New Study Finds Multiple Problems with Push for Social-Emotional Learning in K-12 Education

Press Release

Little research evidence for, or objective, reliable way to measure SEL’s efficacy; raises significant concerns about student health and privacy

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BOSTON – Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been billed as a transformational tool that will propel students to greater academic achievement and personal fulfillment.  Unfortunately, as a new Pioneer Institute study makes clear, the research evidence to back up these claims is thin and unpersuasive. Moreover, the risks SEL poses to student privacy and health are significant.

Proponents of SEL call for focusing less on academic content and knowledge in schools, and more on student attributes, mindsets, values, and behaviors.  Not only are the goals of SEL ill-defined, but they also raise significant, unanswered questions about what attitudes should be promoted.

“It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children,” said Jane Robbins, co-author of “Social-Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.”  “But having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.”

Video: Authors of New Pioneer Report Discuss Social-Emotional Learning

Educational software developers purport to have created products that can determine a number of sensitive personality traits through students’ interaction with digital platforms.  Much of this monitoring occurs without the consent of children or their parents. Some software — especially for video gaming — goes beyond assessing traits, and aims to encourage the production of students who are well suited for a workforce development-centered education.

“This technology, when coupled with SEL, will further spread the recent wave of amateur, unqualified psychoanalysis in schools,” said Dr. Karen Effrem, M.D., who co-authored the study with Robbins. “Given the uncertainty around diagnosis and treatment of mental or emotional problems, even by highly trained physicians, the SEL movement runs the risk of further increasing the trend toward dangerous over-diagnosis and over-medication of American schoolchildren.”

Social-emotional learning is being interwoven into the Common Core State Standards and school efforts to implement competency-based education (CBE). CBE digitally documents the attainment of various skills with the goal of demonstrating that a student is ready to move on in his or her “personalized learning path.”  SEL and CBE are heavily weighted toward a conception of education as focused on workforce development rather than preparing active, informed citizens.

Nationally, in 2018, federal, state, and local governments invested more than $30 billion annually to implement SEL in K-12 public schools. The level of expenditure is surprising considering tight public school budgets and the lack of any reliable, objective, researched-based method to measure or assess a student’s personality, values, and mindsets as SEL proponents admit.

Researcher and standards analyst Robbins and Dr. Effrem, a pediatric medical doctor, call for ending taxpayer-funded implementation and expansion of SEL assessments, standards, and other programs in public schools.

The paper also features a foreword by Dr. Kevin Ryan, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility, formerly known as the Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character, at the Boston University School of Education.

In place of SEL, the co-authors urge educators to refocus on a key lever that led to Massachusetts’ rise to the highest-performing K-12 state in the nation — genuine academic achievement through state and locally developed standards, assessments, and curricula — rather than classroom content of dubious academic value based on pop psychology.

About the Authors

Karen Effrem, M.D. is president of Education Liberty Watch and executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition. She also serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and on the board of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. Dr. Effrem’s undergraduate degree is in pharmacy from Purdue University, her medical degree is from Johns Hopkins University, and her pediatric training is from the University of Minnesota. She has provided testimony and analysis on children’s education and health issues for Congress, numerous state legislatures, and for a federal lawsuit regarding unconsented mental screening. She has been interviewed by many local and national media outlets. Her writing on these topics has appeared in The Federalist, Townhall.com, The American Spectator, and Truth in American Education, among others.

Jane Robbins, J.D. is an attorney and independent researcher. She has written extensively about the deficiencies of progressive education and the Common Core, and about threats to student and family privacy posed by government policies such as training students with technology. She has testified about these issues before the legislatures of 12 states and the U.S. Congress. Jane earned an undergraduate degree from Clemson University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Kevin Ryan, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of education at Boston University. He is the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility. He is a former high-school English teacher and taught on the faculties of Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Ohio State University, and the University of Lisbon. Dr. Ryan was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He has authored and edited 22 books, primarily on moral education and the education of teachers, and written over 100 articles.

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.

SEL Assessment Dialogue Avoids the Obvious Question

District Administration Magazine included an article on its website last week entitled “SEL Check-ups At School.” Education Dive also published a brief based on the article entitled “Schools explore the best ways to gauge SEL skills.” There is an ongoing conversation about how social-emotional learning (SEL) skills can be assessed.

