Student Well-Being

Schools Face Fears of ‘Critical Race Theory’ as They Scale Up Social-Emotional Learning

By Arianna Prothero & Evie Blad — December 13, 2021 14 min read
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This is a pivotal moment for social-emotional learning in K-12 schools.

On the one hand, interest in building or expanding SEL programs is surging among educators and parents, supported by an unprecedented infusion of billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief aid.

On the other hand, school and district leaders are facing emotionally charged conversations with the public as states consider bills to limit teaching about “divisive subjects” such as racism and sexuality. In some cases, right wing political groups that oppose “critical race theory”—an academic framework that says racism isn’t just the product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies—have flagged common educational terms like social-emotional learning and equity as linked to the concept, though schools insist they are not.

While district and school leaders are eager to nurture the social-emotional skills they see as vital to overcoming the disruptions and trauma caused by the pandemic, no one wants to get caught in a political firestorm.

So, how should educators navigate these difficult political waters and do what is best for kids?

“In this environment, anything can be politicized,” said John Bridgeland, the CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm, who has worked extensively on building bipartisan support for SEL programs in schools.

Through social-emotional learning, schools teach students skills like creative problem-solving, persistence, and showing empathy. Teachers incorporate those skills into traditional classroom instruction through exercises like group projects and guided conversations, and schools adopt practices, like morning meetings, to boost students’ sense of belonging and trust.

And interest in social-emotional learning is growing. Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, district spending on SEL programming grew about 45 percent, from $530 million to $765 million, according to a report by the consulting firm Tyton Partners and published with the Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, or CASEL.

Now more than ever, we need to focus on this area.

Now schools have access to funds through the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act that can help them train teachers, buy new materials, and implement programs.

Surveys of parents and educators alike show support for making SEL part of schools pandemic recovery efforts. In a nation poll of parents conducted in June by the National Parents Union, 45 percent of respondents said their child was “very” or “somewhat likely” to need services to support their mental health and emotional well-being in school. In a November survey by the same organization, 67 percent of respondents said they were “extremely” or “very concerned” about how schools are preparing students for the future. Of those parents, 34 percent said schools are “not teaching enough interpersonal skills” and 43 percent said they aren’t teaching enough “critical thinking skills.”

New funding comes with new challenges

Many states—under control of governors and state schools chiefs from both major political parties—included social-emotional learning strategies in their plans for spending billions of American Rescue Plan dollars. They’ve done so alongside calls to hire more school-based mental health professionals and to train teachers to identify and address student trauma, according to an analysis by Future Ed, a think tank at Georgetown University.

Texas, for example, plans to offer schools guidance on assessing students’ emotional and mental health needs. Virginia awarded funds to schools to develop universal SEL surveys. Wyoming provided funds for schools to enact new SEL programs. Tennessee plans to create a centralized website to offer SEL resources and training to schools. Montana included the adoption of two SEL programs in its American Rescue Plan application.

“Now more than ever, we need to focus on this area,” said Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education in South Carolina. “I’m not so sure it’s not the most important thing we need to work on.”

But as interest in social-emotional learning rises among educators and policymakers, it’s also increasingly the target of ire from some conservative groups.

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Rudzhan Nagiev/iStock

Local news reports show parents in several states—including Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah—have confronted their local school boards over social-emotional learning plans, often conflating it with critical race theory and saying some of the subjects addressed in their districts’ SEL curricula—such as gender identity and implicit bias—have no place in schools.

While educators responding to a November survey by the EdWeek Research Center said they saw increased support for SEL, 34 percent said that, in the past year, their school had received “feedback from parents concerned that social-emotional learning is teaching their children values they don’t approve of.”

A September controversy in Virginia that included both state and national politics may foreshadow conversations that will only grow louder as states approach the 2022 midterms.

In the Fairfax County schools, some parents and a group called Parents Defending Education, which has objected to equity efforts in schools around the country, criticized the district’s decision to survey students about SEL and school climate. Some activists from national groups outside of the district called SEL a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory.

The district’s student survey, administered through a contract with a Boston company called Panorama Education, includes questions such as: “Do you have a teacher or other adult from school who you can count on to help you, no matter what?” and “How confident are you that students at your school can have honest conversations with each other about race?”

