Parents Win a Victory over SEL Educrats, But the War Isn’t Finished Yet


There is mixed news on the battle against efforts to impose the latest progressive fad of social emotional learning (SEL) on our children.

First, the great news: On October 5th, Education Week noticed “No State Will Measure Social-Emotional Learning Under ESSA.” While the author attributes this development to heeding the advice of researchers who have long and correctly argued that SEL assessments should not be used for accountability purposes, she completely ignores the huge groundswell of parent and citizen opposition to this Orwellian idea.

I have been honored to work with many education experts, researchers, and activists who have provided excellent documentation on the problems and dangers of SEL. These include Jane Robbins, Emmett McGroarty, Joy Pullman, Gretchen Logue, Ann Marie Banfield, and Cherie Kiesicker to name just a few. Besides writing important articles on this topic, coalitions of national and state organizations have written Congress opposing SEL in federal bills like ESSA and the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA). We have sent comments into the Federal Register and the Commission on Evidenced-based Policymaking (CEP). Groups have testified before Congress, state school boards and state legislatures, resulting in two states dropping CASEL’s SEL standards initiative.

All that work is starting to pay off. SETRA, with its mandate for federal social emotional research, passed the Senate without debate and was up for consideration on the consent calendar, meaning that it would have gone through with little debate and no recorded vote. However, parent concern about that psychological profiling stopped it for an entire two-year session of Congress.

And despite the huge push for SEL allowed by language in ESSA and promoted by large, well-funded groups like CASEL, the Aspen Institute, and many corporations and foundations, it is extremely noteworthy that not a single state is planning to formally assess SEL standards as part of their accountability plans. Major proponents like CASEL co-founder Tim Shriver tried to downplay the lack of SEL in assessment in formal state plans by saying that SEL is “booming” in schools, but even he admits “we are not ready for it yet.”

The truth is schools should never be ready for that type of assessment of innocent children funded by government entities. Profiling and recording the thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and mental processes of children who are so rapidly developing and changing cannot be accurately and objectively done. There will never be good assessments because even the experts and proponents cannot agree on a definition of SEL. If one cannot agree on a definition, there can be no accurate assessments.

Even if it could be accurately done, it should never be done in a free society. This is especially true when so many SEL curricula are being developed based on extremely controversial topics — such as social justice, gender identity, environmentalism, universal health care, the Second Amendment, etc. — upon which adults do not even agree. SEL is an extreme danger to the inherent right of private conscience.

SEL assessments should also never be done because the desire of the corporate progressives is to use SEL to change education from focusing on academics to inherently subjective and inaccurate predictive testing. Based on SEL dimensions, students will be slotted into careers based on the needs of business instead of the desires of the children and their families. This was all predicted by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, back in 1992 when he laid out his vision for a centralized American workforce and economy in a letter to Hillary Clinton in which he said he wanted:

“…to remold the entire American system” into “a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone…” coordinated by “a system of labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where curriculum and “job matching” will be handled by counselors “accessing the integrated computer-based program.”

This plan was confirmed in a 2013 report called Futures for Global Education by former Gates Foundation education Director Tom Vander Ark:

Platforms for crowd investing like Upstart that “allows to invest up to US$ 200,000 into a talented young person who then shares a small share of their income over 5 or 10 years). This model…can soon become a mass solution as big data models of competence profiles would allow to estimate the most beneficial educational & career tracks.” [Emphasis added]

An ed tech professor and corporation owner described the kind of sensitive data, including SEL, mined from our children in an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report:

These high-fidelity data are in the form of log files from mouse clicks within the digital learning environment. They also measure and monitor things like students’ saccadic eye patterns as students learn from visual and textual information sources, data from sensors tracking facial expressions and posture, and more. These data are all fine-grained, reflecting students’ learning processes, knowledge, affective states . . . . [Emphasis added]

Sadly, we cannot rest on our laurels. While stopping SETRA and having no SEL assessments in the ESSA state plans are extremely important victories for privacy and parental rights, the battle still rages. There are still state plans that use SEL and mental health in other invasive and dangerous ways. There are still “school climate” surveys being added to the end of federally mandated state assessments, and as the author of the EdWeek article points out:

CASEL also has a measurement working group, which asks researchers and educators to tackle the challenges associated with measuring non-cognitive skills and to experiment with creative alternatives, like video games that track students’ engagement.

Why are video games a concern? Because the philosophy of the people behind them is so dangerous:

  • According to a 2010 TED talk, Jane McGonigle, Director of Game Research and Development, Institute for the Future, believes gaming can “change the world” by giving players a substitute reality and that it can be the next step in human evolution.
  • James Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, said in a 2014 webinar on using video games to assess non-cognitive skills that gaming is “not just about changing their brain, it’s about changing society itself” and that it can be used to create “smart, moral people” who can change, adapt to chaos, accept limits for sustainability.

Congratulations, but stay tuned and geared up for battle. Our children and our nation are depending on us.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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