There are three primary SEL assessment tools schools are using mentioned in the District Administration Magazine by Victoria Clayton that are summarized by Amelia Harper at Education Dive:

Three current options are the Devereux Students Strengths Assessment, which is emerging as a leader in SEL assessment; Panorama’s assessment, which offers more student voice in the process; and a free, open-source option called Social and Emotional Competency Assessments, which was created by the Washoe County School District in Nevada.

She later writes:

SEL assessments also offer valuable feedback to teachers that allow them to craft their own responses to students in better ways. Schools can use the information to determine what changes need to be made to SEL programs or the ways they are implemented. And parents are often interested in the information as well so they can support their children’s social-emotional development at home. 

Clayton in her article at District Administration Magazine points out the silent data that can be captured through SEL assessments:

The SEL assessments are often coupled with school climate surveys, which offer the children an opportunity to tell adults where there may be culture or safety issues at school. “Our SEL assessment became this great way for our schools to incorporate that piece—student voice—into the decision-making for a school,” says Korene Horibata, district educational specialist.

In Kansas, leaders at Olathe Public Schools (29,600 students) chose Panorama to align SEL with Kansas Can, a statewide education initiative that calls for students to express themselves. Results indicated that most Olathe students felt strong in social awareness but shaky about grit and perseverance.

This has changed the way teachers engage with students, Assistant Superintendent Jessica Dain says. During regular instruction, teachers now guide students on overcoming challenges or successfully completing assignments when they feel overwhelmed or uncertain.

“Most importantly, it provides what I call ‘silent data’—the information that would typically go unmeasured and unsupported in the classroom,” Dain says.

Both authors discuss how schools should assess SEL, why they should assess SEL, but nowhere in this discussion is any voice of caution over whether schools should. 

This is classic group think mentality and why most education reforms have failed. Everybody jumps on the “brand new thing,” advocates it, boxes out any dissent, and moves forward without any data backing it up.

No one is asking the question, is this really what schools should focus their time on when they are struggling to teach core subjects? Also, is there any concern about student privacy?

No one in mainstream education policy circles or journalists writing about education seems to ask these types of questions.

What Is So Great About Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) seems to be the rage in education these days. It sounds so great SEL easily seems to attract supporters and promoters, including legislators. Maybe it makes them feel good. Use your search engine and see what comes up when you search for “social-emotional learning.” Check things out for yourself. Dig into some of the hits that come up and see if there is any big money behind SEL. While I haven’t dug into the deep history of the SEL movement, as with many other ed reform issues, I wonder if this push has come from widespread parental request or from big money folks. Or have the parents been told to want this? Which comes first, feeling good about yourself so you can accomplish something worthwhile or accomplishing something worthwhile so you have something to feel good about? Which is it, the chicken or the egg?

I recently read an article from ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine titled Accounting for the Whole Child. This article is very much promoting SEL and casts it, and some questionable practices, in a very favorable light. Here are two quotes that stuck out to me:

A growing number of districts and networks of schools are now administering social-emotional skill assessments, empowering educators to make informed decisions about how best to help students develop these capabilities.

A growing number of schools are making authentic, sustained efforts to collect data on students’ social-emotional skills.

Do you see any problem with this? ASCD and Educational Leadership apparently don’t. It would appear they fully support administering SEL assessments and collecting data on students’ social-emotional skills. This is sensitive and personal non-cognitive data being collected. No expression of concern for student privacy with regard to the collection of this data. Is there any reason to have concern about student privacy, either now or in the student’s future as a result of this data collection?

In case you aren’t aware of concerns about SEL that some people have, I want to provide you with a list before continuing on with this article.

