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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

Why SEL Turned Into a Political Football

By Rick Hess — June 27, 2022 4 min read
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Of late, I keep getting asked why social and emotional learning got so political. “I don’t get what people are even worried about,” is how one superintendent put it. And yet, The Washington Post has proclaimed SEL the “new target” of critical race theory critics, and Salon has termed it “the right’s new CRT panic.” Heck, SEL was a big factor in Florida’s decision this spring to reject dozens of math textbooks.

What’s going on?

Well, on the one hand, SEL seems like a no-brainer. As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has it, SEL is simply about mastering “the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” That’s a pretty expansive list, but it’s also a pretty sensible one.

After all, SEL is a reminder that children are complex human beings—not little learning machines. It encourages educators to do things that good schools have been doing forever and represents a useful course correction for an education system that got test-obsessed in the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top era.

As Tim Shriver, CASEL’s board chair, and I noted a few years ago, “Since the dawn of the republic, teachers and schools have been tasked with teaching content and modeling character.” Pursued responsibly, SEL can help with all of that. In fact, while SEL can seem like a new idea, it’s more of a variation on a historical theme—that educators cannot focus only on academic mastery but must also develop the “whole child.”

Add to all this the dislocations of a pandemic during which kids were lonely, isolated, and suffered devastating shots to their social and emotional well-being. Seen that way, the appeal of SEL is obvious.

But as with so many well-meaning education reforms, SEL has a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect. As I wrote recently at The Dispatch, “It 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 regard SEL as practical and apolitical shouldn’t be surprised that others see it differently when more ideological advocates use SEL to justify controversial ideas—such as doing away with traditional grading, eliminating advanced math, subjecting students and staff to “privilege walks,” or teaching 1st graders about gender identity.

School safety illustrates the fine line that SEL seeks to walk. It’s a truism that kids who are relaxed, comfortable in their own skin, and able to get along with peers are less likely to disrupt classrooms or bully other kids. So, SEL can certainly help make schools safer. However, SEL proponents also tend to favor “restorative justice” as the preferred approach to accomplishing that goal. The problem is that the evidence for this model is unconvincing, at best. Instead of suspending or expelling dangerous students, schools sit them down to share their feelings. Indeed, while alternative discipline may sometimes be life-affirming in the right hands, there’s cause for concern that this stuff makes schools less safe when done rashly or clumsily, as is frequently the case.

Advocates and trainers have, seemingly almost by default, infused their cultural assumptions and biases into SEL. AEI’s Max Eden has pointed out that, in the past few years, CASEL has actively redefined core concepts to keep pace with woke dogma and has a notion of “self-management” that now incorporates “resistance” and “transformative/justice-oriented” citizenship. In its “Roadmap to ReOpening,” CASEL stipulates that “self-awareness” now entails “examining our implicit biases” and that “self-management” requires “practicing anti-racism.” It’s hard for me to read such descriptions and believe that proponents really expect them to be regarded as apolitical, anodyne, or evidence-based.

Asking teachers to cultivate character is one thing; telling 4th grade teachers that they all need to embrace “trauma-informed teaching” is another. Credible research on cortisone levels and student anxiety gets scrambled together with research-free calls for affinity spaces.

On the one hand, it’s entirely reasonable for school surveys to ask students about their views and values if it might help combat bullying, raise red flags, or ensure that schools are welcoming for all students. On the other, it’s equally reasonable for parents to rebel when they learn that schools have asked their middle schooler combustible (and sometimes leading) questions about drug use, gender identity, or sexual activity without even a by-your-leave.

Yet again, a school reform that makes some intuitive sense has gotten sucked into a roiling culture war. Teachers and parents wind up trapped in between. And something that can and should be useful, when employed wisely and well, instead gets used clumsily and carelessly.

Three years ago, Checker Finn and I sketched out seven things it would take for SEL to “succeed and survive.” In that essay, we observed that SEL might prove to be either “a durable pillar of American K–12 education” or “faddish, contentious, and evanescent.” We concluded, “Which of those futures lies ahead depends in significant part on the choices made by supportive educators, advocates, policymakers, funders, and scholars in these early days of the SEL movement. We hope that they choose wisely.”

Sigh.

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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