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Study: Social and Emotional Learning, the ‘New-Age Nanny State’

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Karin Zeitvogel/AFP/Getty Images
DR. SUSAN BERRY

A new study released Monday finds the most popular education topic today is social and emotional learning (SEL), which amounts to the “psychological training of children starting at a young age.”

The Boston-based, privately funded Pioneer Institute published the study, “Social-Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State,” which asserts SEL is the latest panacea in a long line of so-called progressive “education reforms” that only serves to distract from the fact that American public school children are failing academically.

Authors Karen Effrem, M.D. and Jane Robbins, J.D. observe:

As student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, or the “nation’s report card”) paint a gloomy picture of students’ accomplishments in reading and mathematics (especially since the implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)), education decision-makers look toward probing students’ psyches rather than instilling academic knowledge.

The study suggests that, like many distraction devices, SEL is mostly hype with little research evidence to back up its claims. Its risks to young children’s psychological health and privacy, however, are significant, the authors warn.

Proponents of SEL say school should be including social-emotional concepts, i.e., values, character traits, mindsets, and behaviors, in every core K-12 subject. But, who decides which “values” and “character traits” are the desirable ones?

“It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children,” said Robbins. “But having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.”

Effrem and Robbins explain why parents should be wary of the dangers of SEL:

For one thing, it transfers the locus of instruction from family, civil, and religious institutions to the school (effectively, to government). It also formalizes and expands what teachers do naturally as part of running a classroom, perhaps with its own standards and curricula—either stand-alone or embedded in academic materials. It includes assessment of how well students perform pursuant to these standards and curricula. Is David sufficiently “empathetic”? Does Jennifer exhibit sufficient “leadership skills”?

As with all education reform trends, publishers of textbooks and educational software are eager to profit from public taxpayer dollars, promising products that can measure children’s personality traits and values when they engage in digital platforms.

“Much of this monitoring occurs without the consent of children or their parents,” Pioneer Institute states. “Some software – especially for video gaming –goes beyond assessing traits, and aims to encourage the production of students who are well suited for a workforce development-centered education.”

Effrem, a pediatrician, says the combination of digital technology and the vague SEL concepts “will further spread the recent wave of amateur, unqualified psychoanalysis in schools.”

“Given the uncertainty around diagnosis and treatment of mental or emotional problems, even by highly trained physicians, the SEL movement runs the risk of further increasing the trend toward dangerous over-diagnosis and over-medication of American schoolchildren,” she warns.

Parents who actively battled against the Common Core standards in their states knew well the federally-incentivized reform opened the doors to SEL and competency-based education (CBE) – both highly regarded by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as the U.S. Department of Education.

“SEL and CBE are heavily weighted toward a conception of education as focused on workforce development rather than preparing active, informed citizens,” Pioneer states, adding SEL especially is considered so imperative that billions of taxpayer dollars – at all levels – are spent on its incorporation into curricula:

Nationally, in 2018, federal, state, and local governments invested more than $30 billion annually to implement SEL in K-12 public schools. The level of expenditure is surprising considering tight public school budgets and the lack of any reliable, objective, researched-based method to measure or assess a student’s personality, values, and mindsets as SEL proponents admit.

On the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) –touted as a “bipartisan” victory – “contains myriad provisions that cement federal control or at least influence,” Effrem and Robbins observe. “ESSA contains multiple provisions that affect early-childhood standards and curricula, and those provisions encourage and in some cases mandate inclusion of SEL.”

Effrem and Robbins warn the vagueness of SEL lends itself to deep politicization in the classroom.

In October, American Enterprise Institute education policy analysts Rick Hess and Grant Addison vindicated parents who were mocked for their concerns that Common Core would promote “sweeping ideological agendas.”

The analysts explained at National Review how education company UnboundEd CEO Kate Gerson had announced to teachers attending her “standards-aligned” training: “If you are under the impression that there are good white people and bad white people, you’re wrong.”

After hearing Gerson’s pitch, Hess and Addison concluded, “Today, Gerson and her team are doing their best to vindicate those concerns.”

Effrem and Robbins urge educators to refocus on academic achievement – “genuine academic achievement through state and locally developed standards, assessments, and curricula — rather than classroom content of dubious academic value based on pop psychology.”

“[C]ease expansion of SEL standards, programs, assessments, and data collection, via repeal of federal statutory language and taxpayer funding that encourage such activities (along with encouragement of states to do the same),” they assert.

Additionally, the authors say values and character traits that lend themselves to success in relationships, i.e., the subject matter of SEL, should be left to parents.

“[B]ecause no government, foundation, or corporate program can substitute for the love and nurture of families, SEL programs should be replaced with policies that encourage two-parent family formation,” they write. “This would drastically reduce the tragically high rates of student behavior problems, gun use, delinquency, imprisonment, and poor academic performance among fatherless children.”

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