As part of a nationwide effort to develop government standards for kids’ feelings, social behavior, and relationships, Tennessee public K-12 schools will establish “safe spaces where students can go to calm down without feeling like they’re being punished,” reports Chalkbeat Tennessee. On college campuses so-called “safe spaces” have become widely mocked as “First-Amendment-free zones,” progressive thought ghettos, and even prime locations for hate crimes.
Tennessee is working with seven other states to develop “social-emotional learning” requirements, something like a non-academic version of Common Core, with the privately and government-funded Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. An additional 11 states that applied to join this project but didn’t make it will be given the materials the initial eight develop. You can bet your buttons it won’t stop there.
The behavior checklists and data reporting systems these states ultimately develop “will establish social and emotional learning as a priority in education,” Pat Conner, the Tennessee Education Department’s director of safe and supportive schools, told Chalkbeat. As part of this initiative, Georgia plans to update its annual survey of K-12 students to include more questions about their feelings and relationships.
What ‘Social-Emotional Learning’ Means
This survey is already highly personal and uses suggestive questions about troubling and even illegal behaviors for students in between sixth and twelfth grades, which means answering can be self-incriminating. Often school officials will insist results are anonymized, but if students take the questionnaires online it is pretty easy to find out who gave specific answers. Examples taken directly from Georgia’s latest questionnaire, administered to all Georgia public-school students in 2016 (remember that many sixth graders are 11 years old):
- I am open towards different opinions and perspectives.
- My parents, or other adults at my home, think that education is important.
- My parents, or other adults at my home, are able to help me with my homework when I ask them.
- During the past 30 days, on how many days did you drink 5 or more drinks of alcohol in a row, that is, within a couple of hours?
- During the past 30 days, on how many days did you use a prescription drug painkiller without a doctor’s prescription?
- If you were going to drop out of school, what would most likely be the reason?
- Where do your friends usually use alcohol or tobacco?
- During the past 12 months, on how many occasions have you seriously considered harming yourself on purpose?
- During the past 12 months, if you have attempted suicide, what was the most likely reason? Suggested answers: I have not attempted; Because of the demands of school work; Problems with peers or friends; I do not feel safe at school; Family reasons; Being bullied; other.)
- How old were you the first time you used marijuana or hashish?
- How wrong do your parents feel it would be for you to use prescription drugs not prescribed to you?
- In the past 30 days, on how many days have you avoided food, thrown up, or used laxatives to make yourself lose weight?
The federal government has pushed states to create initiatives like this by demanding in the new federal law that replaces No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, that states include “non-academic measures” in school ratings. Despite this, all the leading researchers in this nascent field say the sorts of quasi-psychological measures are not at all reliable enough to be used to rate schools, states, or individual children. That’s not stopping boosters, however (it rarely does).
CASEL worked with Illinois to create the first state social-emotional learning requirements. Its classroom mandates include requiring late elementary students to “Demonstrate how to work effectively with those who are different from oneself” and “Describe approaches for making and keeping friends.” High school students must “Demonstrate ways to express empathy for others” and “Demonstrate respect for individuals from different social and cultural groups.”
It All Leads Back to ‘Safe Spaces’
Notice how subjective these are. “Respect”and “empathy,” for example, are open to interpretation: does it mean expressing agreement? Listening in silence as an expression of “checked privilege”? Validating ideas you disagree with? Hiding your true thoughts and ideas? Expanding peer pressure by shaming and silencing minority ideas? Also, here we have government demanding that young people exhibit certain feelings and social behaviors, and if they don’t, their schools could be dinged for it. That’s not only manipulative but creepy. In this category can also fall the fact that a number of the programs CASEL rates highly for social-emotional learning involve home visits and parent instruction.
To make a long story of many failed education initiatives short, social-emotional learning is simply a retread of a bad education idea that most prominently surfaced last in the 1980s under the name “outcomes-based education.” It, too, aimed to develop students’ non-academic skills in the promise that if schools take on the task that properly belongs primarily with parents and other institutions such as churches — developing kids’ moral sense, habits, and character — they would ultimately improve academics. Yet because this kind of schooling is inherently subjective and steered by government force instead of family choice, it facilitates emotional manipulation and political bias, not beneficial character formation or academics.
As former Education Secretary William Bennett wrote in 1993, “Increasingly, OBE is applied to the realm of behavior and social attitudes, becoming, in effect, a Trojan Horse for social engineering, an elementary and secondary school version of the kind of politically correct thinking that has infected our colleges and universities.” That’s what happened with this kind of “education” in the 1980s. It’s what’s going to happen with it again.
Promoters are already discussing how to use social-emotional learning to root out students’ “bias” and “discrimination” to achieve “social justice”: “We know that giving students skills and knowledge in bias and bullying are not enough–empathy and understanding are critical to get young people to want to make change, help other people or inspire them to be an ally,” says Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League (link original). The “ally” language is code for “agree in lock-step with the liberal social agenda on race and sexuality.” In other words, this is all about psychologically and emotionally manipulating children in order to push a certain political agenda.
The breakdown of the family has given folks like this an opening to seize more power from everyday Americans. Children do go to school unable to control themselves or treat teachers and classmates with respect, and it’s typically because of increasingly dysfunctional and chaotic homes. Political manipulation and intrusive surveys are not an answer for their real need, however. Yet neither is ignoring it.
Parents and communities need to hear that they are responsible for their children’s behavior, and that neighbors like me and you are happy to assist them in holding those standards high, starting with refusing to excuse ourselves and others from degrading our own marriages and family life, and doing the work necessary to establish and maintain strong, intact families and neighborhoods. Manipulation is not right, but neither is indifference.