The U.S. Department of Education (USED) longs to plumb the psyches of our children (as its own reports reveal – see here and here), and it enjoys the eager complicity of state education establishments. As reported by Education Week, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recently announced that eight states will “work collaboratively to create and implement plans to encourage social-emotional learning in their schools.” These states are jumping on a bandwagon that threatens to roll over innocent children and their privacy.
CASEL is the big gorilla in the zoo of social-emotional learning, or SEL. Having proved so adept at (or perhaps having given up on) teaching students English, math, science, and history, state progressive-education establishments are joining CASEL to explore more esoteric pursuits. Better to diminish academic content knowledge and push SEL: “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.”
The average parent might object, “Wait, that’s what my child learns from me and from Sunday school.” But CASEL & Co. believe the government should take over in case the parents and church don’t do it right — perhaps teaching the wrong attitudes and mindsets.
Suppose the government decides a child will be a more acceptable student, citizen, and worker bee if he learns to acquiesce to the “consensus” of the group, regardless of his own moral standards, or if she learns to accept that all commands of the government must be obeyed. The student may fulfill the standard by developing the correct attitudes, but under whose authority does the government presume to instill attitudes that may conflict with parents’ desires?
These eight states (California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington) have thus joined a few others in assuming the right to substitute their authority for the parents’ in children’s most intimate and personal development, from pre-K through graduation. In doing so, the nanny states are acting in the spirit of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which encourages rating of schools based partly on “nonacademic” factors that may include measures of SEL, and which provides funding for a range of potentially SEL programs. Thank you, Speaker Ryan, for ramming this bill through.
Assessment and development of students’ social and emotional skills is risky business. What kind of training will teachers or other school personnel have for this responsibility? Psychologist Dr. Gary Thompson points out the extremely sensitive nature of evaluating children’s social-emotional makeup and warns about having inadequately trained personnel implementing plans designed to alter students’ psyches.
When non-psychologists dabble in these murky waters, the result is tremendously subjective analyses of what a child is thinking or feeling as opposed to what the government thinks he should be thinking or feeling. Dr. Karen Effrem, who has researched and written extensively about the issue of SEL, warns about the subjectivity of this kind of analysis, particularly with young children.
Even prominent SEL proponents caution that assessing students on SEL standards, especially with the common mechanism of student surveys, can be a shot in the dark. Researchers Angela Duckworth and David Yeager have said that “perfectly unbiased, unfakeable, and error-free measures are an ideal, not a reality.”
Dr. Effrem and Dr. Thompson both warn also about the extraordinary threat to student privacy that implementation of SEL standards would present. With states’ building longitudinal student databases that track children from cradle to career, it’s inevitable that data collected from observing and analyzing children’s emotional states will be preserved . . . forever. And because USED has gutted federal student-privacy law to allow sharing of personally identifiable information on students with almost anyone the government wants, that data is likely to be widely disclosed – without parental consent.
If a child’s school dossier says he doesn’t meet an SEL standard for, say, anger-management, could that come back to haunt him? Maybe when he applies to college, or for a job, or enlists in the military, or . . . goes on trial for a crime?
Dr. Thompson points out, as well, that these records (containing what is rightly considered medical information) would be characterized as education records and therefore not protected by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). “Placed in the wrong hands,” he warns, “psychological testing can ruin lives as well as cause psychological trauma to people” if the results are misused.
According to the monolithic progressive-education establishment in this country, SEL is the next big thing to fix the problems with public education. The same was true of outcome-based education, and Common Core, and fads infinitum. But this fad isn’t just ineffective, it’s dangerous. Parents should demand a halt to pseudo-psychology – and a restoration of their autonomy in raising their children.