By Guest Blogger, Corey Newhouse, Public Profit
There’s a burgeoning interest in how out-of-school time programs can help kids develop the skills and mindsets commonly referred to as “social-emotional skills,” “non-cognitive skills,” or “character strengths” (I’ll call them non-cognitive skills in this post). Popular books like Grit and How Children Succeed have brought much-needed attention to the role that these non-cognitive skills – like persistence, growth mindset, and collaboration – play in our long-term success in school and work. Luckily, out-of-school time programs are terrific places for kids to build these skills, thanks to their more flexible structures and schedules.
There’s a lively debate about how we should measure these skills and mindsets. On one side of the debate are those who argue that the existing measures just aren’t precise enough, that more research is needed to refine them before they are used on a large scale. On the other side are those who want to get information about kids’ skills and mindsets into more people’s hands sooner than later, that way our schools and out-of-school time programs can get to work in helping kids.
Both sides are missing the point entirely.
Instead of measuring the kids, we should be measuring their learning environments. We already know a lot about the kinds of experiences that kids need in order to build strong non-cognitive skills. Decades of research shows that the best learning environments are those where kids are physically and emotionally safe, have positive relationships with peers and adults, feel like they belong, have lots of engaging and challenging learning experiences, get useful feedback on their performance, and get explicit coaching on the skills and knowledge they need.
When we focus our measurement on the learning environment, we’re doing three things right:
- • First, we’re assessing adult practice, rather than youth’s assets and needs. If we’re going to hold anyone accountable for their performance, it should be the adults, not the kids they serve.
- • Second, assessing program practice allows us to make targeted improvements, rather than trying to figure out what went wrong by working backwards from disappointing outcome results.
- • Third, focusing our assessment efforts on the learning environment keeps our data collection efforts focused where we have the most control – on the settings where we interact with kids directly.
If we continue to measure out-of-school time programs the way we have, we’re running the risk of making the same mistakes we’ve made in the past when it comes to assessing non-cognitive skills. Let’s stop blaming kids for the things the adults didn’t do, and instead focus our assessment lens where it belongs.
If you want to learn more about why learning environments matter, check out Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and Foundations for Young Adult Success from the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research.
Corey Newhouse is the Founder and Principal of Public Profit. Corey is responsible for the overall design of all of Public Profit’s evaluation studies, including developing logic models or theories of change, data collection tools, and analysis and reporting plans. Ms. Newhouse has a wide range of experience in evaluating programs that serve children and families, including multi-site evaluations of educational and youth development programs.