by James A. Bacon
Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system, the state’s largest, is aggressively taking on a new role — mental health provider — under the rubric of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
As monitors of children’s mental health, teachers and school administrators will do double duty as social counselors and psychologists.
That expansive new mission is made clear in the controversy surrounding FCPS’s June signing of a $1.8 million contract with Panorama Education, a Boston-based data analytics firm, to provide a “universal screener for social and emotional learning.”
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Parents Defending Education, acquired the contract and the Request for Proposal upon which it was based.
“FCPS is committed to provide social and emotional learning for all students across all of their classrooms throughout the school day,” states the “background” section of the RFP. “Currently, schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S. As a result, it is essential that school staff are able to appropriately and proactively identify social-emotional barriers to students’ ability to access the academic curriculum.” (My bold)
Parents Defending Education, which arose in reaction to the spread of “woke” ideology in public schools, has drawn attention to sample survey questions that will be used to assess students’ “social emotional” status, including their responses to issues of race and gender. Responses from the social emotional “screening” will be used to help identify the need for “intervention” by the school. (Access the documents and see the group’s spin on them here.)
Given the track record of the Fairfax school system, there is every reason to worry that the data collected from the surveys will be used to advance a social-justice agenda. But other than the sample questions highlighted by Parents Defending Education, I could not find much explicit evidence in the RFP for that. The big story here is the evolution of schools from institutions that teach into institutions that address students’ mental health — a case of monumental mission creep.
Bacon’s Rebellion columnist Jim Sherlock was the first to draw attention to Social Emotional Learning in a public forum. He posted a series of articles based on Virginia Department of Education documents that evoked very little comment at the time, and disappeared like a stone through water. I will confess, I did not fully appreciate the significance of SEL at the time. Now that we’re getting a clearer idea of how SEL is being implemented at the school district level, those articles deserve a closer look.
Social Emotional Learning — We’re All Along for the Ride (March 5, 2021)
Social Emotional Learning is not some abstract concept emanating from educational theorists disconnected from the real world. It is being implemented now, with Fairfax County in the lead. The RFP provides more background:
FCPS is a catalyst that transforms our community’s most valuable resource, our children, helping to guide a thriving future for all our students and families. FCPS strives to inspire and empower our students to meet high academic standards, lead healthy and ethical lives, and be responsible and innovative global citizens. …
FCPS is committed to providing social and emotional learning for all students across all of their classrooms throughout the school day. Currently, schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S. As a result, it is essential that school staff are able to appropriately and proactively identify social-emotional barriers to students’ ability to access the academic curriculum.
Research shows that when schools embed SEL into the school day with fidelity, it improves children’s lives, the culture of the school, and teacher well-being. Schools report increased academic success, enriched relationships between teachers and students, and decreases in aggression. Students’ mental health improves, and they are more likely to become caring family members, innovative workers, ethical leaders, and engaged citizens. A universal screener for social and emotional learning enables school staff to proactively identify and address the social and emotional needs of their students, which can help promote these positive outcomes.
What could possibly go wrong?