It strikes me as ironic that in a realm like education, the lesson America’s scholastic visionaries never seem to learn is also the most simple lesson of all—that education should be about educating. Theorists persist in reinventing the wheel, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes in the service of agendas that are rather less defensible and/or wholesome than those publicly stated. Such is the case with the hottest currency to emerge from the pointy-headed precincts of pedagogical theory: social-emotional learning, or SEL.
SEL assumes as its mandate “the education of the whole child,” a lodestar concept among today’s educational brain trust. Though the approach has been gaining traction for about a decade, SEL is now poised for what is sure to be its flagship implementation. As New York mayor and erstwhile presidential candidate Bill de Blasio vowed in a recent article for Fortune, SEL is to be rolled out “in every classroom,” serving the 1.1 million school kids of the sprawling New York City system. The mayor goes on to describe a prototype for the plan: We glimpse a morning at a Brooklyn junior high school that begins with a town hall meeting at which students share their latest positive experiences and commiserate over their latest travails. It’s an anecdotal statement of de Blasio’s SEL-driven thesis that ‟[t]he emotional well-being of students is vital to their success in school.”
That sounds plausible enough on the surface, so let’s get a bit more granular. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), has emerged as SEL’s leading advocacy group, with friends in the highest of places, including at least two ex-presidents and the National Education Association. According to CASEL, social-emotional learning is:
The process through which children…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.
By now one starts to get the sense that any points of intersection between this and hardcore book learning are pure happenstance. Similarly, browse the more expansive list of 15 SEL goals in this piece and you’ll be struck by the preponderance of the social and the relative absence of the learning. Not surprising, inasmuch as another popular SEL tip sheet deems it advisable “to incorporate SEL skill-building into academic instruction whenever possible.” As we move along, you’ll also notice how many of the phenomenon’s goals seem rooted in today’s social justice pieties.
In any case, it should be apparent that implementing all this necessarily presupposes some dilution of the traditional nuts-and-bolts curriculum—the diversion of finite class time to topics and methodologies that have nothing to do with mastering, say, long division. The gurus of SEL make no apologies for this. Rather, as de Blasio insists in his Fortune piece, “these are hard skills….just like reading and math, that must be taught, practiced, and strengthened over time.”
SEL’s unflinching emphasis on the so-called “non-cognitive factors” in cognition is bad news for all supporters of no-nonsense education—that is, the kind that doesn’t encourage students to devote class time to communicating their current emotional status to their peers via emojis, as has happened in some SEL implementations. For while New York’s mayor frames this as a watershed moment in education, we already have a compelling case history in what happens when education is reconfigured around factors extrinsic to schooling’s basic mission. The notion that an emotionally nourished “whole child” should be better at math than his less contented counterpart rests on the same spurious assumptions as self-esteem-based education, which proved such an unmitigated disaster in terms of measurable outcomes that by the turn of the millennium it was repudiated by even some of its loudest early voices.
Indeed, to some educational observers, this is déjà vu all over again (to quote the immortal Yogi Berra). As Chester E. Finn Jr., distinguished senior fellow at of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argued in a controversial essay for Education Week, self-esteem education has not disappeared, but rather continues to thrive “across a broad swath of America’s K-12 schooling, supported by foundation grants, federal funding, and both nonprofit and for-profit advocacy groups”—except the name has changed “to social-emotional learning.” Educational theorists of the 1960s reasoned, based on pure supposition, that subpar academic performance resulted from subpar self-esteem. Ergo, they surmised, rectifying that deficit would pay dramatic dividends in overall educational excellence, especially among at-risk students. One major task force report “ascribed ‘near-magical powers to self-esteem,’” writes Finn, insisting that it “inoculates [children] against the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and educational failure.”
