School districts across the region are struggling to get students back on track academically after the debacle of pandemic-related school closures. However, remote learning and school closures may not be the only reasons for failing academics.
A recent Right-to-Know request submitted to the Chester County Intermediate Unit revealed that staff from a West Chester Area School District middle school believe there are more important priorities than academics. Specifically, the meeting notes read, “Need to increase SEL instead of high focus on academics.”
Similar to the concept of restorative justice, public school districts are misusing the concept of “Social-Emotional Learning,” known as SEL. On the surface, the idea of creating safe and supportive environments where all students can learn sounds like a good plan. However, when you peel back the onion and analyze what is happening in classrooms, it doesn’t take long to see that SEL distracts from academics.
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SEL was initially designed and implemented for low-income students who were struggling academically. In the same way that inadequate nutrition impacts student learning, the Yale School of Medicine believed that a lack of social and emotional support adversely affects academic achievement.
Based on this theory, agencies like CASEL, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, started to form in the early 1990s. This organization and hundreds of others design and market curriculum and training programs geared toward public schools. This is big business. A quick Google search for “SEL curriculum” yields an unwieldy number of results.
Strikingly similar to the positive reasons to implement restorative justice, the original mission of SEL was to support struggling students. However, in 2019, some SEL programs devolved into “Transformative SEL.” According to CASEL, one of the largest SEL companies that promulgates school policy in addition to training and curriculum, “transformative SEL focuses on skills for individual success, interpersonal relations, and community-building, as well as skills needed to ensure democratic, fair, and inclusive communities.”
While this statement might raise a few eyebrows, most people would not argue that interpersonal relations and community-building are good skills to acquire. However, CASEL is forced to acknowledge that there is no evidence to support this model. “Transformative SEL grew out of developmental science and research on student engagement, well-being, academic achievement, and long-term success. But, in practice, there are currently limited options for evidence-based programs and implementation models for transformative SEL.”
Most school districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania and across the state have implemented some type of SEL curriculum. While many had these programs before the 2020 school closures, these curricula skyrocketed during Covid. This dramatic increase in the use of transformative SEL is directly related to the billions of dollars of Covie relief funds allocated to districts across the country.
Pennsylvania received almost $3 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funding. When the state allocated funds to each district, they specified how some of the money was to be spent:
- Thirty percent: To address the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students
- Ten percent: To provide professional development and technical assistance to educators, school support staff, school leaders, and school health professionals to address the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students.
- Eight percent: To address reading remediation and improvement for students.
The state only required that eight percent of funding be spent on reading remediation. Today, we know from state testing that our students are significantly behind academically in reading and math.
While social and emotional skills are important in the workplace, they do not take precedence over technical and academic skills.
Interestingly, CASEL introduced a “Roadmap to Reopen Schools” that focused primarily on SEL. They credit a multitude of partner agencies, including the National Education Association, American School Counselor Association, the Schools Superintendent Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of School Psychologists, and National Association of Elementary School Principals.
The National Education Association is one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country and the rest of the organizations have some connection to the unions. Most of these agencies fought hard to keep schools closed, and when they finally reopened, they decided to focus on issues unrelated to academic success for students.
The groups that forced extended school closures decided that they knew best how to solve the problem that they created. In the Right-to-Know request, multi-disciplinary teams of teachers and staff in the West Chester Area School District met to discuss “their perception of SEL in the building in an open format with questions guiding discussion.” Following are actual, documented comments in a section focused on staff needs:
“SEL feels like an additional thing.”
“Balancing learning loss with SE needs.”
“Some staff are more content-driven and not see SEL as ‘their thing.’”
“Some teachers see SEL as outside of their realm or ‘just one more thing.’”
“Teachers need an understanding of their role in SEL.”
“Struggling to see how SEL can help with everything they need to do.”
“Staff are tired and feel one more thing keeps getting added.”
“Balancing SEL with content is challenging.”
“Data collection not directly related to SEL yet.”
The West Chester Area School District spent over $70,000 on SEL curricula materials and over $145,000 for professional development and organizing the multidisciplinary teams, but the feedback above shows the struggles of teachers across the sixteen buildings in the district.
Two requests for comment from the West Chester Area School District, including verification and explanation of the documents, were not returned. Absent comment from the district, more questions than answers remain. Why is the district implementing expensive programs at the expense of academic outcomes that have no data collection? What are the true objectives of the SEL program and how does it ultimately relate to improved literacy and math competence?
All school district-sponsored programs should have clear objectives and measurable outcomes. Without this level of transparency, there is no way to measure if these programs are helping or harming our students and teachers. Ultimately, the role of public education is to educate students and teach them how to think, not what to think. While social and emotional skills are important in the workplace, they do not take precedence over technical and academic skills. The most equitable practice is to ensure every student is proficient in reading and math and then focus on the soft skills.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in education and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at email@example.com.