A survey given to all Austin Independent School District students in grades 3-11 this spring told children “Sex is what a person is born. Gender is how a person feels.” It then asked students to select whether they feel they are a “girl/woman,” “boy/man,” or “identify in some other way.” That was followed by a blank box for students to “describe how you identify.”
The Federalist obtained a copy of the survey through an open records request. The full survey is here, and a screenshot of the gender identity question below.
An AISD Student Climate Survey, which included the question this year, has been administered every year to students in grades 3-11 since the 2003-04 school year, district spokeswoman Samantha Alexander told me by email. Texas’s fifth-largest district supervises more than 83,000 children, according to federal data. Assuming an even distribution across grade levels, that means some 57,000 children took this survey this year.
The survey includes other response statements and questions such as “At my school, some students are treated unfairly because of who they are,” “At my school, there is respect for different cultures,” and “Do you ever feel unwelcome at school?” It is used “to examine factors contributing to student success beyond test scores,” Alexander wrote. Its primary authors were Lisa Schmitt and Karen Cornetto, said the district’s open records office, who are no longer listed on the district’s employee directory.
Yet “whether it’s comprehensive sex education or a survey, if you’re bringing stuff like that [sexuality] up you are potentially creating upset or conflict or just planting the idea” in young minds that may not be developmentally ready for it, said pediatrician and education researcher Karen Effrem in a phone interview about Austin’s survey. Research suggests that simply asking questions about specific behaviors, such as teen suicide or drug use, increases those behaviors.
The ill-defined subject matter of “school climate surveys” justifies asking any number of personal questions under the guise of assessing student feelings, and this practice is growing nationwide, not just in Austin. Many times, parents have no idea their children will be asked questions like this until after it happens, because they sign blanket approvals for such evaluations at the beginning of every school year.
It’s Not Just Austin, It’s Everybody
School climate surveys like Austin’s received a boost from the Republican-re-engineered Every Student Succeeds Act, the most comprehensive federal law regarding K-12. It updated No Child Left Behind in 2015. The revamp included allowing states to show “accountability” to the federal government on non-objective criteria such as children’s “socioemotional learning” (SEL).
So ESSA expanded No Child Left Behind’s much-detested mandates for testing children on academics into encouraging evaluations of children’s non-academic behaviors and feelings. Such soft measures are known as the “fifth indicator” in agreements between states and the federal government that keep federal subsidies flowing to K-12 schools. Special interest groups are using ESSA as a wedge to push schools into expanding school climate surveys.
Non-academic school climate questions on students’ “mindset” and “motivations” were added to the National Assessment of Educational Progress starting in 2017, the most reliable indicator of U.S. K-12 achievement over time also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Its various subtests are administered every spring in every school district in the nation. The NAEP’s governing law clearly states that the tests may not “evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs,” but it appears that provision is being skirted.
NAEP’s 12th grade school climate survey, for example, asked, “How often do you talk about things you have studied in school with someone in your family?” It also asked students to describe beliefs about themselves such as how hard they work and whether they like various aspects about school, and who lives in their home (i.e., a stepparent, mom’s boyfriend, etc.). Its fourth grade climate survey asked nine-year-olds to identify themselves as members of a specific race or ethnicity, their perception of their work ethic, and happiness and interest in school.
The eighth grade climate survey attached to the 2018 civics exam asks students to reveal whether they have their own bedroom, a smartphone, and a family clothes dryer. It also asks students to write their ZIP codes, and whether 13-year-olds think “I have good ideas for programs and projects that would help solve problems in my community.” And it asks how often the children “Discuss current political events or issues with others (for example, people in my home or friends)” and “Read about current political events in the media.”
The NAEP 2019 pilot test in reading asked eighth graders whether “I felt awkward and out of place at school” and “I felt my teachers treated me fairly.” That probably describes almost every eighth grader ever.
Probes Pushed By Special Interests, Federal Government
Schools are also beginning to monitor students’ emotions at the behest of school safety initiatives, both local and federal, including an approach known as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. “ESSA contains multiple provisions that affect early-childhood standards and curricula, and those provisions encourage and in some cases mandate inclusion of SEL,” says a 2019 Pioneer Institute report.