But these would-be educational reformers encountered an immediate stumbling block: Any excellence that surrounded underperforming students might get in the way of the inspirational vibe administrators hoped to establish. It would do little good to sell the mantra that “you’re all winners!” if students could simply glance at their test papers or report cards, compare to those around them, and realize that they were plainly losers. So, administrators decided that they had to de-emphasize excellence in order to achieve the self-esteem benefits that would drive excellence. They regarded this incoherence as just a “temporary” concession to a paramount goal.
There ensued a wholesale celebration of mediocrity. Schools abandoned honor rolls so as not to bruise the feelings of those who failed to make the cut. Red ink disappeared from students’ papers as administrators mandated that teachers make corrections in less “stigmatizing” colors. Teachers were encouraged to recognize the originality and classroom contributions of so-called “individual spellers and pronouncers,” who for whatever reason couldn’t get the hang of orthodox spellings and pronunciations; this was especially desirable in cases where corrections risked treading upon cultural or ethnic sensitivities. Counselors championed pass/fail grading and social promotion, wherein substandard students, instead of being left back, were promoted to keep their friendship circle intact. Kids’ shirts and blouses became bulletin boards for a hodgepodge of ribbons and pins that commemorated everything but genuine achievement: effort, attendance, a cheerful attitude. Children in one lackluster southern school district disembarked from buses each day to be greeted by a full-length mirror inscribed: ‟You are now looking at the most important person in the world!”
In subsequent decades, it became clear that academic greatness is not what generous dollops of self-esteem promote. In 1963, the liminal margin of America’s national experiment in teaching self-love, there began an uninterrupted 18-year slide in SAT scores. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28 percent to an astonishing 83 percent, as teachers systemwide felt increasing pressure to adopt more “supportive” grading policies. Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competency, Koreans highest—but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, Americans placed highest, Koreans lowest. (What the system had actually wrought were school-kids who believed the hype about themselves and took new pride in the same old mediocre performance.) Meanwhile, 1999’s omnibus Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking twelfth-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only such historic hotbeds of innovation as South Africa, Lithuania, and Cyprus.
The Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem cannot compete academically with cultures, mostly throughout Asia, where no one worries much about cute emojis or those ‟non-cognitive” factors. As psychologist and author Michael J. Hurd once told me, “Kids don’t feel better about themselves and then do better in school. They do better in school, then feel better about themselves.” Educational researchers also learned that those temporary relaxations in standards had to be institutionalized systemically after students who were shunted on to the next level couldn’t do the higher-level work, either. The fallout lingers: today, the number of incoming college freshmen who need remedial courses in order to handle college work hovers at an abysmal 50 percent.
There were unintended emotional and behavioral consequences as well, captured memorably in a 2004 Alexandra Wolfe essay, “American Coddle.” Wolfe described a generation who, thanks to unending infusions of ego amplified by helicopter parents, have insufferable expectations and get damned cranky when those expectations aren’t met—kids who act as though they might never encounter so much is a speed bump on their journey to fulfillment everlasting. Other observers intuited even darker consequences. The work of psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge suggests that the frustrated entitlements stoked by the self-esteem movement play a significant role in the rise of the incel community and mass shootings, and today’s epidemic of suicides.
More troubling still, SEL’s elevation of social behavior above all else makes it the perfect Trojan Horse for delivering indoctrination in social justice themes. SEL literature is awash in familiar references originating in academia’s activist wing, from talk of an “emotionally safe” learning environment to “culturally responsive classrooms” that honor the “primacy of group differences.” Other sections of the SEL canon seem to have been lifted, at least in part, from intersectionality and critical race theory. One Stanford white paper even uses the phrase ‟social-justice education” interchangeably with social-emotional learning.
This is a highly politicized vision of social progress indeed. And because teachers wield the power of the gradebook, compliance with such outlooks can be forced upon suggestible students. “Here we have government demanding that young people exhibit certain feelings and social behaviors, and if they don’t, their schools could be dinged for it,” SEL critic Wendy Pullman writes in the Federalist. “That’s not only manipulative but creepy.” So, when de Blasio writes in Fortune that children must learn to “embrace diversity” and “challenge stereotypes,” he is not using those words in their neutral, generic senses, bur rather to evoke the omnibus set of justice imperatives surrounding the righting of historic wrongs, the undoing of privilege, and so forth. SEL assumes that injustice has put certain groups at an almost congenital disadvantage, and seeks to build consensus for the idea that remedies must be undertaken.