Panorama helps schools around the country field similar surveys to ensure students feel supported and safe at school. Educators also use the company’s analysis tools to examine trends such as attendance patterns alongside students’ grades to determine the most effective way to intervene if they struggle. While the district allowed parents to opt their children out of taking the survey, some parents expressed concerns about how the data would be used and how children would respond to the questions.

The situation boiled over after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo in October calling for his agency to respond to “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” across the country by meeting with local schools and law enforcement to discuss strategies for addressing those threats.

Republican lawmakers immediately pushed back, arguing that Garland was trying to chill dissent of parents who’d spoken out against their schools’ virus precautions and teaching about race. And they insisted Garland had a conflict of interest because his son-in-law helped found Panorama Education. Garland denied any conflict of interest, and the company said his son-in-law, Xan Tanner, is no longer an employee.

Meanwhile, some SEL programs have also faced criticism for not doing enough to recognize the full extent of the challenges students face—be it racism, poverty, or homophobia.

Dena Simmons, assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, resigned last spring after clashing with the center’s director and founder, Marc Brackett, over the extent to which issues of social justice and racism should be addressed in the center’s popular SEL curriculum, RULER. In emails obtained by The 74, Brackett expressed concerns that using contemporary political examples would alienate people and lead to the RULER curriculum being banned in some school districts.

Social-emotional learning is a popular idea, but a confusing term

Social-emotional learning is a somewhat nebulous term. That leaves school administrators and teachers with the task of sorting out parents’ legitimate concerns about things like whether programs are effective and how schools will measure success apart from broader misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of SEL.

The first question they had was, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I get math. I get reading. What the hell is social-emotional learning?’

SEL aims to teach students “life skills” such as empathy, managing their emotions, developing relationships, and understanding other points of view and backgrounds. But, by extension, it can also encompass topics such as mental health, bias, and identity.

Tia Kim, the vice president of education research and impact at the Committee for Children, a nonprofit that promotes SEL and is also the developer of the popular Second Step curriculum, said she has seen a general shift among school districts’ goals for their social-emotional learning programs. A few years ago, they focused on improving academics or reducing disciplinary referrals, she said. Now, the focus is around mental health and building positive school climates.

“If [students] are coming in with depression and anxiety, it’s going to impact their learning,” Kim said. “To build good conditions for learning, kids have to feel like they belong and that they have good relationships, both with their peers and educators, and SEL is one way to support that sense of community and belonging.”

An increasing number of districts also see social-emotional learning as a means to bolster their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, according to the report by Tyton Partners.

While parents are largely in favor of many of the skills taught through social-emotional learning, such as setting goals, managing emotions, and being informed citizens, the term itself is unpopular, according to a poll by YouGov and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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Illustration shows a father supporting his son on his shoulders while the son is reaching for a star
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Among those parents, 89 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans agreed that students must have their social-emotional needs met in order to achieve their full academic potential—they just prefer the term “life skills.” (Republican parents in particular disliked the name “social-emotional learning”.)

Educators and policymakers would do well to use less jargon when talking about social-emotional learning, the report warned.

Supporters of SEL have long recognized that their efforts needed to be bipartisan, said Bridgeland, the CEO of Civic Enterprises and the former director of the White House domestic policy council for President George W. Bush. Bridgeland was a member of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Development, which made recommendations in 2019 for educators, researchers, and policymakers about how to better incorporate an awareness of students’ relational and emotional development into education.

The commission’s members knew that affiliation with one political party or ideology might jeopardize their efforts, so they were very deliberate in engaging people across the political spectrum, Bridgeland said. Events featured discussions from members of the Kansas state board of education in addition to leaders of national teachers’ unions. Commissioners included Brian Sandoval and John Engler, the Republican former governors of Nevada and Michigan. And materials emphasized skills employers wanted to see in new graduates alongside discussions of empathy and inclusion.

Bridgeland remembers meeting with conservative organizations to discuss the commission’s work.

“The first question they had was, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” he said. “’I get math. I get reading. What the hell is social-emotional learning?’”

When commissioners explained they wanted schools to nurture qualities such as discipline, self-management, and relationship skills, “they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re for that,’” Bridgeland said.

