Boston’s Omni Parker House Hotel. This year’s report focused on social-emotional learning, a hot topic among educators, parents, and researchers. The topic was so hot that #COE2016 was trending on Twitter during the event.

Covering education trends from birth to college and beyond, Rennie’s work includes a focus on high-quality early education.

As Rennie explains on its website, “The Condition of Education provides a ‘state of the state’ on key education trends, bringing together a wide-ranging set of indicators to illuminate areas of success and areas for continued improvement across the education pipeline.”

Ronald Ferguson.
Ronald Ferguson. Photo: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy

The event featured remarks from Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser and a video address from Senator Elizabeth Warren. The keynote address was delivered by Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard Kennedy School professor. And Jackie Jenkins-Scott, president of Wheelock College, moderated a panel discussion that featured:

• Nonie Lesaux, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and chair of the Board of Early Education and Care

• James Morton, vice chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and

• Chris Gabrieli, chair of the Board of Higher Education

Chris Gabrieli, James Morton, Nonie Lesaux, Jackie Jenkins-Scott. Photo: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy
Chris Gabrieli, James Morton, Nonie Lesaux, Jackie Jenkins-Scott. Photo: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy

Rennie also released three documents: a data guide, a resource guide, and an action guide.


Early Education Stats

In its data guide, Rennie notes that the critical factors for early learning “include ensuring access to high-quality early education and care, assessing school readiness, and providing full-day kindergarten to ensure all children are on track to be proficient readers by third grade.”

How is Massachusetts doing on these readiness goals? The results are mixed.

The good statistical news includes the fact that in 2015, 92 percent of kindergarteners are attending full-day kindergarten, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2014. In addition, 73 percent of students were assessed on the Massachusetts kindergarten entry assessment tool, an increase of an impressive 42 percent over 2014.

The mixed news comes in reading proficiency. In 2015, 60 percent of third graders scored in either the proficient or advanced levels on the English language arts MCAS exam. That’s a 3 percent improvement over 2014. But among “high needs” students taking the same test, only 38 percent scored in the proficient or advanced levels, showing no improvement over 2014.

Rennie’s resource guide defines “high needs” as “low-income, students with disabilities, English language learner/former English language learner.”


Taking Action: Social and Emotional Skills

Rennie’s action guide, “Toward a More Comprehensive Vision of Student Learning,” looks at how policymakers can improve education and points to the importance of social and emotional skill building.

“This year, as we looked at promising practices across the state and the patterns in the most current student outcomes, a clear theme emerged: Massachusetts can do much more—across age groups—to address social-emotional learning needs that are both a precursor to and inextricable element of student’s academic success,” the action guide says.

Noting that students of all backgrounds benefit from learning social-emotional skills — which can reduce aggression, anxiety and depression, and absenteeism — the reports adds, “Researchers have found an average return of $11 for every $1 invested in school-based social-emotional programming with proven outcomes for students.”

“These findings do not point toward a reduced focus on academics; rather, we see that when schools thoughtfully combine a rigorous academic program with social-emotional supports tailored to students’ developmental needs, they do a better job at helping students access rich academic content and set a foundation for long-term success.”

Rennie recommends four areas for action:

• establish a strong social-emotional foundation in early childhood

• build comprehensive K-12 systems of social-emotional support

• promote the skills needed for college and career success

• equip educators with the skills they need to foster social-emotional wellbeing

The specific recommendations on early education include:

• providing early educators with “comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and culturally sensitive screening and assessment tools to monitor the development of young children’s social-emotional skills”

• identifying and sharing “strong instructional practices.” The Department of Early Education and Care could “play a role by curating professional development offerings, implementation tools, and documented best practices through a centralized resource hub”

• supporting greater family collaboration because “Families and early educators alike need opportunities to learn how to foster children’s social-emotional learning,” and

• creating “more seamless, sustainable funding” that would replace the current patchwork of funding sources

 Pointing to one example of a community engaged in comprehensive action, the guide says:

The New Bedford Birth to Grade 3 Alignment Partnership is an unprecedented alliance of educators and community agencies with a stake in early childhood. Created with a seed grant from EEC, the partnership’s primary objective is to improve early education access, while creating a network of support for parents and educators.”

Among New Bedford’s promising practices are: a focus on literacy and social-emotional skills; shared professional development; family engagement; and shared data.

In addition, an interactive map highlights other “programs in Massachusetts’ districts, schools, and communities featured in the 2015 and 2016 Condition of Education Action Guides.”


Moving Forward

Perhaps the greatest contribution of this year’s research-focused Condition of Education event is that it advances the topic of social-emotional learning in Massachusetts’ ongoing, education policy conversation.

“We need a common language,” James Morton said during the panel discussion. Indeed, having a common vocabulary would help forge common goals and policy approaches. Based on the lively discussion at this event, we expect to hear much more about social-emotional learning in the years ahead.

As we enter budget season, we hope the governor and legislators will invest wisely in efforts to improve the condition of education in the commonwealth. Rennie’s work provides a useful blueprint – and an important reminder that a crucial first step is to provide children with a high-quality early education that prepares them for success in school and life.