Parents and teachers are constantly assailed with new education techniques claiming to “transform” student learning. Typically, these new techniques are just a repackaged version of the same old, failed methods. The latest fad in education is social-emotional learning (SEL), which has been dubbed progressive education's greatest victory and become a global phenomenon.
SEL advocates tell parents their product is a transformational tool that will spur greater academic achievement and personal fulfillment for students. However, numerous academic experts in SEL argue the evidence supporting these claims is shallow and that SEL presents tremendous risks to students’ psychological development, violates student privacy by collecting personal data (often without parental consent), and seeks to mold children into the type of human being the government deems most useful to the economy, society, and the state.
As Pioneer Institute scholars concluded, “SEL can replace parental influence with the ultimate nanny state.”
What is SEL?
Proponents of SEL call for focusing less on academic content and knowledge in schools and more on cultivating students' attributes, mindsets, values, and behaviors. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—the main presiding authority on SEL in pre-K and K-12 education—SEL is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
SEL seeks to foster five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
How could anyone disagree with this? Afterall, most parents want their children to be responsible, empathetic, and emotionally mature. Parents and various community institutions like churches or sports usually strive to instill these traits in their children. SEL attempts to replace these institutions with a government-endorsed morality curriculum.
SEL's ultimate objective is to fill the void of secularism in public schools. At its core, SEL shifts away from Judeo-Christian understanding about morality and objective truth and towards the self and group norms. For example, when considering whether or not to skip class, students only need to consider the norms of the school or their own personal self-interest. This vacuous relativism is indeed a shallow foundation on which to base serious moral questions.
“It's one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children,” explained Jane Robbins, co-author of “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” “But having a government vendor or unqualified school official implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.”
SEL pervades much of Idaho’s education system, including districts like West Ada and Coeur d’Alene. Last year, Gov. Brad Little and the Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra requested $1 million for training for school personnel on SEL in the professional development funding distribution for K-12 schools. This budget request was criticized in the House Education Committee, where some legislators argued social-emotional health is the parent’s job. The State Department and Board of Education included SEL in their back to school framework for 2020 and recommended the CASEL as a resource. Ybarra once again made SEL a top priority for 2021.
Harm to students from SEL Evaluations
SEL can be harmful to students' health. Instead of requiring mental health professionals to conduct children's psychological evaluations, CASEL recommends offering training to teachers or administrators to teach the material and evaluate whether students’ personalities and character traits are developing as desired. This explains why Idaho’s public officials were seeking $1 million for SEL professional development rather than hiring clinical psychologists.
SEL requires that already-burdened teachers conduct evaluations of children and measure adoption of the five core competencies. This is especially concerning given the ambiguities of assessing social-emotional traits among still-developing children and adolescents. Clinical psychologist Dr. Megan O’Bryan explained, “The idea that our government would sink millions of dollars into training and supporting unlicensed, quasi-trained teachers/interventionists in the hopes that they can improve the social and emotional development of masses of children frankly makes me sad.”
What happens if evaluations of students are incorrect or misleading? Clinical psychologist Dr. Gary Thompson told the Pioneer Institute, “Allowing inadequately trained, even if well intentioned, people to evaluate students’ attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, and intra-personal resources can be dangerous for the children who may be improperly labeled.”
Student Privacy and Data Systems
These amateur psychological evaluations are then stored in a database. Data is often collected without obtaining parental consent. For example, Coeur d’Alene schools’ SEL framework outlines how the district will conduct assessments, but the document never mentions consent; it states, “This aggregated data can also be used to inform community partners and stakeholders about progress in SEL initiatives.”
More worrisome, the framework states, “SEL formative and summative assessment data can be used to reveal disparities and which students are in need of additional support from the district staff.” This assertion is followed by a citation of the CASEL resource “Equity & Social Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis.” This paper argues for “making explicit issues such as power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, [and] social justice . . . in the field of SEL”
The paper heavily draws on critical race theory and concludes that SEL done through an “equity lens” requires teachers rejecting “colorblindness” and “power blindness.” In other words, SEL requires teachers to treat students differently based on their level of oppression (This is a topic I will discuss more deeply in Part 2).
All of this prompts an important ethical question: Will the SEL data gathered in the Coeur d’Alene School District eventually be used to motivate differential treatment of students based on their immutable characteristics?
Recognizing the threat of SEL evaluations and data collection requires understanding the nature of statewide longitudinal data systems (SLDS). As Pioneer Institute scholars explain, “It's only slightly hyperbolic to say that whatever parents know about their child, the SLDS knows it, too.”
Hundreds of data points live in a state’s SLDS, including race, ethnicity, income level, discipline records, grades, test scores, disabilities, mental health, medical history, counseling records, and more. SEL assessments and evaluations are also included in an SLDS.
All of this highly sensitive and extremely personal data about children’s personalities and behaviors is easily shareable outside of schools with postsecondary institutions, other states, non-education agencies, the workforce and in some cases foreign countries.
The danger of SEL is certainly far greater than amateur psychological interventions or coffee-table psychology. Former teacher Peter Greene offered a chilling warning, “At its worst, we are talking about crafting human beings to order and harvesting both them and their data in the service of those with power. We are talking about pushing them to be the people that someone else thinks they should be. This is not just bad policy, inappropriate pedagogy, or culturally toxic—this is evil.”.
SEL is the ultimate nanny state initiative.
Now, parents are left with serious ethical questions:
What right does the government have to psychologically evaluate students, monitor their behavior, and establish approved mindsets to be inculcated into children?
What right does the government have to use minimally-trained school personnel to probe childrens psyches, measure understanding, and record all this deeply personal information in an insecure data system?
What right does the government have to use these techniques not for the genuine cultivation of students' minds for their own sake but to mold them into the kinds of human beings the government deems most useful to the workforce and state?
And by what right does the government do any of this without consent from children's parents?
In the most mild cases, SEL might cause psychological harm or present moral relativism to kids, displacing parental and religious institutions duties. In the worst potential outcome, SEL is tyranny of the mind, molding children into pre-ordained paths intended to serve the state.
School administrators must return to doing the hard work of teaching traditional academic disciplines. This will do more to the benefit of children’s social-emotional health than well-intentioned SEL proponents could ever hope to achieve.
In my next installment, I will explain how SEL became a vehicle for critical race theory.