Responding to The 74 Jumping on the Social-Emotional Learning Bandwagon

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.

2 thoughts on “Responding to The 74 Jumping on the Social-Emotional Learning Bandwagon

  1. And this is the #1 reason that child #2 will be attending private HS. 6 yrs of PBIS at the elementary level and 3 yrs of really creepy SEL (that I REFUSED!) at the middle school level (Grit, Growth Mindset). The behavior of these children is appalling, yet it’s the SEL practices that are making them this way. Studies are now showing that PBIS’s system of rewards is setting off the hormones in the brain that are linked to gambling, drug/alcohol abuse, gaming addiction. All in an effort to sit little children at desks all day so that they can sit quietly and memorize for the stupid standardized tests. I’m not having it anymore! When teachers start taking a stand against this instead of promoting it, maybe I will start to have some respect for the profession again.

  2. Check your child for neck bolts … the educational Frankensteins are at it again.

    Forget geography, composition, and math … school is now all about feelings. And emotions. And attitudes.

    It’s the hot-rage in education … the creepy premise that schools can instill acceptable human emotions and reactions in your child because … I guess … you can’t. Or won’t. Or don’t know how.

    It’s just another comment on your parental ineptitude.

    So the schools will take over … and take your child’s emotional temperature … and then take whatever steps are necessary to give your child an emotional tune-up. They’ll spike their self-awareness and polish their social skills … and make certain they never have a social fumble or offend a single soul. Ever.

    That’s baffling stuff … because these are the same geniuses who declared recess a waste of time … and then tossed away interactive kid-stuff that taught children how to get along.

    Then they plopped them in front of blue screens …  and hypnotized them like hamsters. And now they feel compelled to measure the scope of their damage … and offer mind-bending remedies for their screw-ups.

    So, they’ll pie-graph your child’s emotions … measure their empathy, quantify their happiness, and assess their social ability. Let’s hope they gauge their misery and despair, too.

    They’ll infuse ‘em with norms and ethical standards … which they’ll approve … and auto-correct their emotions so they lose any traces of childhood … and become perfectly calibrated, social creeps.

    And that’s how they’ll retool your kid’s personality … and rehabilitate their identity … pretty much without bothering you at all. But that should bother you to no end.

    The acronym du jour is SEL … Social and Emotional Learning … aka … freuding with your child’s personality. Tampering with who they are … auto-correcting their feelings … and dog-whistling their responses to life’s stimulations and situations.

    SEL pavlovs kids into Emotive Automatons  … as designed under the watchful eye of the very same school leaders who only recently blistered their childhood … cut them off from social interactions … infused them with “grit and rigor” … and morphed them into touch-screen bots.

    In other words … schools are now emotional chiropractors that will realign your child’s emotional backbone, manipulate their personalities, and customize their social reflexes. And produce … perfect cardboard children.

    But here’s the truth …

    This is one reform effort that should be flipped back on these dangerous savants. It’s not the kids who need a dose of mindfulness … it’s the schools themselves.

    It’s teachers and bureaucrats who’ve smothered their own memories of childhood. Something’s very, very wrong when a suicidal twelve year old flies under the radar of an entire faculty. Lots of someones aren’t doing their jobs … and lots of someones need lots of mindfulness themselves.

    No one saw that circumstance? No one noticed that desperate child? No one saw that ugliness? No one heard a single whisper? How the hell is that possible?

    And if they’re missing that … imagine what else their missing. The bullying . The stress cues. The testing trauma. The homework hell.

    And it all piles up … and leads to those sad-awful stories of kids calling it quits on a world designed without them in mind.

    It’s not the kids who need an emotional overhaul … it’s teachers. And principals. And guidance folks. And superintendents.

    This reform mania has slipped into a dangerous dimension. Wacky reading theories and goofy mathematics are one thing. Mind-bending … well … that’s dangerous stuff.

    Don’t let them tug your child into that warped world. There is no virtue is asking your child to withstand the idiocy of adults. 

    When educators lose the sensations and recollections of their own childhood … and can no longer imagine themselves as children … perhaps it’s best if they move on.

    Now … now the stakes are just too high.

    Denis Ian

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