Psychological Profiling of Students Ramps Up — And Parents Have No Idea

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It is getting very hard to keep up with all of the ways social emotional learning (SEL) is infiltrating education in America and how the SEL data collection is expanding throughout all grade levels, frequently without parental consent. Here is a brief review:

  • A New Hampshire pediatrician wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how teachers are now performing mental health screening on their students without parental consent or even knowledge. This was also extensively analyzed by Anne Marie Banfield of Cornerstone Action.
  • SEL is inextricably linked to the Common Core standards as admitted by large national organizations like the U.S. Department of Education, the American School Counselors Association, and the National Association of State Boards of Education.
  • States are trying to expand SEL programs and assessments in their state plans mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
  • The U.S. House is starting to resurrect the effort to pass the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA) that included federally mandated social emotional research — a bill that failed after major grassroots parent opposition in the last session of Congress.

Proponents are trying to tell us that there is a lot of research to lend support to these efforts:

  • “… Providing training for early childhood education teachers, embedding direct instruction and practice of targeted skills into daily practice and engaging families in these efforts help to boost the success of these kinds of interventions, Oregon State University researchers suggest in a new paper.”
  • According to researchers from CASEL, “Follow-up outcomes (collected 6 months to 18 years post intervention) demonstrate SEL’s enhancement of positive youth development. Participants fared significantly better than controls in social-emotional skills, attitudes, and indicators of well-being.”
  • The college entrance exam giant ACT is also getting into the SEL game (although whoever did their infographic apparently does not know the difference between five and six):

The extent and level of sophistication of this SEL and psychograhic profiling on our children continues to expand. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges and universities are “Measuring Clicks, Emotions, and Brain Waves: [as] Student Recruitment Keeps Evolving.” Here are some of the creepy experiments that consulting firms are using to find ways to help colleges increase enrollment:

  • “And so it [Longmire and Associates consulting firm] developed psychographic questions meant to reveal the influence of students’ personalities and attitudes. An analysis of tens of thousands of responses led to distinct profiles (“skeptical introvert,” “analytical perfectionist”) that Longmire includes in workshops for colleges, and that they, in turn, could use to craft personalized communications.”
  • “About three dozen 18- and 19-year-olds were fitted with an electroencephalograph, or EEG, cap, which measures the brain’s electrical activity. The brave subjects were then shown various statements about the benefits of a liberal-arts education. Loaded with electrodes, the cap registered immediate brain activity in response to specific parts of each statement. The goal was to measure the subjects’ emotional responses, ‘memory activation,’ and intensity of attention.” Here is the device that the researchers used:
Photo via Lipman Hearne.

There are, of course many problems with these types of efforts, experiments and research. The experts continue to disagree on the definition of SEL, which makes it hard to measure. For example, the authors of a major journal volume in “The Future of Children” by the Brookings Institution said:

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.

Closely related to that is the near universal admission by SEL researchers that there are no or very few good SEL assessments. Here are some examples:

  • We have few usable, feasible, and scalable tools to assess children’s SEL. (Brookings, p. 157)
  • “The measurements that psychologists like me have are so awful! I mean they are fakeable, imprecise, they have a thousand biases.” (“Grit Guru” Angela Duckworth at ExcelinEd.org [Jeb Bush] conference at 35.45)

The third broken link in the SEL credibility chain is that these same experts also admit that their studies are not that great, or even if there are positive results, they admit they do not know what elements of SEL produced those results. The Oregon researcher said:

“We know these skills are essential for children, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about ways to enhance them,” said Megan McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “The results to date have been mixed. We don’t yet know what the ‘key ingredients’ are here. [Emphasis added]

This obviously makes it very hard to believe what these people are saying, especially when there are profit motives for corporations or testing companies like the ACT group discussed above.

It is also disturbing that overburdened teachers are forced to become psychologists and gather this sensitive data on your children, especially without parental knowledge or consent. There is already a history of erroneous diagnoses and forced medication related to this.

And what about the whole issue data privacy that can affect your child’s future college attendance, employment or military service? Although the experiments described above on high school students were voluntary, imagine what would happen if that kind of data were added by the Commissioner of Education Statistics to the types of data collected under the proposed College Transparency Act that lifts the prohibition on collection of longitudinal data on students after college and into the workforce. Because this is happening under the auspices of education, and not in medical settings, personally identifiable data can and will be shared with third parties without consent.

Parents across the nation banded together to stop SETRA. We must continue this vigilance to protect the hearts, minds, privacy and futures of our children. In addition, we must proactively protect privacy at the state and federal levels. Stay tuned for ways you can help.


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.