Parents Beware: “School Climate Surveys” Pose Many Threats to Students

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A recent article by Joy Pullmann in The Federalist demonstrates just how nosy and invasive “school climate surveys” have become. These surveys are now a cornerstone of the implementation of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs in the nation’s public schools and have also been found in Common Core-aligned state tests and (illegally) in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The surveys make use of extremely vague and subjective questions, such as these examples from the Massachusetts state test:

As noted by Pullmann, another such survey used in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District usurps parental autonomy and asks the particularly invasive and controversial question about gender identity, defining gender as how a person feels about their biological sex:

The problems with these surveys are myriad. Here are just a few:

Asking questions about difficult behavior can actually increase the behavior.

Pullmann interviewed me for The Federalist piece, and one of the major problems I addressed is that survey questions may stimulate thoughts about and increase negative behaviors:

Yet “whether it’s comprehensive sex education or a survey, if you’re bringing stuff like that [sexuality] up you are potentially creating upset or conflict or just planting the idea” in young minds that may not be developmentally ready for it, said pediatrician and education researcher Karen Effrem in a phone interview about Austin’s survey. Research suggests that simply asking questions about specific behaviors, such as teen suicide or drug use, increases those behaviors.

The questions are developmentally inappropriate.

A related problem is that this gender question in the survey was given to third graders — children as young as 8 to 9 years old. Expert psychiatric opinion notes the psychological dangers of raising difficult issues like this with young children who are not developmentally ready to handle it. For example, psychiatrist William McGrath, M.D. said:

There is a phase of personality development called the latency period, during which the healthy child is not interested in sex. This interval from about the age of five until adolescence serves a very important biological purpose. It affords a child an opportunity to develop his own resources, his beginning physical and mental strength. Premature interest in sex is unnatural and will arrest or distort the development of the personality. Sex education should not be foisted on children. . .

Many problems have been found with SEL assessments.

As outlined in the Pioneer Institute paper that Jane Robbins and I co-authored, many experts and proponents have outlined the major difficulties with SEL assessments in general, including the self-assessment surveys like these school climate surveys:

Duckworth and Yeager first noted that student self-reports may be inaccurate because participants may misinterpret questions, or may give misleading answers they think they “should” be giving about their personality traits (in other words, they lie). Indeed, Duckworth has conceded that her own creation, the “Grit Scale,” is “ridiculously fakeable.” In addition, the researchers reported, surveys may fail to detect incremental changes.

Another problem with student self-reports is “reference bias,” defined as “the tendency for individuals’ survey responses to be in influenced by diverting implicit standards of comparison.” This means that in evaluating their own characteristics, students don’t begin at an objective starting point. For example, a student who has high expectations for his performance and behavior may rate himself lower on a survey than would a student with lower expectations—“only the best” versus “good enough.” For this reason, “[t]o the extent that students attending schools with more demanding expectations for student behavior hold themselves to a higher standard when completing questionnaires, reference bias could make comparisons of responses across schools misleading.”

Duckworth was so concerned about using these highly subjective criteria in federally mandated accountability schemes that she withdrew from a California project to do just that. But this is exactly what the U.S. Department of Education and private groups like the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) are pushing through a myriad of programs described here and in the Pioneer paper.

Parental consent is weak or non-existent.

Because these surveys are computerized and often added to the end of state assessments, parents do not even know they are being given until after the fact, if at all, because, as described by Pullman:

The ill-defined subject matter of “school climate surveys” justifies asking any number of personal questions under the guise of assessing student feelings, and this practice is growing nationwide, not just in Austin. Many times, parents have no idea their children will be asked questions like this until after it happens, because they sign blanket approvals for such evaluations at the beginning of every school year.

This effort does more major damage to parental autonomy and should be opposed by parents of all political persuasions regardless of what one believes about the issue.

Children are at risk of being indoctrinated.

SEL curricula, surveys, and programs also deal with many controversial topics, such as environmentalism, health care, race, social justice, and — relevant to this Austin survey — LGBT issues. The NoVo foundation, a major CASEL funder and partner, is particularly concerned about LGBT issues. In December 2015, NoVo partnered with the Arcus Foundation to kick off a five-year philanthropic initiative focused on “improving the lives of transgender people worldwide.” Another CASEL partner called Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has promoted lessons which encourage students to “take action toward transgender equity.”

If schools are using these climate surveys to measure students’ “social awareness” (one of CASEL’s five key components of SEL), might a student’s “relationship skills” be deemed deficient if, in keeping with the influence of his family and faith, he rejects the LGBT agenda such as same-sex marriage and normalization of gender dysphoria?

Data privacy may not be protected.

Although these surveys are theoretically anonymous or confidential, there is plenty of evidence that data can be quite easily reattached to the individuals answering the survey questions. And as explained in detail in our Pioneer paper and in this space, the ultimate plan is to have this data be part of state longitudinal databases that will follow students forever — with potentially life-altering consequences affecting post-secondary plans, employment, military service and gun ownership.

This effort to have government schools obtain jurisdiction over every aspect of a student’s life in order to “improve” education has been growing for decades. For example, CASEL was founded in 1994, the same year as the Goals 2000 Educate America Act was signed and mentioned SEL in the federal lexicon. ASCD (founded in 1943 as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been developing and pushing “Whole Child” efforts since the late 1990s, including the Health in Education Initiative, Healthy School Communities Pilot Study, Whole Child Initiative, the Healthy School Communities Program, and the Global School Health Symposia and Statement. This has also included Outcome Based Education and the Self-Esteem movements. All of these have been failures, as will likely be the Aspen Commission’s national commission report on SEL — though only after billions more dollars are wasted and the health and privacy of countless students, families and teachers are harmed.  

As education technology and big-government SEL proponents try to impose these efforts across the nation and in Congress, parents must continue to stand vigilant to protect the hearts and minds of our children.


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.