Education

‘Social-Emotional Learning’: The Next Fight in Education

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A trendy new progressive education concept would prioritize gauzy (likely left-wing) ‘character development’ at schools over actual learning.

Last week, the organization Parents Defending Education pressured Panorama, an education company that provides curricular materials and professional development to 1,500 districts, to remove a controversial training on its site. Called ‘Social-Emotional Learning as a Guide to Equity,” the course is replete with concepts such as privilege, anti-racism, equity, intersectionality, and other progressive buzzwords. In recent months several school boards have succumbed to controversy over the implementation of similar SEL programs.

While this three-letter acronym is less known and more euphonious than its CRT cousin, it may soon eclipse CRT as the acronym under debate in education.

At best SEL is a secularized character education devoid of virtue or any foundation on objective morality; the theory justifies emotional competence not because it’s objectively preferable but for the utilitarian, economic, academic benefits it provides. Tolerance and open-mindedness replace humility and justice. Robert Pondiscio, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, sums up SEL by saying that it changes the role of the teacher from “pedagogue” to “therapist.” At worst it’s a sly shoo-in for a politicized education couched in therapeutic terms.

People may not be familiar with SEL, but not so long ago, people didn’t know about CRT either. It has the potential to entrench itself in classrooms in the same way. Max Eden, also an AEI fellow, suggests that SEL could be the next debate on par with “common core.”

This quiet upending of education’s traditionally understood role raises all sorts of moral and ethical concerns. But before we even ask those questions, there’s one that’s more fundamental: Regardless of whether I think schools should teach things such as social-emotional learning, I wonder if they effectively can. Something tells me that a course about how “kindness is cool” will falter, and all our efforts will be for naught.

Education has a knack for hastily pushing dubious fads. Before SEL there was a “growth mindset” — the idea that if students believed that intelligence was malleable and they could learn, they were more likely to do so. When I began teaching, everyone was talking about it. My principal had a shelf of copies of Carol Dweck’s best-selling book on the topic, which he offered to every staff member who came by his office.

Growth mindset fell from grace, but not because it was wrong. Rather, it is unclear whether schools can actually affect its presence in students for the positive or negative. A meta-analysis in 2018 found that many interventions that sought to modify a student’s views of intelligence were largely ineffective. Intelligence may be malleable, but our views about intelligence tend not to be. We think what we think, and a few mini-lessons from teachers are unlikely to change that.

Things such as “growth mindset” and other SEL terms are so complex — home life, family values, friends, cultural messaging, and genes all affect them — that we should be skeptical that a school can actually do much to influence their presence or absence in children.

Preliminary research forebodes a similar fate for SEL. The most comprehensive review of the literature that I’ve found comes from the RAND Institute. They identified only “eight interventions at the high school level” with some positive results, and none of these were confirmed by the highest “tier” of evidence within the review (i.e. randomized controlled trials). In other words, there is little to no evidence so far that SEL interventions provide academic, social, or emotional benefits, and the evidence that has come forth is not rigorous.

And none of this matters much until we ask, “compared to what?” There is limited time in a school day; any time spent deputizing teachers into a therapeutic role far beyond their training and expertise is time not spent doing something more beneficial.

There are interventions that have a track record of success in place of vague, pseudoscientific programs. For example, Mississippi recently revamped its reading instruction statewide, emphasizing an approach to instruction so grounded in research that practitioners call it the “science of reading.” After this intervention, Mississippi went from scoring among the bottom to among the top states in standardized reading scores.

Few would question that schools ought to adopt some scheme of character formation. Doing so dates back to classical conceptions of education. The pertinent questions are “how?” and “what?” When a young woman came up to me and told me that Romeo and Juliet was the first book that “got her” and gave actual advice for her life, is that character education? When I mentored a kid, helping him process some personal difficulties every study hall, was that social-emotional learning?

All this inefficacy belies a deeper problem with our education system. While politicized lesson plans are certainly a problem, a prevailing mediocrity is arguably even more endemic. We jump onto and revel in every passing fad, ignoring the tried, tested, and true. Our schools become more institutions of emotional and political development, which they may or may not be able to accomplish, in place of academic development, which they most certainly can.

When schools adopt rigorous curricula full of great books and effective instructional techniques, character education follows naturally. If schools instead spend gobs of money on trendy interventions in place of what we know they can accomplish — reading, writing, arithmetic, and other academic topics — the evidence seems to suggest that we’re likely to get little of either. As they like to say, follow the science.

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Daniel Buck is a teacher and a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. His writing can be found at National Review Online, City Journal, and Quillette.

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