Social and emotional learning is the latest flashpoint in the education wars

When a middle school teacher quit because of their district’s social and emotional learning program, Lisa Logan and Stacie Clayton wanted to find out why. So the two moms from Sandy, Utah, spent 30 hours going through the district’s eighth-grade curriculum. What they found alarmed them.

“Parents don’t know that concepts like critical race theory and comprehensive sex education are taught under the guise of social-emotional learning programs,” Logan said in a press release sent to several reporters. , “and that must change”.

They filed a petition to remove the program, known as Second Step, from the Canyons School District. The district agreed to give it up.

Some educators, including elementary school counselor Allie Teller, were appalled by the district’s decision. Teller had seen a reduction in behavior problems and incidents in the years since his school started using the program. Canceling it, just as schools are trying to help children recover from the pandemic, “has left educators with fewer tools and resources when they desperately need more,” she said. declared.

“We have all experienced a traumatic collective event,” she said. “Children need social-emotional support now more than ever.”

Seattle-based Committee for Children, which produces Second Step, says the curricula do not include sex education or critical race theory, an academic framework that argues racism is entrenched in American institutions. The programs are used in schools across Washington, including school districts in Seattle, Tacoma, Lake Washington, Kent, Bellevue, Federal Way and Spokane, according to the company.

“The discourse we see around SEL goes completely against what we hope to model for students,” said Amy Walker, social-emotional learning expert in the Committee for Children’s leadership program, in an e-mail. mail.

The struggle in Utah is one of many skirmishes rocking the field of social and emotional learning — SEL, for short — as schools spend record sums on curriculum, assessments and training aimed at strengthening student empathy and resilience.

National, school and district spending on SEL increased about 45% between November 2019 and April 2021, according to a report by Tyton Partners, an education advisory and investment firm. The increase was prompted by concerns about student welfare amid a global pandemic and a national reckoning of race, and made possible by a massive infusion of federal stimulus funds.

About a third of local education agencies say they plan to spend some of their federal relief money on SEL, with the average amount per student nearing $100, according to an analysis of state spending plans by FutureEd. , a Georgetown University think tank.

This increase in spending has led to increased surveillance on the ground, with parents pushing back on programs and screeners in places as politically and geographically diverse as Brooklyn, New York and West Bend, Wisconsin. Conservatives have accused schools of hijacking SEL to promote progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, while liberals have warned of threats to student privacy.

Some in both parties say that after two years of disrupted schooling, schools should spend their time and money on remedial education, not SEL. In a recent survey of parents by the Fordham Institute, nearly two-thirds of Republicans and more than half of Democrats said there was not enough time in the day to teach both academics and salt.

But SEL fans, including many teachers, say addressing students’ social and emotional needs now will speed up academic recovery, increasing students’ ability to cope with stress and strengthening their relationships with teachers. They say critics who confuse SEL with CRT are misinterpreting the field – sometimes on purpose.

Ditch the jargon

At the heart of the fights over SEL are disagreements over the role schools should play in developing well-rounded individuals and promoting equity.

Parents of all political stripes view SEL as a family responsibility, and nearly half of all parents strongly or somewhat agree that schools should focus on academics and leave SEL to parents, according to the Fordham inquiry. Among Republican parents, this percentage rises to nearly two-thirds.

Yet a majority of parents from both political parties agree with the statement that “learning life skills and social skills in school are just as important as academics,” and say they support schools that teach specific SEL skills, such as empathy, self-control, and a positive mindset.

This contradiction may reflect confusion about what SEL is, as well as discomfort with jargon. Presented with a list of a dozen potential labels for SEL, parents ranked “social and emotional learning” second to last. Their first choice was “life skills”.

Aaliyah Samuel, the new chair of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), said schools need to “clarify what SEL is” and ditch the jargon.

“When I talk to my community of parents — friends with elementary-aged kids — they have no idea what SEL is,” she said. “They’re not steeped in educational acronyms.”