Special interest groups have been pushing for variations on the SEL idea for decades on the basis that schools can and should substitute for parents in shaping children’s character traits, social dispositions, and feelings. “One 2017 study by a pro-SEL organization estimated that K–12 public-school systems spend approximately $640 million each year on specific programming and practices designed to instill SEL,” the Pioneer report says. “Teachers also reported that they spend about eight percent of their time on SEL, which would translate into another $30 billion annual investment.”
The report notes that the nationwide growth in similar initiatives has been driven by federal involvement in education, codified earliest in President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 legislation in 1994, and deepening in every subsequent federal education law. Austin was a relatively early adopter of this education trend, and partners with the major SEL advocacy organization, CASEL (formerly the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning), to increase its use in classrooms. CASEL receives federal funds.
One of CASEL’s board members leads a federally funded Common Core testing organization, called Smarter Balanced. Common Core itself contains requirements that schools assess students on nonacademic measures such as “cooperation” and “persistence.” Schools often incorporate these kinds of requirements by politicizing curriculum, such as this example the Pioneer report gives of Common Core-compliant curriculum in Utah: “students use their voices to advocate solutions to social problems that they care deeply about. They are involved in learning…social advocacy.”
Unreliable Surveys Waste Tax Dollars and Kids’ Time
One of the major problems with relying on semi-psychological assessments like these school climate surveys is that they are extremely unreliable, said Effrem, the Pioneer report’s coauthor, in a phone interview.
“Even surveys and psychological screenings and things that are done by psychiatrists, highly trained psychiatrists, have enormously high false positive rates,” she said. “A lot of the self-report surveys are prone to bias and prone to the kids answering the way they think they should answer… So I don’t really care who does the survey, having them done at all and dealing with really controversial or subjective topics like feeling safe or gender identity, just isn’t a good idea.”
A meta-analysis study often cited by socioemotional monitoring proponents examined 213 studies on the topic spanning 270,034 students. It found the vast majority of so-called SEL research did not examine such programs’ effects on students’ academic achievement, “there is no standardized approach in measuring social and emotional skills,” and that ” Only a few studies tested and found a temporal relationship between [SEL] skill enhancement and other positive outcomes.”
Self-reported information, the dominant mode of information collection in psychological assessment, is well-known to be extremely unreliable. That is likely one of many factors contributing to the scientific replication crisis that acutely affects the field of psychology. In approximately the past five years, nearly every scientific domain has been up-ended by the discovery that thousands of research findings, even those that had reached the level of “settled science,” could not be reproduced when the studies were re-run.
Education research was also long known to be substandard, politicized, and biased even before the replication crisis was discovered. Thus, very little reliable evidence underlies what essentially amounts to experiments upon U.S. kids using U.S. tax dollars and precious moments that could instead be devoted to better instruction. Still the tax dollars, platitudes, and federal programs flow on, unchecked by reality.
Schools as Referral Centers for Government Programs
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that none of this is really promoting the goals publicly proclaimed for such initiatives, such as helping children.
“School climate surveys are basically being used to justify more money for subjective social-emotional stuff, whether it’s software or teaching, professional development, whatever, and data collection that is profiling kids,” Effrem said. “If you do these school climate surveys and they then say ‘We have to be mentally screening these kids,’ it will lead to a rash, as experts have admitted, of kids being referred for psychiatric evaluation and treatment when they don’t need it.”
Conveniently, many public employees and mental health “experts'” job security is only increased by labeling more children with psychological problems, and possibly increasing psychological problems by exposing children to identity-destabilizing material such as the false idea that gender is merely a feeling untethered to any biological reality. Research and parents’ experiences with rapid-onset gender dysphoria in teens supports the theory that increased exposure to sexual politics increases children’s transgender identification.
And since federal taxpayers sponsor health care for one-third of the nation’s children, through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the more children labeled as having mental problems and referred for related government services, the more it appears the nation “needs” these programs. It’s a win-win for people with political agendas, and a lose-lose for parents, taxpayers, and children.