This ethic is legible in the first major proposal to emerge from a task force impaneled by de Blasio to improve diversity in what is (improbably?) ranked as the nation’s most segregated school system. The School Diversity Advisory Group recommended eliminating New York’s “gifted and talented” programs as well as “selective admissions” screening for many of the city’s better-performing schools. De Blasio’s influential hand-picked education czar, Richard Carranza, cites the steps as necessary to achieve the regime’s full-throated commitment to an educational system in which, a decade from now, the typical school reflects the melting-pot demographics of the city as a whole. As it stands today, New York’s gifted-and-talented programs are overwhelmingly populated by Asian and white students (in that order), who also win the bulk of available slots in the magnet schools with demanding admissions criteria.
The task force’s plan harks back to the downwardly mobile thinking of the self-esteem movement, effectively penalizing superior achievers for creating the imbalances that so embarrass equity-minded mayors like de Blasio. The plan “solves” the disparity somewhat in the manner that thoroughbred handicappers make races fairer by forcing top horses to carry added weight. It is clear from de Blasio’s public statements that what he seeks is educational homogeneity: all student bodies basically look the same, all students basically receive the same instruction.
This is a common thread in SEL-inspired thinking: Everyone meets at the same level. Alas, except in exalted environments like MIT or Harvard Law, educational homogeneity seldom occurs at the level of excellence. Throw poor learners into a class to achieve a jury-rigged demographic balance and the teachers will have to teach down to lowest common denominator, lest they risk losing the lesser students entirely. One supposes that such tactics strike progressively-minded administrators as a relatively easy way of achieving a more balanced, equitable system. But why stunt the growth of the better-performing students who are the most likely spark plugs of the engine of American progress?
Beyond that—and just as unforgivably—what is the message to the minority children that these strategies are supposed to benefit: that in a meritocratic system, you can never hope to compete? What is the message to minority parents? That programs reserved for the “gifted and talented” cannot achieve a desired level of minority representation, so if we seek full integration we must scrap those programs as well as all criteria designed to assess educational readiness? There is no way around the implication that integration and excellence cannot peacefully coexist. Seldom has there been a more naked statement of the cynicism embodied in what George W. Bush speechwriter and policy adviser Michael Gerson dubbed the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
The better approach would be to invest meaningfully in the lousy schools that leave minority children so ill-prepared to compete. But that step is hard, costly and time-consuming. It is so much easier and politically expedient to make a grand gesture—simply doing away with programs and assessments that make minority children look bad. At its outer limits, SEL-based thinking opens the door to some truly bizarre curricula. Seattle, a historic hotbed of progressive-inflected education, has implemented in its public schools its Ruler program, a customized version of SEL. One manifestation is “Math Ethnic Studies, a K-12 slant on the “power dynamics” underlying arithmetic. Check out some of the topics listed here. Aside from wasting class time in a subject that’s difficult enough for some to master as it is, such coursework undermines the pursuit of an all-important STEM lingua franca by stoking suspicion of math and science…by blaming the tools for the misuse of those tools.
To return to where we began: Education should be about educating. When that mission is hijacked or distorted by extraneous or overarching goals, everyone suffers—most notably the innocent children who were the putative beneficiaries of your enlightenment. Yes, black Americans are still redlined and sometimes forced to pay exorbitant rent for dubious housing; that has nothing to do with whether they have sufficient math skills to properly balance their checkbooks after paying that rent. In the end, today’s “enlightened” SEL approaches seems guaranteed to offer (at best) justice for some, and mediocrity for all.
Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham
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