Social Emotional Learning Was Always a Bad Idea

Now that it's politicized, it’s a nightmare.

As a longtime teacher, I have seen firsthand that education is a fad-filled field. Culturally responsive education, inventive spelling, new math, experiential learning, balanced literacy, etc. are educational styles that have come and gone and come and gone and….

One of the more enduring educational whims is Social Emotional Learning (SEL) which took off in the 1990s when the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) came into being, and hosted a conference with researchers, educators, child advocates, and others in the field. By integrating SEL in schools, the faithful claimed that they could “teach students critical life skills that will not only help their personal development but also their academic performance as well” and this, in turn, “creates a culture in which students and teachers respect one another and enjoy being together, further strengthening relationships and motivating both students and teachers to do their best.”

But as American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Robert Pondiscio explains, SEL has drifted ever closer to being a central purpose of education without a full and proper examination of its role, and has become an unwelcome intrusion into what has been traditionally the work of families, faith, culture, and other institutions. This has led to “schools assuming powers and responsibilities far beyond their brief and educators working beyond their training and expertise.” In other words, SEL has turned teachers into unlicensed psychotherapists. (It's worth noting that schools acting as therapists is rather ironic. As Erika Sanzi, director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, points out, schools are heavily involved with inflicting emotional damage on children. Whether teaching about the looming global warming apocalypse, that white 6-year-olds are oppressors, or that kids are viral vectors who could pass a deadly case of Covid to grandma, schools are cruelly creating unnecessary fears in children. As a result of this misinformation, it’s hardly surprising that the CDC reports, as of 2019, “diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral” disorders afflicted roughly one in five children under the age of 17.)

To bolster their sales pitch, the CASEL hucksters insist that SEL is “evidence-based.” But as Max Eden – a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute – notes, that argument is weak. He writes, “A 2017 RAND Corporation review identified 68 SEL studies meeting three tiers of evidentiary rigor. No studies within the top tier of evidentiary strength demonstrated benefits to academic achievement. Only one study within the second tier found benefits to academic achievement. Studies categorized within the third, weakest, tier of evidentiary rigor showed benefits across a variety of metrics, and we could debate how much stock to put in them.”

As first implemented, SEL was purely therapeutic in nature. It took a very dark turn, however, in 2020 when CASEL announced an ideological shift to “Transformative SEL,” which calls for students to “critically examine root causes of inequity.” According to CASEL, the concept of transformative SEL is a “means to better articulate the potential of SEL to mitigate the educational, social, and economic inequities that derive from the interrelated legacies of racialized cultural oppression in the United States and globally.” Slicing through the verbiage, it boils down to the fact that, SEL has become the therapeutic wing of the noxious Critical Race Theory. So now, kids are being radicalized and taught to feel good about it!

And of course, while kids are spending loads of time learning about power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, and social justice, they are not learning about things their parents actually send them to school for like English, math, science and history.

Not surprisingly, SEL is big business. A report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CASEL discloses that sales of SEL materials grew approximately 45% from $530 million to $765 million between November 2019 and April 2021. One of the benefactors of this horrible use of taxpayer money is none other than Panorama Education, co-founded by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s son-in-law. Yes, the same Merrick Garland who, in October 2021, tried to create an anti-parent frenzy when he issued a directive to the FBI, hysterically claiming, “In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.” As a corrective, Garland directed the FBI to “convene meetings with federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days of the issuance of this memorandum. These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response.”

But thankfully, many parents have already been awakened to the fact that children are front and center in the culture wars, and will not be intimidated by Merrick Garland, CASEL or SEL-infused curricula. In fact, a recent Fox News survey revealed that 80 percent of parents are “extremely” or “very” concerned about what our public schools are teaching. Instead, many are now homeschooling. And those who have not exited from the system are running for school board, or in the least going to school board meetings and making their opinions known.

Additionally, there is a growing demand for more transparency in schools. In fact, legislators in 19 states have introduced or already passed bills requiring curriculum transparency. Importantly, many moms and dads have involved themselves with organizations like the aforementioned Parents Defending Education which have the needs of families as their number one priority.

The war is on, and being a spectator is not an option.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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