Social-emotional learning coalition will fight back against politically motivated attacks
Proponents of social-emotional learning are going on the offensive in a bid to disentangle the teaching of skills like empathy and resilience from the polarization surrounding lessons about racism, sexuality and even American history .
Twenty organizations have formed a new coalition, Leading With SEL, which aims to quell misinformation about the practice by sharing “three decades of research” demonstrating that “SEL belongs in schools,” according to a statement describing the group and its efforts. The statement was authored by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit organization.
“It is no secret that over the past year we have seen multiple attempts to transform education [including] social and emotional learning into a political wedge issue for the upcoming elections,” said Justina Schlund, Senior Director of Content and Field Learning at CASEL. “I think there are a lot of mischaracterizations around social-emotional learning. And so, we’re working to clear up some of that.
The list of organizations joining the coalition includes groups representing educators and administrators, including AASA, School Superintendents Association; the American Association of School Counselors; Educators for Excellence; and the National Association of School Psychologists. Other coalition organizations include the National PTA and the Education Trust.
Over the past decade, schools have placed much more emphasis on “soft” or “future-ready” skills that educators believe will have long-term value. Although the term “SEL” means different things to different people, it generally refers to helping students control their emotions, have empathy for others, set goals, embrace perseverance, and think creatively.
But partly because it is defined so broadly, social-emotional learning has gotten mired in the same politically toxic fastthe sand such as topics such as racism, sexuality, and critical race theory, an academic perspective that argues that systemic racism is embedded in legal systems and policies and not just individual prejudice.
The conversation has become particularly lively as SEL becomes a key tool in helping students overcome the trauma of isolation and loss caused by COVID-19.
The coalition will provide parents and educators with resources to communicate more effectively about SEL and its goals, Schlund said. And he strives to raise the voice of parents who he believes are representative of what the majority of families think about SEL.
“A lot of what happens [media] coverage, much of what is re-shared on the internet is a small group of parents who are very vocal, who may be politically funded or attend their school board meetings,” Schlund said. “It becomes a lot of play and I think it distorts the real voice of parents and the will of parents on this issue.”
For example, CASEL points out that 88% of the more than 2,500 parents surveyed on behalf of the national PTA said they support the teaching of respect, cooperation, perseverance and empathy in schools – all key tenants of SEL.
But another report suggests SEL might have a trademark issue.
Eighty-nine percent of Democratic parents and 75 percent of Republican parents agreed that for students to reach their full academic potential, their social-emotional needs must be met, according to a survey conducted last year by YouGov and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But the name – social-emotional learning – ranked last on a list of 12 possible labels for this type of lesson. Favorite: “Life Skills.”
Fordham President Michael Petrilli, who served in the US Department of Education under President George W. Bush, sees this as a message for SEL fans.
The content they champion “has been part of the school pretty much forever,” he said. “How do you do kindergarten without teaching children to share and get along? Educators are not ideologues, they do not pursue an agenda. They’re just trying to teach kids how to work as a team and take care of themselves and things like that.
But having the concept defined so loosely leaves room for a problematic agenda, he said. Although this won’t happen in most school districts, SEL supporters, including the Coalition, should consider calling districts that use SEL to advance a political agenda to show that the Coalition is “listening to the minus these types of fears and concerns”.