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Aurora Institute

Social-Emotional Learning and the Cost Effectiveness of Educating the Whole Child

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Dr. Eliot Levine

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Source: Aspen Institute

Early in the recent Aspen Institute report on Social-Emotional Learning is the statement that SEL interventions “can be undertaken by schools at a reasonable cost relative to benefits.” That’s good news, considering the importance of SEL in effective education.

When discussing how to spend finite school budgets, we should note that our current investments are leaving far too many students graduating without the skills needed to succeed in college, careers, and civic life—or not graduating at all. A realignment of those investments is clearly needed to achieve greater equity and effectiveness. Those are the core purposes of competency-based education, which recognizes that students learn more effectively when their social and emotional needs are taken into account.

Evidence of Cost Effectiveness

How does the Aspen Institute know that SEL is cost effective? The study they cite is entitled “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning,” published in 2015 by Clive Belfield and colleagues at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The study’s authors begin by estimating the costs and benefits of six SEL programs. They include costs such as instructional materials and personnel time. Then they take into account benefits such as improved social competence and school climate, reduced bullying and drug use, and increased academic achievement—which is a well-documented outcome of many SEL programs. Finally, they use economic analyses to assign a dollar value to these benefits, in relation to the future earnings of students who participate in the programs.

Across the six programs, the average benefit-cost ratio is 11:1, meaning that for every dollar invested in the SEL programs, there is a return of eleven dollars. Like all good social scientists, the authors explain both the limitations of their methods and the reasons that their findings represent a meaningful contribution to our knowledge.

The impressive cost-benefit ratio is essential information for school boards and administrators who are trying to make decisions about their school budgets. It can also inform state and federal policy makers as they consider how to allocate their educational investments to support SEL, and whether to incorporate SEL issues into their accountability systems. (For example, the Aspen Institute report recommends including “measures of the quality of learning environments in formal state or district accountability systems in order to showcase growth and identify areas for improvement.”)

“You’re Already Doing It”

Another perspective on the costs of SEL programs emerges from a recent interview in EdWeek with Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith, the authors of the new book, All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond. When asked what they would say to a teacher who can’t fit in all of their required academic content and is wondering how to add social-emotional learning too, they say:

“Our answer is simple—you’re already doing it. Every interaction you have with students builds (or harms) their social and emotional development. But are you building their social and emotional learning with purpose and intention? … As a simple example, when reading literature, teachers can invite students to talk about characters’ emotions and how those characters respond, noting responses that were not productive and asking students about other ways that the character might respond. … Social skills are also important. When teachers structure collaborative learning in productive ways, students can practice (and receive feedback about) their social skills. And who doesn’t want students interacting productively with their peers, practicing academic language, and engaging in rigorous learning tasks?”

This lens suggests that aspects of social-emotional learning do not require a financial investment every time they’re used in a classroom. Of course, there is an up-front cost in teacher preparation and professional development to help teachers and school leaders develop these skills, as reflected in the Policy Agenda co-published with the main Aspen Institute report.

The Aspen report is also accompanied by a Research Agenda, which briefly addresses the cost issue. They point out that school and district staff want to know what will be most effective in their own setting. Specifically, they ask,

“With a limited budget, how should resources be allocated to have the greatest impact? What is the relative return of investing in more recess time vs. more art and music vs. a school social worker vs. a parent center if an elementary school principal wants to best support the social, emotional, and cognitive development of students? What factors should a school leader consider when making resource decisions for a particular population of students?”

The Belfield et al. study provides powerful evidence that SEL programs can be cost effective, but future research should answer questions about which programs are most effective for which goals in which settings, enabling schools to invest their SEL resources most effectively.

SEL Financial Sustainability Toolkit

For leaders planning SEL strategies in their schools and districts, the SEL Financial Sustainability Toolkit is an outstanding resource from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The toolkit includes an SEL cost calculator, financial sustainability planning tool, and budget planning tool. They are focused on costs such as planning, professional development, and implementing new programs.

The tools were developed from CASEL’s experience helping ten school districts to implement districtwide SEL, and are provided with case studies and other supporting materials. The case studies cover a range of cost levels to help districts of different sizes and budgets implement an SEL strategy.

Framing Cost Effectiveness

This post is specific to the costs of implementing SEL in schools, not the costs of competency-based education overall. But when discussing costs in this context, it’s important to acknowledge the common concern that implementing full CBE models in schools will be too expensive. This is an issue that superintendents and school boards would rightly want to know about.

Conducting additional research on this topic is essential, because little systematic evidence is currently available. Discussions with experienced pioneers suggest that the largest costs of transitioning to a CBE system involve building educator capacity through professional development and supports, as well as possible changes to software for student assessment and reporting.

As noted earlier, these costs should be put in context. The traditional system is leaving large numbers of students unprepared for life after high school, so continuing to invest in the status quo is clearly not cost effective. We need to balance conversations about “cost effectiveness” and “return on investment” with our moral obligation to provide every student with the opportunity for a happy, healthy, and productive future.

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.


Follow @eliot_levine