Family engagement is essential to SEL

It’s essential that schools actively engage families in talking about and creating social-emotional initiatives, their districts’ goals, and the research that supports those efforts, researchers and district leaders said.

The key to engaging families is demystifying the jargon around SEL and explaining to parents that the schools are trying to reinforce a lot of the life skills parents are already teaching their kids at home, said Sandra Martinez, the social-emotional learning family engagement coordinator for the Dallas Independent School District.

“We wanted to create consistency in the practices and the terminology,” she said, “so that families understood what was going on in the classroom so they can support that learning at home because we know that parents are kids’ first teachers, and they are the utmost experts on their children.”

Martinez’s position is a new one in the district, and a lot of her outreach to families has been virtual. She writes newsletters for parents in English and Spanish, each exploring a different SEL theme that includes definitions of terms, videos of experts, and exercises to try at home.

“We basically provide the terminology so when their kid comes home and says we did a mood meter or a check in, they are familiar,” Martinez said. “We say, ‘You already do this at home when you ask your child how they feel, we just call it a mood meter.’”

She also surveys parents on the social-emotional skills families consider most important for their children to learn and works with schools to provide a virtual SEL discussion series for parents. She plans to launch a book club for parents where they will read about social-emotional learning topics.

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Conceptual image of a student moving into new surroundings.
Mary Haasdyk for Education Week

Spearman, South Carolina’s state superintendent, acknowledges that she’s heard suspicions about SEL from some parents.

“I say ‘I don’t know what’s going on in other states, but in South Carolina, here’s what we are focused on: It’s about building confidence in our young people that we care about them, that they matter, and that they learn the golden rule,’” she said. “That’s what it means to me. I have not found a single person who disagrees with that.”

Spearman, the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said her peers around the country have faced similar communications challenges. To overcome them, South Carolina’s SEL website, for example, includes a video which explains the concept and a section for parents about ways they can support their children’s emotional development.

South Carolina’s SEL plan relies on regional coaches to support teachers in helping students cope with emotional challenges, build empathy for their peers, and build trusting relationships with adults so they know how to ask for help.

“That connectivity, especially right now, is how we remain a community that has open and honest conversations and remains a community through these difficult times,” said Sarah Gams, the state’s 2021 teacher of the year, who is leading its SEL work.

SEL has a history of both challenges and bipartisan support

SEL has faced political headwinds in some places before current debates over how schools discuss issues like racism and sexuality.

In 2016, for example, Tennessee withdrew from a multi-state working group assembled by CASEL less than a month after joining. The move came after some lawmakers equated the group’s focus—to create developmentally appropriate standards for SEL skills that schools could adopt voluntarily—to previous controversies over the common core, Chalkbeat Tennessee reported.

When Idaho state education leaders pitched a social-emotional learning proposal to lawmakers in 2020, citing concerns about teen suicide rates, one member of a legislative committee compared the plan to the dystopian behavior control in the novel  Brave New World. Others said responsibility for helping children develop their character should be in the hands of parents, not schools.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, an elected Republican, later told Education Week she didn’t understand the response.

“We want to make sure we are connecting parents and students and teachers with the right tools and the right resources to get them the help that they need,” Ybarra said. “I don’t think there is any other way to talk about this. It is not a blue issue. It is not a red issue.”

Despite recent opposition to social-emotional learning from some conservatives, the idea, and overlapping concepts like character education, have had—at least not too long ago—support from prominent politicians across the political spectrum.

After the 2018 school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, for example, a federal school safety commission assembled by Republican President Donald Trump included social-emotional learning in its recommendations for schools.

“Youth who learn these core skills are able to manage their emotions and interactions in ways that benefit themselves and others,” said the final report of the commission, which was led by then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Most importantly, recent research suggests that the development of social and emotional skills can lead to improved outcomes for educational attainment, employment, and earnings.”

Bridgeland, who calls SEL a “rocket booster” for schools’ work to improve student skills and academic outcomes, said educators must work to build on that past agreement.

“When you go through it with parents, it’s overwhelming how much they support it,” he said. “It carries away the political arguments that, frankly, people are tired of.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Face Fears of ‘Critical Race Theory’ As They Scale Up Social-Emotional Learning


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