The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

CHICAGO — For Kimberly Wilborn, a lesson about Nelson Mandela made it all click.

“Ms. Plante was talking about Nelson Mandela and how he forgave his jailers,” remembers the eighth grader, who is being raised by her aunt on Chicago’s South Side. “And I thought if he can forgive them, I can forgive my birth mom and my dad for not being there for me. I actually cried. It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Megan Plante isn’t Wilborn’s history teacher. She was using Mandela’s story to teach what is known around Perspectives Charter Schools by its acronym, ADL — A Disciplined Life. The class — part advisory, part ethics class — is meant to impart 26 principles, including generosity, peaceful conflict resolution and compassion.

A Disciplined Life isn’t an elective; it’s the reason Perspectives Charter was founded in the first place. Every student is required to take the class daily. In 1993, Diana Shulla-Cose and Kim Day, two Chicago Public School teachers, came up with the list of principles and started a “school within a school” at Dyett Middle School in Washington Park. Four years later they opened Perspectives, which now consists of five schools serving grades six through 12. The pair was convinced — years before buzzwords like “grit” and “growth mindset” became the rage in education reform circles that instilling a set of social and emotional skills and attitudes in their students would be the key to getting them to and through college.

“Middle class kids have been told their entire lives that what they have to say is valuable, maybe to the point of ridiculousness. That’s what our kids are up against. Our kids may have the content knowledge but they didn’t have the social and emotional skills, the intellectual confidence, they were going to need to succeed in college.”

For years, scores on standardized math and reading tests have dominated how schools and states measure student success. But Perspectives Charter has largely ignored test prep — and it shows. Only 8 percent of Perspectives’ students passed last year’s multistate Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, which were designed to test the new, tougher Common Core standards. To Shulla-Cose, another set of statistics is much more important: 99 percent of Perspectives students are accepted to college, 93 percent attend college and 44 percent graduate from college in six years, according to the schools’ internal data. And although Perspectives loses about a quarter of its students between freshman and senior year, a lower amount than the rest of the district, about 24 percent of students who enroll freshman year graduate from college within six years of leaving high school, a figure that’s 10 percentage points above the citywide average.

Ronald Brown, a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, says Perspective’s focus on social-emotional skills set him up to tackle the demands of the selective, mostly white and affluent liberal arts college.

“While the academic part was a struggle at first, Perspectives prepared me,” said Brown. “Be open-minded, try new things, challenge each other and yourself intellectually, time management, all of that came easy. And when I hit academic barriers, I persisted and kept moving forward. I think Perspectives helped me with that, too. I took advantage of tutoring, the counseling center, the math center, the writing center, anything that could help.”

This persistence is the difference between being college eligible and college ready, says Laura Jimenez, director of the American Institutes for Research’s college and career readiness and success center.

“We know a ton about what it takes for kids to be college eligible, what is the level of knowledge you need to do well in a college course, if you get a certain score on the ACT, it is predictive of whether a student will get a B in a college class,” said Jimenez. “What it can’t tell you is if your class is at eight in the morning, are you going to be able to get up and get to class? Are you going to seek help when you need it? That’s where the social and emotional learning conversation is starting to take off, there are plenty of kids who are eligible but not ready.”

Related: How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

Shulla-Cose and Day’s bet on social-emotional education now looks prescient. Other educators and academics across the country have come to agree that content knowledge isn’t enough to prepare students for life after high school. Several of the nation’s most highly regarded charter school networks, like KIPP and YES Prep, came to this conclusion after taking a hard look at their data. These schools were rock stars under a No Child Left Behind school accountability system that rewarded them for getting high numbers of mostly poor black and Latino students to pass state math and reading tests. But they were finding that too often their students were unable to translate those test results into college success. Now, in addition to teaching students fractions and conjunctions, many educators are increasingly grappling with how to address social and emotional skills like collaboration and students’ sense of belonging.

Going forward, it’s likely standardized tests will play a much smaller role in how schools are evaluated. The passage of new federal education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), gives state policymakers new authority to redesign accountability systems. Under ESSA, states are now required to incorporate non-academic measures.

Carol Dweck’s TED talk on “growth mindset” has been viewed nearly 4 million times.

Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, says it’s hard to overstate the sea change.

“There’s now this collective consensus that this is something we need to be doing,” said Lenz, who cofounded the Bay Area-based Envision Schools charter network. “When we were starting Envision in 2003, it felt like the wind was in our face for the first decade. It feels like the wind is at our back now.”

A lot of people would agree with Lenz. Back in June, the U.S. Department of Education announced a competitive grant program called “Skills for Success.” The program will help fund the development of strategies for building character strengths like perseverance and resilience. Online, a video of Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s TED talk on the “growth mindset” — the belief that if people work at something they can improve — has been viewed nearly 4 million times. Already, several groups — like the Project for Education Research That Scales, Pomegranate Lab and Mindset Works — are working together with hundreds of schools interested in teaching these principles.

Related: What happens when instead of suspensions, kids talk out their mistakes?

But while observers think it’s promising that many lawmakers are now recognizing the importance of social and emotional skills, many are worried that measuring whether students have become more persistent, resilient or compassionate could be much more difficult and more politically fraught than testing whether kids can read and simplify polynomials, and that the science for holding schools accountable for these important, but more abstract skills just isn’t there yet.

The roots of a trend

Advocates admit that social and emotional learning is a broad term. Many educators consider The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) the definitive resource for schools that have embrace the trend. The group has divided the field into five essential aptitudes: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness. But which of these skills schools stress and how to relay them to kids looks very different from school to school.

24 percent of Perspectives Charter School students who enroll freshman year graduate from college within six years of leaving high school, a figure that’s 10 percentage points above Chicago’s average.

Social and emotional learning is also often grouped with, and sometimes included within, other movements like growth mindsets and trauma-informed teaching. Essentially, all of these approaches are about helping students, particularly poor students, become more active participants in their learning. The idea is that this will better position them to catch up with their more affluent peers.

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s director of public affairs, says that the schools have seen the benefits of a culture change meant to reflect social and emotional values. KIPP’s network of nearly 200 charter schools underwent a transformation after David Levin, one of the cofounders, met with some of the leading social and emotional learning researchers, including Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth in 2008.

“When David [Levin] had that sojourn in 2008 that was a pivotal moment for KIPP, before that we would do things like make kids wear pinnies in class, like you wear in sports to show that they were on the bench,” said Mancini. “ It was an attempt to motivate, but that was going against all the research. We wanted to create schools where students can take risk and learn from successes and failures. We had to loosen the reins, so kids knew how to stumble and get back up.”

Mancini said KIPP has seen a payoff from the character education program, developed after looking at their college completion data, which stresses traits like optimism and self-control. The six-year college completion rate for KIPP graduates has climbed from 25 percent to 44 percent.

While growth mindsets have been shown to increase college achievement, there isn’t much research directly linking some of the other elements of social and emotional learning with college completion. But David Osher, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, says an increasing number of studies have shown that social and emotional learning can improve the factors known to help students through college.

“Schools are the first formal institution students spend a lot of time in,” he said. “They either help students develop as healthy human beings with a sense of self and excitement and an ability to handle challenges, or schools can undermine that.”

The six-year college completion rate for KIPP graduates climbed from 25 percent to 44 percent after the charter chain began a character education program.

While educators across the country are increasingly interested in how to convey these skills to students, how they do so varies widely. The staff at Martin Petitjean Elementary School in Rayne, Louisiana is trying to instill these concepts by handing over control to students. The idea is to make every child a leader by assigning each a role in running the school.

“They call the buses, they do the announcements, they water the plants,” said Kimberley Cummins, the school’s principal. “They truly think I just come in and unlock the doors.”

The amount of student control is on full display during the school’s raucous Friday morning “synergy” assemblies, where the students — first-, second- and third- graders — run the show with little help from the adults scattered in the crowd of 400 kids. The students greet guests at the door, show them to their seats and then get the assembly started.

A second-grader takes the mic and shouts, “Synergy!” The enthusiastic crowd of kids shouts back: “Everyone working together will win the prize.”

Related: How to educate traumatized students: At a new urban public boarding school, educators try to move beyond fights and flying chairs

“In the past, we used to only celebrate the straight-A students,” said Cummins. “But now, every student sees themselves making progress and adding to the school.”