Social Emotional Learning

  • Social emotional learning (SEL) standards, benchmarks, learning indicators, programs, and assessments address subjective non-cognitive factors.
  • Subjective non-cognitive factors addressed in SEL programs may include attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, emotions, mindsets, metacognitive learning skills, motivation, grit, self-regulation, tenacity, perseverance, resilience, and intrapersonal resources even though programs may use different terminology.
  • The federal government does not have the constitutional authority to promote or develop social emotional standards, benchmarks, learning indicators, programs or assessments.
  • Promoting and implementing formal SEL program standards, benchmarks, learning indicators and assessments will depersonalize the informal education good teachers have always provided.
  • Teachers implementing SEL standards, benchmarks, learning indicators, programs, and assessments may end up taking on the role of mental health therapists for which they are not professionally trained. SEL programs should require the onsite supervision of adequately trained professional psychologists/psychotherapists.
  • Social and emotional learning programs take time away from academic knowledge and fundamental skills instruction.
  • SEL programs may promote and establish thoughts, values, beliefs, and attitudes not reflective of those held by parents and infringe upon parental rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children.
  • Informed active written parental consent should be required prior to any student participating in any social emotional learning program or assessment through the school system.
  • Sensitive personally identifiable non-cognitive data will be collected on individuals through SEL programs.
  • The collection and use of subjective non-cognitive individual student SEL data may result in improper labeling of students. This data will follow individuals throughout their lifetime with the potential for unintended use resulting in negative consequences.
  • Concerns have been expressed that SEL programs and collected data may potentially be misused with a captive and vulnerable audience for indoctrination, social and emotional engineering, to influence compliance, and to predict future behavior.

This list of bullet points can be downloaded as a one-page pdf document by clicking here.

On Jan. 23, 2017, HB 1518 Improving student achievement by promoting social-emotional learning throughout the calendar year was introduced to the Washington state legislature. The Brief Summary of Substitute Bill in the House Bill Report HB 1518 says:

  • Requires that the Department of Early Learning contract for up to an additional 600 summer Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program slots at certain priority school buildings.
  • Directs the Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene a work group to build upon the social emotional learning (SEL) benchmarks developed in 2016, and provides a list of members and duties for the work group.
  • Establishes a competitive grant program to increase the number of summer learning programs that combine academics and SEL, and specifies application criteria and reporting requirements for the program.

In addition, the bill requires a report be submitted in 2019 to the governor the legislative education committees “that describes how many summer early childhood education and assistance program slots were funded, participant’s school readiness outcomes compared to children that did not receive the summer school programming, lessons learned in combining academics and social emotional learning in summer early childhood education and assistance programs, and lessons learned in funding meal programs during the summer using reimbursements from the United States department of agriculture or other nonstate sources; and that includes recommendations for continuing, modifying, or expiring the program.” (Emphasis mine)

It seems like data would be collected on an experimental group and a control group. Kinda sorta sounds like an experiment would be conducted without saying it is an experiment. Maybe it is a non-experiment experiment. There is no mention of this being submitted to an institutional review board as research involving human subjects. Does HB 1518 call for experimental research on non-cognitive skills to be conducted on low-income four and five-year-olds in Washington State without adequate informed parental consent? Boy howdy, this is something that sure seems to sound good to a lot of folks, especially the 24 state representatives that sponsored the bill.

This bill also calls for the formation of a Social-Emotional Indicators Workgroup to continue building on the work of the Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup that produced a report called Addressing Social Emotional Learning in Washington’s K-12 Public Schools. This report also tells us that in 2016, Washington state was chosen as one of eight states to participate in the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) Collaborative States Initiative (CSI). See page 8 of the report for some brief info about the CSI. Three of the eight CSI states dropped out within a few months of their selection. Washington was not one of those three states.

Washington’s Social Emotional Benchmarks Workgroup developed SEL standards and benchmarks. The Indicators Workgroup is to develop indicators for the benchmarks. HB 1518 did not pass out the house committee and has been reintroduced for this session. As of this writing, it has not passed out of the house committee and may be dead after today. That this bill hasn’t passed has not stopped things from happening that it requires to start. ESSB 5883 did pass in 2017 and appropriated funds for a workgroup to be established to develop SEL indicators for the already developed benchmarks. A Social Emotional Learning Indicators Workgroup has been formed and hard at work since September 2017 developing SEL indicators by grade band for each benchmark. It may, or may not be, a comfort to know that a Bill & Melinda Gates representative has a seat in this workgroup. Hmmm, I wonder if this workgroup will be influenced to use SEL indicators to stack-rank public school students similar to one of Microsoft’s employee evaluation systems.  We could use that as an example of a real-world application in the classroom.

