Some Advice for Champions of Social and Emotional Learning

Education loves its fads. After years of tough-minded superintendents and would-be reformers talking only about reading and math scores, we’re now enthusiastically rediscovering that schools are actually supposed to tend to other important stuff too—things like character, decency, perseverance, responsibility, and citizenship. Of course, saying it that way or observing that these are time-tested virtues wouldn’t seem all that new, cool, or worthy of big foundation investments. In fact, put that way, there’s more than a whiff of stale, 1950s-era squareness in the air.

That’s why these traditional virtues have been retro-fitted with cool new names (like “persistence,” “grit,” and “noncognitive skills”), rebranded as “social and emotional” learning (SEL), and packaged with earnest white papers, outsized university initiatives, and excited TED Talks. The thing is, no matter how overhyped or silly this stuff has gotten, it’s undeniably true that schools are always in the business of forming character and shaping citizens. And, like everyone else, I want schools to do this purposefully and well. After all, in recent years, testing fever and achievement-gap mania have distorted schooling and marginalized things that matter, so this correction is necessary and healthy.

If using a phrase like “social and emotional learning” is what it takes to remind policymakers, reformers, and superintendents that schools are educating real human beings, it’s a price worth paying. But every time I walk away from a SEL-themed article, conversation, or gathering nowadays, I find it harder and harder to remember that I want to be supportive. And that’s mostly because of how the advocates are making their case. With that in mind, here’s a little free advice for SEL advocates:

1. Be clear about what the “it” is. If it’s frank talk about the importance of honesty, respect, and a willingness to accept responsibility, I’m all in. If it’s instructional techniques intended to boost learning, that’s fine. I get that, for various advocates, the “it” is different. The problem is that, in conversations, it can seem like it’s everything and anything—whatever is most rhetorically convenient at the moment. Trying to pin SEL advocates down on precisely what’s on the table can feel like I’m questioning a wily, reluctant suspect. I’ll hear that it’s about motivating students and anti-bullying and “inclusion” and a recipe for higher graduation rates and “restorative justice” . . . with the “it” sometimes morphing in the course of a single sentence. This makes it tough to discern whether and why the idea of the moment is actually likely to help. And I’ve learned to be leery of would-be reformers who take refuge in opacity.

2. Don’t oversell the research. I’ve no problem with advocates flagging studies showing benefits of certain approaches used thoughtfully. But that’s a long way from saying that research “proves” that social and emotional learning “works.” Yet, I’ve now been in multiple conversations where advocates have said, “I’m not a researcher,” then proceeded to cite the litany of “experiments” or “randomized control trials” proving the value of SEL—and then been unable to point to any actual, you know, RCTs that do so. It all begins to feel oversold and deceptively packaged. This leaves me more skeptical than if they’d just said, “Forget the science, we just think this is a good idea.”

3. Dusting off the same old tactics will only raise the same old eyebrows. The same analysts who tout the extraordinary payoff of spending on pre-K and other popular programs are now promising that every dollar spent on SEL can yield eleven dollars in savings. Of course, when you peruse the fine print, these figures reflect heroic extrapolations and rosy projections—all based on the assumption that every effort will work like the most successful boutique pilots. Using the same techniques, we can promise astonishing savings from just about every educational program ever tried.

4. SEL advocates need to concede that this stuff invites discussion of “ideology.” In my experience, many SEL advocates have been reluctant to explicitly acknowledge that talking about values and character necessarily bleeds into “ideology.” After all, while SEL certainly has its share of Republican champions, most SEL champions lean to the left, even as they are hoping to introduce changes in lots of states and communities where families lean to the right. Thus, I’ve found it especially problematic when advocates pooh-pooh criticisms which they deem “ideological”—or tell me that they welcome “serious” critiques but not “ideological” ones.

5. Don’t repeat the missteps that plagued the Common Core. SEL advocates risk repeating some of the mistakes made by Common Core advocates, even as they insist that they’re taking care not to. I’ve been told that the Common Core’s problems were little more than a toxic mix of federal intrusion and resistance from right-wing kooks, and that the SEL community is working hard to resist both. But that suggests some blind spots, especially regarding the way ambiguity invites nervousness and oversold research breeds skepticism—and the way parents can get ornery when distant muckety-mucks dream up grand plans to remake their children’s schools. And if that’s true for reading and math instruction, it’s true many times over when it comes to how schools seek to shape children’s character and emotional well-being.

If SEL boosters want to avoid morphing into another case study of how easy-to-like ideas turn into “who could have seen THAT coming?” quagmires, I think they have some work ahead.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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