At Martin Petitjean, 84 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. That’s typical of schools that have embraced social-emotional learning most strongly, says Camille Farrington, a senior research associate at the University of Chicago and a leader social and emotional field.

“Take schools like Fenger [Academy] High School in Chicago, in troubled communities with little to no investment in a long time,” said Farrington. “The kids those teachers are trying to serve have so many needs that teachers have to spend time and resources on social and emotional learning in and of itself, while in more typical settings that can be less of a focus.”

Steven Wilson, founder and CEO of Ascend charter schools in Brooklyn, New York, puts it another way.

“Middle-class kids have been told their entire lives that what they have to say is valuable, maybe to the point of ridiculousness. That’s what our kids are up against,” said Wilson, who decided to move Ascend away from the “no excuses” charter school model, in which students are punished for even minor infractions under strict discipline codes, in favor of a school culture that embraces social and emotional learning. “Our kids may have the content knowledge but they didn’t have the social and emotional skills, the intellectual confidence, they were going to need to succeed in college.”

Can you measure a feeling?

For almost two decades, scores on math and reading tests have dominated how success was defined in American schools; low test scores led to the restructuring — and in some cases closure — of schools across the country under No Child Left Behind law. But, moving forward, observers expect states to find broader measures for defining which schools are doing a good job and which aren’t.

“Schools are the first formal institution students spend a lot of time in. They either help students develop as healthy human being with a sense of self and excitement and an ability handle challenges, or schools can undermine that.”

Ten urban districts in California—including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest—collectively called CORE (California Office to Reform Education) districts, have designed a system to make schools answerable for improving students’ social and emotional skills by using data from student, parent, and teacher surveys, among other factors, to assess whether students are improving in these areas.

But two of the leading proponents for incorporating these concepts alongside traditional academics have expressed concern about holding schools accountable for emotional and social learning.

“Given the intense visibility and enthusiasm around growth mindset, grit, and other personal skills, it is important for school leaders and policymakers to realize that while there is great benefit to studying and assessing these attributes, the measures should not, currently, be used for broader accountability purposes,” wrote Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who coauthored a report warning against the use of these “non-cognitive” skills for evaluating teachers and schools.

Two Rivers Public Charter School, an elementary school in Washington, D.C., has been looking at quantitative measures of those non-cognitive skills for years. The school has been administering annual Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) surveys to parents, students and staff since 2009 to assess how they feel about the school environment and to gauge whether they are doing a good job on the social and emotional front.

“We still haven’t worked it out completely,” Jeff Heyck-Williams, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, readily admits. “We look for growth in students’ sustaining attention on tasks. We give the CSCI to kids in third-grade and up, to parents and to all of our staff. This all gives us quantifiable data about how well our school is running. And while these are important pieces of information, they can only say so much.”

Heyck-Williams is ambivalent about using this kind of data to evaluate schools.

“I think it’s super valuable to include some of the social learning goals in an accountability system so that parents can see how schools are doing on this stuff. And to be clear I think schools should be doing this and how well they are doing it really matters,” said Heyck-Williams. “But I’m just not sure that these measures are fine tuned enough to make high stakes accountability decisions with.”

David Osher of American Institutes for Research is also concerned.

“There are measures out there of social and emotional competency that are pretty good, but they were developed for research. They’re clunky,” said Osher. “And like with academic tests, a single measure [of social-emotional learning] will never be perfect.”

Stacey Childress, CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit philanthropy firm investing in school innovation, sees policymakers’ new interest in social and emotional skills as both a blessing and a curse.

“I’m ambivalent about CORE. I‘m excited about their willingness to get going and I’m sure they are going to use the best instruments to date,” said Childress, whose organization is moving away from supporting no-excuses charters and is investing big in schools that are grappling with how to teach social and emotional skills. “But I worry that it’s going to take some time for us to sort all of this out.”

Childress hopes that policymakers will wait for the science to catch up to the enthusiasm before they set new social and emotional accountability systems in stone.

“I understand the seductiveness of getting a policy win, but this could squash all the grassroots excitement we are seeing right now.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about High School Reform.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *