Debunking 5 False Claims About “Social Emotional Learning”


The National Commission on Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (SEL) that we have discussed and warned about had a major gathering in Tacoma, Wash., this past November and sent out an email update in early January.

The commission is led by Linda Darling Hammond, the head of CASEL, who was radical terrorist Bill Ayers’ choice to be Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration. Another commission co-chair is former Michigan Governor John Engler, now chairman of the Business Roundtable (BRT), which has long promoted Common Core, SEL skills development, and treating children as widgets in the labor-supply chain.

Five “takeaways” from the Tacoma gathering were listed in the email and on their website. As we have written in many articles and as is typical of SEL proponents, these contentions are overflowing with contradictions and fallacies. Below is a brief attempt to debunk them:

Statement #1: “A community-wide approach to supporting social, emotional, and academic development requires clear vision, a common language, and strong leadership.”

Fact: There cannot be “clear vision” or “common language,” much less “common leadership,” to give the “community-wide approach to SEL” when proponents and experts do not even agree on either the definition or name of SEL and when they freely admit that there is no research showing SEL programs to be helpful or cost effective in schools where budgets are already extremely tight.

The Brookings Institute, a center-left DC think tank, wrote in a major journal: “To create SEL standards and assess progress toward those standards presupposes that we agree about what SEL is. Yet neither researchers nor practitioners nor policymakers have come to such a consensus.” NPR in an article about SEL had 9 different names for the concept. Neither Brookings nor NPR are conservative, parent-centered organizations.

Statement #2: “Relationships are at the core of supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development, and this holds true at both the individual and community levels.”

Fact: Individual and community relationships cannot be nurtured when there is such a huge emphasis on competency-based education (CBE, also called personalized learning) that greatly increases machine-based technological learning harming the students’ relationships with teachers, other students, their families, and people in the community. And this type of education does not improve academics, as evidenced by Lake County, Fla., and other school districts around the nation rejecting this type of education.

Statement #3: “Social, emotional, and academic development is about learning environments that are supportive of student’s individual needs.”

Fact: Closely related to the fact just above, if a child is put on a device-based education system that is constantly assessing the student in different areas, including SEL, and then directing or tracking students into different classes and career paths based on pre-determined algorithms based on the workforce needs of a given area, that is not supporting a student’s “individual needs.” That is using them as a guinea pig or treating them as a cog in the labor supply chain.

Statement #4: “Taking a community-wide approach to supporting the whole student requires a nuanced and robust collection of measures that reveal how well schools and their partners serve their students and provide direction on ways to improve.”

Fact: To achieve this goal requires the heinous affective profiling that we have discussed many times. Aside from being unconstitutional at the federal level, this SEL data mining harms privacy, parental autonomy, and the private right of conscience of students and their families. Parent outraged at this direct or potential psychological profiling are a key reason that many federal data bills like SETRA, HR 3157, FEPA, and others are stalled.

Statement #5: “Social, emotional, and academic development, when done successfully, encompasses a range of effective approaches that must be implemented with intentionality.”

Fact: The cold, hard truth is that SEL is not successful. There are multiple studies saying so (see this presentation for some details). One of the best examples is this study about SEL and kindergarten readiness, showing that despite the fact there have been statewide SEL standards for preschool in every state for a couple of decades, teaching and profiling our littlest learners with these subjective standards makes no difference:

Early math skills have the greatest predictive power, followed by reading and then attention skills. By contrast, measures of socioemotional behaviors…were generally insignificant predictors of later academic performance, even among children with relatively high levels of problem behavior.” (Emphasis added — Duncan, et. al. – School Readiness and Later Achievement – Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428-1446)

It is enormously telling that even Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the lead ed-tech reporter at Education Week, Benjamin Herold, have written major pieces about the problems with SEL and CBE, and that the latter would interview a privacy advocate like me. The fight is far from over, but take heart that parents and privacy advocates are at least holding our own.

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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