Social-Emotional Learning — We Are All Aboard for the Ride

James Lane
Superintendent of Public Instruction

by James C. Sherlock

A new educational theory has been implemented while most were not looking.  

The educational-industrial complex is all-in on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Behold the circle of life of that complex:  

  1. Many education schools have for a very long time been producing “studies” under government grants awarded by ed school grads that prove that SEL will solve, well, everything – including the poor outcomes of everything they researched and credited with magical powers before SEL. This is called “academic inquiry” by actual educational institutions with fewer closed loop interests and higher standards.
  2. The same education schools teach it.
  3. Virginia education policymakers and graduates of the education schools, have fully embraced it. 
  4. Lots of ed school graduates working as consultants are available to spend all those newly minted hundreds of billions of “COVID” dollars sent to the schools. 
  5. There are lots of new jobs in the schools for SEL staffers, ed school grads all.  
  6. And all of that will last until the ed schools come up with a new silver bullet theory to fix the problems created by SEL. This is done by renaming and expanding it.
  7. Go to number 1, set the money cycle on re-wash and press start.

SEL of course, being a full-service silver bullet, requires its own bureaucracies, teacher reeducation, teacher mentors called “coaches”, curricula, classroom time, lesson plans, “data” that need to be viewed through an “equity lens” and of course money, lots of it. 

Fairfax County Public Schools claims that “research (see educational-industrial complex above) shows” that SEL will produce increases in academic achievement, prosocial behaviors, better attitudes, a reduction of mental health problems, a decrease in dropout rates and big money savings by eliminating “costly interventions.” And a lower carbon footprint (just kidding – I think).

Many, including me, will have questions that more studies by the educational-industrial complex will not be trusted to answer.  

Start with: “Did Virginia’s K-12 schools not have enough to do before we dropped SEL on them?” Many will question its costs of all kinds — the time and energy of administrators, teachers and students, the overarching monitoring and control mechanisms imposed to ensure compliance and, of course, the money.

And it is in full swing in Virginia.  

Parents and taxpayers are left to hope it “works.. The Left likes it because it is woke and compulsory — two golden calves of progressive religion.  

The average citizen wonders how it will affect the kids, how teachers can find the “free” time to try to make it work and who the teacher “coaches” will be. And he wonders how “SEL works” is defined and by whom.

How is Virginia involved?

From the VDOE website: 

“The Virginia Department of Education’s social emotional learning (SEL) efforts are driven by our commitment to ensure that every student in Virginia attends a school that maximizes their potential and prepares them for the future: academically, socially, and emotionally.”  

From the Richmond Public Schools website:

“All students will have a Social Emotional Learning curriculum.”

Both websites direct the reader to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) for additional information and resources.  

I took the challenge.  

SEL has been inflated to a point that defies parody. I urge each reader to consider this for what it is — a major addition to the responsibilities and time required of administrators, teachers and children. Think of it in the context of what is asked of them before this particular leap of faith intruded into their lives. 

In the Richmond Public Schools, for example, two years ago 49% of black students tested in the fourth grade could not read. One has to consider whether this new SEL curriculum will help fix that, or is even intended to do so. RPS is informed by the knowledge that  

“SEL content and objectives are integrated into rigorous instruction through interactive and collaborative pedagogies.” 

It is perhaps impertinent to ask at what point RPS instruction became “rigorous” for those black fourth graders.

SEL as defined by its proponents

The Social-Emotional Framework offered by CASEL includes: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision Making, Relationship Skills and Social Awareness.  

Proceeding to the CASEL ‘SEL Essentials’ , we see that the process for school wide SEL is broken down into ‘Focus Areas’:

  • Build awareness and commitment and ownership,
  • create a plan,
  • strengthen adult (teachers and staff) SEL,
  • promote SEL for students,
  • reflect on data for continuous improvement.   

Standard stuff so far. But it has a “Rubric Dashboard.” If you want to really understand the size of this octopus you must go there. SEL took a good idea — make kids more comfortable in the classroom — and blew it up beyond recognition by the financially-rewarding steroid injections of the educational industrial complex.

One example.  Readers will be comforted to know the answer to the question “Why is equity a critical lens for data reflection? It is posed and answered by CASEL.

“Looking at collected data as a team is an indispensable part of the continuous improvement cycle. Reflecting on data produces new insights, which in turn inform new actions to support systemic SEL implementation. While data can provide many insights, it does not easily show the full reality and lived experience of those it represents. Without an equity lens, conversations about data often lead to ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions that obscure biases and ignore differences in environment, identity, and culture. Data reflection should inform decision-making that promotes equitable outcomes for all members of the school community.”

All aboard

The SEL train is halfway to wherever it is going. We are all aboard.

And we hope someone finds the time to teach those those Richmond kids how to read.