The indicators no doubt will be used to assess student SEL skills. That means data collection. Collected data is going to be stored somewhere, no doubt in an electronic database. Who will have access to the SEL assessment data and anecdotal notes regarding an individual student’s SEL? How long will such data be kept? Where will it be kept? What kind of assurances are there the data will be secure? Should parents be informed and required to give permission for such personal data to be collected about their child?  So many questions.  I wonder if the indicator workgroup members will give any consideration to such questions.  The authors of the Education Leadership article gave no indication of concern for such questions.

With all that has been said here, you really should look at Washington’s SEL standards and benchmarks. Initially, they may look great to you. As you look at them, consider whether you would like your child to be formally assessed on the benchmarks using indicators under development with records that may follow them into adulthood.

The above standards can be found on page three of Washington’s Social Emotional Learning Benchmark Workgroup’s report, Addressing Social Emotional Learning in Washington’s K-12 Public Schools.

What will an SEL report card look like? What will the written comments look like for a student? What would they look like for you? I wonder if written comments on an SEL report card for a legislator might look like this:

Shows awareness of other people’s emotions, perspectives, cultures, language, history, identity, and ability by pretending to listen to and agree with expressed wishes of constituents and then responds “almost exclusively to the views of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.”

Demonstrates a range of communication skills by responding to constituent questions with extended animated responses and displays of great oratorical skill but unfortunately fails to answer the questions asked. Has developed an excellent skill of answering questions that aren’t asked. Has a great ability to tell constituents one thing, usually what they want to hear, and then doing the opposite.

Demonstrates the ability to work with others to set, monitor, adopt, achieve, and evaluate goals provided the others will help with re-election funds and votes and has views aligned with and supporting those of the elite. Displays a conditional ability to work with others.

I bet you could come up with some great comments on a legislator’s SEL report card.  Can you state those comments in positive terms?  This is SEL after all and we want everyone to feel good.

If you don’t live in Washington state you may think you don’t need to be concerned about any of this. Before skipping off carefree, happy and content, you may want to check to see what similar SEL activity is already taking place in your state. There is a good chance SEL is already embedded in education programs across your state. Is it possible it is embedded in your state’s ESSA plan?

CASEL Looks To Build Social-Emotional Learning Assessment

CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, launched a design challenge to create a tool in order to help schools measure social-emotional learning in their students. The Hechinger Report wrote they recently announced the 2017 winners.

The First Place winner for 2017 is:

Student Assessment Engagement
When students take an achievement test on a computer, metadata like the amount of time spent on each item are often collected. Research shows that students who often respond extremely fast–so quickly they could not have understood the item’s content–are likely disengaged from the test. Our measure quantifies how often students respond extremely quickly over the course of a test, which is strongly correlated with scores from measures of social-emotional learning constructs like self-regulation and self-management.

Submitted by:
James Soland, Research Scientist, NWEA
Nate Jensen, Senior Research Scientist, NWEA
Tran D. Keys, Executive Director of Research and Evaluation, Santa Ana Unified School District
Sharon Z. Bi, Educational Research Analyst, Santa Ana Unified School District
Emily Wolk, Assistant Director of Research and Evaluation, Santa Ana Unified School District

Of course, the winner would incorporate data mining into their submission! Can’t let good metadata go to waste!

Here’s the second place design winner:

Social Detective
Panorama’s Social Detective is designed to measure and help students practice social perspective-taking, a malleable and central social competency that underlies a vast range of social-emotional functioning at school and in life. In this performance task, students are challenged to be a “social detective” whose job is to figure out other people’s values, interests, and perspectives. After watching short video interviews, students answer a series of questions to gauge how well they perceive and understand each person.

Submitted by:
Panorama Education

Panorama Education explains “Social Detective” further on their blog:

This just looks like an awesome use of time.

They had a tie for third place:

PERC
The PERC is a computer-based tool that assesses students’ Persistence, Effort, Resilience and Challenge-seeking behavior. These are key behavioral expressions of a growth mindset of intelligence.
Submitted by:
Tenelle Porter and Kali Trzesniewski, Department of Human Ecology, University of California, Davis
Lisa Blackwell and Sylvia Roberts, MindsetWorks

The video below walks you through the tool.

The other third place winner is:

Zoo U Social Emotional Skills Assessment
Zoo U provides a game platform for performance-based formative assessment of social emotional skills in upper elementary grades.

Submitted by:
Melissa E. DeRosier, PhD, 3C Institute and Centervention
James M. Thomas, PhD, 3C Institute and Centervention

They explain what happens when students start playing the game:

Six short scenes at the beginning of the game provide a baseline for how students are doing with social and emotional skills: communication, cooperation, emotion regulation, empathy, impulse control, and social initiation.

Students then have an opportunity to play up to 30 scenarios to improve and reinforce learning for each of these skills.

The entire game takes 10-15 hours to play. They encourage teachers to spread that time out to play one or two times a week for 30 minutes each session.

You can see who won 4th-6th place here.

Urgent! Comments Against Global Pre-K SEL Data Mining Needed!

Please submit comments before MIDNIGHT, MONDAY 2/13 opposing this latest global taxpayer funded psychological data mining scheme of our youngest children for invasive, ineffective, and harmful government pre-K programs at the federal register. It can be as short as:

I oppose this latest study because there are already dozens of studies showing that preschool is minimally effective, that beneficial effects fade with time or is academically and emotionally harmful. Social emotional assessment, especially for young children, is extraordinarily subjective and unreliable, violates parental autonomy, and the private right of conscience of free American citizens. This is especially true when data security within the U.S. Department of Education is so poor.

You can also do something more in depth. Here are details:

The federal government is joining with the globalists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a new study that seeks to expand social emotional data gathering (psychological profiling) on our very youngest children, collect sensitive family information and try yet again to show that preschool is effective when there are so many studies to the contrary. Here is the pertinent language from the federal register notice:

FR Doc No: 2016-29749
Abstract: The International Early Learning Study (IELS), scheduled to be conducted in 2018, is a new study sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries. In the United States, the IELS is conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The IELS focuses on young children and their cognitive and non-cognitive skills and competencies as they transition to primary school. The IELS is designed to examine: children’s early learning and development in a broad range of domains, including social emotional skills as well as cognitive skills; the relationship between children’s early learning and children’s participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC); the role of contextual factors, including children’s individual characteristics and their home backgrounds and experiences, in promoting young children’s growth and development; and how early learning varies across and within countries prior to beginning primary school. In 2018, in the participating countries, including the United States, the IELS will assess nationally-representative samples of children ages 5.0-5.5 years (in kindergarten in the United States) through direct and indirect measures, and will collect contextual data about their home learning environments, ECEC histories, and demographic characteristics.

We have warned for years of the dangers and ineffectiveness of both government preschool programs and the indoctrination and profiling inherent in social emotional learning. This study combines the worst of both. Here is our bullet list of why this study should be opposed:

1) According to this compilation of over two dozen studies, there is already plenty of evidence that, at best, preschool is only minimally effective and there is significant evidence that these programs cause academic and emotional harm.

2) With so much evidence of ineffectiveness and harm, there is no reason to embark on yet another study at taxpayer expense.

3) This data gathering is unconstitutional – There is no constitutional, statutory or moral authority for the federal government to create standards and norms for the attitudes, values and beliefs, for innocent American citizens, conduct psychological research on them and to keep this data in perpetuity in federally mandated state longitudinal databases that according to this proposal are going to be shared with a large international agency with unknown data privacy protection standards.

4) It goes against several Supreme Court precedents affirming parent’s inherent rights to direct the education and upbringing of their children.

5) These types of standards and questions are highly subjective, especially when used for young children, as admitted by leading experts and organizations in the fields of education and mental health.

6) Overworked, untrained teachers essentially become psychotherapists to their classrooms of patients.

7) There is a clear link to Common Core and potential for both indoctrination and danger to student and family freedom of conscience covering such controversial topics as climate change, Buddhist mindfulness techniques, social justicetransgenderism and the LGBT agenda.

8) Because of the weak and gutted federal privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), this very sensitive data can be shared with various agencies of the federal government and third parties and re-disclosed and used for “predictive tests,” which are notoriously subjective and inaccurate. Data may then well be used to make life altering decisions for children affecting college entrance, employment, etc.

9) According to information uncovered by the US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings, the state of data security at the US Department of Education is appallingly bad, so this sensitive data, that the government should not have in the first place, is not safe from hackers. We have no idea what the data protection situation is at OECD.