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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

SEL Allies and Foes Alike Deserve Tough Scrutiny

The skill set has much to offer, but beware of how the concept can be distorted
By Rick Hess — August 01, 2023 3 min read
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When you’ve been around as long as I have, one gets all manner of intriguing questions. While I usually respond to such queries in private, some seem likely to be of broader interest. So, in “Ask Rick,” I occasionally take up reader queries. If you’d like to send one along, just send it to me, care of Caitlyn Aversman, at caitlyn.aversman@aei.org.

Dear Rick,

I read your column from last fall on “Is Petting a Guinea Pig SEL?” In it, you criticized a lot of what gets done under the label of social and emotional learning (SEL). I understand that you were focused on the need to deal with bad SEL, and I take your point. But I didn’t see much appreciation for the body of research supporting SEL or the enormous value SEL offers when it’s done well. So, I guess I’m wondering, first, whether you’re anti-SEL and, second, whether you’d push back on the ideologues who attack SEL the same way you did on the “quacks” who are doing bad SEL?

Mixed on Guinea Pigs but Pro-SEL

What a thoughtful question. It’s an important issue, and I’m glad to be pushed on it.

Let’s see, for starters, I absolutely did not mean to suggest that I’m “anti-SEL.” In fact, I think SEL can be enormously valuable. Core SEL competencies like managing your emotions, maintaining positive relationships, setting goals, and making responsible decisions are important to success in school and life.

Heck, as Checker Finn and I argued back in 2019, SEL provides the opportunity to help “rebalanc[e] an education system that in recent decades has focused overmuch on reading and math scores while giving short shrift to character development, civic formation, and the cultivation of ethics among its young charges.” So, as for whether I’m anti-SEL, the answer is decidedly no. SEL has much to offer, and I think a number of the practices under the SEL umbrella are sensible and constructive.

All that said, there’s plenty that gives me pause about SEL today. As I suggested in the guinea pig column you alluded to, the SEL community needs to do better at policing itself. After all, as I noted last year, “SEL can be reasonably described both as a sensible, innocuous attempt to tackle a real challenge and, too often, an excuse for a blue, bubbled industry of education funders, advocates, professors, and trainers to promote faddish nonsense and ideological agendas.” Those who approach SEL as a tool of practical, apolitical pedagogy should see that their efforts are undermined when SEL is also used to justify eliminating advanced math, subjecting students to “privilege walks,” or adopting practices that undermine school safety.

So, that’s my general stance on SEL.

Now, onto your second question: Do those critics who’ve turned SEL into an all-purpose bogeyman deserve the same scrutiny I’d give to the pro-SEL quacks? Yes, they absolutely do. You’re too polite to say it quite this plainly, but you’re intimating that there is a whole strain of SEL criticism that’s caught up in point-scoring, politics, or unhealthy social media memes. And you’re right. This crowd’s over-the-top claims and complaints deserve the same tough love from serious SEL skeptics that guinea pig providers deserve from SEL enthusiasts.

Indeed, it’s fair to say there’s a whole thread of conspiratorial thinking around SEL, including assertions that it’s part of a grand conspiracy to brainwash American kids or help the Chinese Communist Party capture their intimate data. This stuff turns legitimate concerns into a caricature. That makes it harder to tackle real problems or even distinguish sensible SEL from the troubling stuff and, ironically, undercuts efforts to convince educators and the broader public that the distinction is one worth making.

In a very real sense, the serious SEL proponents and serious SEL critics are wrestling with the same problem—the challenge of fending off one’s “friendly” fringe. Fighting people on the other side of an issue is one thing; fending off the charlatans, poseurs, and kooks who are nominally “on your side” is a trickier kind of challenge. But it’s a critical one for both camps.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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