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Meet ‘Social-Emotional Learning’: New Education Fad, Same As The Old Fads


Fads are ubiquitous in American public education, and they’ve only intensified with the increased federalization and bureaucratization of schools. Parents and educators are bombarded with claims that this or that new teaching method will “transform” student learning. Too often, the highly touted technique is little more than a repackaged version of another highly touted technique that has already failed.

However, failure doesn’t come with consequences in American public education, and success is seldom replicated. As a result, some of these fads, boosted by new technologies, linger and even thrive, threatening to inflict harm long after their much-deserved expiration date. Such is the case with social-emotional learning (SEL).

SEL has been defined as “the process by which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” However, many SEL experts admit there is no consensus on the definition, much less what elements should be included and assessed in SEL programs.

In a nutshell, it’s the latest fad to send the same old message pushed by progressives for more than a century that education should focus less on knowledge of academic content and more on student attitudes, mindsets, values, and behaviors. Does Emily demonstrate sufficient leadership? Does John show the right amount of empathy? SEL cheerleaders also seem hopelessly mired between the competing goals of promoting government-determined, standardized attitudes and assessments, and assuring everyone that they care about children as individuals.

The federal government is pushing SEL on state and local education systems through prescriptive school accountability requirements, grants, and other programs—more than 100 federal programs in seven federal departments and a myriad of agencies, helpfully listed by proponents, even as they say SEL should be a state and local endeavor.

As admitted by the U.S. Department of Education and national special-interest groups, SEL is an integral part of the Common Core State Standards and Competency-Based Education (CBE) movements. CBE digitally documents attainment of SEL and other skills to declare a student ready to move on in his or her “personal learning path,” and supplies data for corporations wanting employees with attitudes fitting their plans. Both these movements are failing academically, and SEL further dilutes the already sub-standard academic education of both.

True to the historical playbook, proponents present SEL as the transformational tool that will propel students to greater academic achievement and personal fulfillment. The scientific and academic evidence for these enthusiastic claims, however, is thin to non-existent. This does not even address SEL’s significant risks to student privacy and health.

SEL proponents acknowledge the problems associated with assessing it. So far, no reliable, objective way exists to measure a student’s personality, values, and mindsets.

The technology industry has stepped up to try and address this problem, creating sophisticated software that can supposedly determine students’ most sensitive personality traits via their interactions with digital platforms. Sometimes these platforms use wearable devices that track pulse, eye movements, and other physiological representations of affective states.

Corporations boast about being able to collect millions of actionable data points per student per day. Worse, the software too often goes beyond assessing traits and enters the dangerous terrain of reshaping schoolchildren to fit a desired widget-like “mold.”

That “mold” is predictable to those with an awareness of failed education experiments. Following in the footsteps of Common Core, SEL represents the latest manifestation of efforts to turn education into workforce development. Today, shaping children into the kind of people employers deem most useful has too frequently become the top priority instead of providing students the tools to fulfill their academic dreams.

This, of course, raises the issue of whether it’s appropriate for government-run public schools to play this role. It’s one thing to direct the moral, ethical, or emotional development of yourself or your children. It’s another entirely to have government technology vendors or school personnel with minimal training in psychology and unknown biases and beliefs delve into that realm.

The combination of technology, SEL, and related mental screening being promoted in the wake of school shootings has ratcheted up the recent wave of amateur psychoanalysis in schools—sadly, a trend that will likely continue. The lack of training among school personnel is especially concerning, since even highly trained professionals admit they cannot predict who will become violent, and data collected during these processes can follow children for their entire careers, with life-altering consequences.

The most dangerous ones are the continued increases in the over-diagnosis and over-medication of American schoolchildren, a fact even acknowledged by a psychiatrist who is a national mental-screening proponent. This same psychiatrist recognized the uncertain effects of these powerful drugs on children’s developing brains and other harmful and even potentially fatal side effects.

All this, including decisions about what attitudes should be promoted, what interventions are used to modify behavior, and what sensitive SEL data is collected, often occurs without notifying or obtaining consent from the children’s parents. SEL goes well beyond encouraging students to do their best and believe in themselves. It uses technology in a feeble attempt to measure, assess, and make predictions based on a child’s most private and personal characteristics.

All of this carries a cost, often hidden. Despite the ongoing lack of any reliable, objective, research-based method to measure or assess a student’s personality, values, and mindset, national spending in SEL in K-12 public schools already tops $30 billion annually and is likely to increase.

Rather than these misguided pursuits, public education should turn its attention to promoting genuine academic achievement by focusing on curricula that are locally derived and controlled. If we start there, the results will continue to be far better than those produced by faddish pop psychology and diluted academic content.