“When you talk to parents and they understand what it is, they absolutely want it for their kids,” she said.

Yet not all parents trust schools to do a good job of cultivating their children’s social and emotional skills, and some believe schools are actively undermining the teachings of often more conservative parents.

Their mistrust has deepened in the months since CASEL updated its definition of SEL to include language about identity development, collective goal setting and fairness, and introduced a new form of SEL, “transformative SEL”, which focuses on civic action and social change.

According to the revised definition, SEL is not just a way to develop individual skills, but a tool to “address various forms of inequalities and empower young people and adults to co-create schools prosperous”. “Transformative SEL” takes this idea one step further, focusing on “interrogating social norms, disrupting and resisting inequality, and co-constructing fair and just solutions.”

For Samuel, the new emphasis on equity reflects the changing demographics of public schools, where more than half of students are children of color, as well as the recognition that the existing system is not serving many of these students well.

“It’s natural to step back and say, ‘How can we make sure that the work we do meets the needs of this generation of students?’ “, she said.

But Tyner said tying SEL to equity could lead some parents to lose interest in it, concluding it is for disadvantaged students, not their own children.

It also seems to animate parents who were already wary of SEL. At school board meetings across the country, parents protesting SEL curriculums and enforcement officers have cited CASEL’s new definitions as proof that SEL is CRT in disguise. Conservative commentators fanned the fire, with one calling Transformative SEL “a tool for developing small community organizers for left-wing causes.”

“Forget teaching kids to play nice – today’s SEL intends to propel them into Antifa,” wrote Jane Robbins for The Federalist, a conservative online magazine.

Screening officer controversy

Second Step is used in approximately 30,000 schools, reaching more than 20 million children per year.

Another battle over second-stage programs unfolded recently in West Bend, Wisconsin, but with a different outcome. There, the school board voted to keep the programs, but removed lessons encouraging collective action against bullying and harassment.

Meanwhile, at least one Florida district has purged all “SEL”-labeled materials from its programs, following the advice of the state Department of Education that labeled them “foreign.”

“Social-emotional learning is an unsolicited strategy that is not aligned with subject-specific standards,” the department’s publicist wrote in an email.

Elsewhere, controversy has centered on the use of socio-emotional “filters” to guide school-wide programming and identify students who might need extra support.

In New York, left-leaning parent groups and some school leaders have urged families to opt out of such screening, calling it invasive. They warn that sensitive student information could be exposed through a data breach or sale.

“My children are not the raw material of your Edu business,” said Maud Maron, vice president of PLACE NYC, a parent group focused on accelerated education. “You can’t exploit their sanity so you can sell us stuff.”

Aperture Education, the company that created the filter used in New York, said it does not share data outside of the school system and is rigorous about data security. According to Kristin Hinton, vice president of sales and marketing at Aperture, less than 4% of students were excluded from the survey.

Delia Veve, principal of Urban Assembly Media High School, which has used the filter for six years, said it has created a “shared language” around SEL, so teachers, parents and students all know to what a given skill looks like in practice.

“SEL is a large amorphous mass that people can interpret in many ways, and this filter is all about nuts and bolts,” she said.

It’s too early to tell if the politics surrounding SEL pose a long-term threat to the field, said Andrea Mainelli, senior adviser to Tyton Partners and co-author of a report on the rise of social-emotional learning. during the pandemic.

“It’s a disruption, there’s no doubt about it,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether the social and emotional spending spree will continue once federal funds dry up. Most schools have not yet identified sources of long-term funding.

To some extent, the continued growth of SEL will depend on the ability of districts to separate SEL from CRT and include parents — who are pushing for greater program transparency — in the program selection process. When asked if some of the current controversies could have been avoided if parents had been involved from the start, Samuel, CASEL’s president, said yes.

“We have to be intentional to make sure parents are at the table,” she added.

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This story on social and emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Seattle Times editor Jenn Smith contributed to this report.

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