An education news organization called The 74 (heavily funded by the Gates Foundation) recently jumped on the bandwagon for so-called social-emotional learning (SEL). This supposedly objective news source found little reason for skepticism about implementing SEL, as long as teachers are given sufficient resources and guidance. But such cheerleading masks deep concerns about whether schools should be manipulating students’ personalities via SEL.
A brief response to The 74:
- The 74 defines SEL as “teaching students skills such as self-regulation, persistence, empathy, self-awareness, and mindfulness” but admits that different research and media entities define SEL differently. This disagreement complicates SEL implementation and research/assessment, as evidenced in contradictory statements by The 74 and many other SEL proponents. As one researcher for CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) stated in a 2017 meta-analysis, “We know these skills are essential for children…” Yet in the same sentence, she said, “but there’s still a lot we don’t know about ways to enhance them.”
- However SEL is defined, The 74 thinks this is what schools should be doing. But parents rightly object that the school (which means the government) has no business analyzing and trying to change a child’s psychological makeup. It’s one thing to enforce discipline in a classroom and encourage individual students to do their best; good teachers have always done that. It’s quite another to assess students on their compliance with highly subjective behavioral standards that may measure personality and individual or family beliefs more than objective shortcomings in performance. The school exists to assist parents in educating their children, not to replace them in that role.
- The 74 traces the concept of SEL back to the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence (which the news outlet apparently takes seriously). In fact, “emotional intelligence” has been debunked as “a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient bandwagon, a corporate marketing scheme.” SEL first entered the federal education lexicon in 1994 as part of the Goals 2000 legislation signed by President Clinton. These goals were “voluntary” as long as states were willing to give up their share of federal Title I money for not implementing them. This is analogous to recession-racked states’ “voluntarily” adopting the Common Core standards to qualify for federal money.
- Interestingly, research in a paper cited by The 74, as well as multiple other SEL proponents and education stakeholders, posits that the supposedly “rigorous” and “academic” Common Core supports SEL and vice versa. The fact that Common Core is proving to be a drag on academic achievement demonstrates that neither is very effective. Besides seeing both SEL and Common Core as anti-academic, parents and citizens also recognize both as invasive and indoctrinating — so touting the SEL-Common Core connection is unlikely to engender support for either one.
- The 74 cites only studies supportive of SEL. But even the aforementioned CASEL researcher admitted, “The results to date have been mixed…There’s also a general lack of long-term studies that might give researchers a clearer picture of the programs’ effectiveness.” In fact, The 74 ignores glaring defects of the first meta-analysis it links — that only 15% of the 200+ studies reviewed did a long-term follow-up, and only 16% actually checked academic outcomes. The 74 also neglects to mention a decidedly negative analysis of preschool SEL in six longitudinal education databases, which concluded, “Early math skills have the greatest predictive power, followed by reading and then attention skills. By contrast, measures of socioemotional behaviors…were generally insignificant predictors of later academic performance, even among children with relatively high levels of problem behavior.” Ironically, the preschool years have the most uniform, numerous, and longstanding SEL standards in all fifty states. Yet this study, combined with a new Brookings paper, affirms much previous research showing that SEL-laden Head Start and other government preschool programs don’t improve academic outcomes. Nor does “growth mindset” (an SEL favorite), as confirmed by another recent study.
- The 74 also touts a paper claiming economic benefit from SEL interventions. But the paper’s authors emphasized that the SEL interventions they analyzed “are not representative of SEL generally,” and that the protocols and methods they used are racked with “deficiencies.” If there is any real economic benefit from SEL, this study doesn’t show it.
- Turning to student SEL assessment, The 74 does admit that deciding whether SEL is working, or whether individual students are reshaping their personalities to the government’s satisfaction, is a tricky business. Only 17% of principals “know which assessments to use for measuring how their students are doing socially and emotionally,” especially since most states don’t have clear SEL standards or grade-by-grade benchmarks. But The 74 doesn’t report that even SEL gurus admit that meaningful assessment is at best problematic. This is because, among other factors, teachers aren’t mental-health professionals capable of assessing children and because, in any event, the assessment mechanisms usually depend on unreliable inputs (such as student self-reports).
- Speaking further of assessment, The 74 doesn’t mention the serious problem of placing all these unreliable, amateur psychological assessments into the longitudinal data system that will follow students, potentially, throughout their lives. Might employers or colleges or government agencies be interested in accessing records about a particular individual’s psychological makeup?
- The 74 approvingly links SEL to schools’ implementation of “restorative justice” in place of “punitive disciplinary practices.” The news outlet seems oddly oblivious to the controversy surrounding restorative justice. Many teachers across the country are rebelling against restrictions on their ability to discipline unruly kids, and such policies can have tragic consequences if criminal offenders are allowed to remain in schools.
- The 74 seems to endorse “deep breathing, counting, and mindfulness” for helping students improve their relationships with teachers. There is no acknowledgment that many parents would object to a school’s leading their children through such pseudo-spiritual practices.
- Prominent thought leaders in the teaching profession, even SEL proponents, are questioning whether SEL can be formally taught and standardized, as well the wisdom of burdening teachers with another responsibility for which they aren’t trained. (See here and here.)
The bottom line is that SEL is far more subjective and invasive, and far less effective, than proponents claim. Maybe The 74 should take another look.