6 Big Problems with Latest “Social Emotional Learning” Report

January 25, 2019

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


Last week, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (the Commission) issued their final report after a two-year process of convening meetings and gathering information. As has been covered many times in this space and others, there are many contradictions in logic and many problems with expanding social emotional learning (SEL) as envisioned by proponents. Here are some of the key issues:

1.) The Commission promotes the care and development of the “whole child” as an individual while simultaneously pushing standardized SEL teaching and assessment via “state standards, guidance, and frameworks” and the trend toward machine based skills training (including SEL training and assessment) via competency-based and personalized learning.

This is an oxymoron. If there are at least nine different names for SEL and schools are supposed to help children grow into their best individual selves, than how can there be SEL standards at all? The answer lies in the career focus of SEL. The Commission report says on page 1:

And these social, emotional, and academic capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, grapple with difficult problems, and adjust to rapid change.

Big Business wants “products,” or widgets, trained in the mindsets and characteristics they think best for the workforce, not necessarily what is best for the individual student. And the rapidly proliferating education technology corporations want to be able to sell their products to school, including the new program that allows janitors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers to monitor the emotions of their charges throughout the school day in every different area.

The report also doesn’t mention that there have been national and state pre-K SEL standards in every state for almost 20 years, and there is still no evidence that preschool improves educational achievement either via Head Start or state pre-K programs.

2.) The Commission wants to expand SEL research, despite the lack of scientific and policy consensus on a definition of SEL and the existence of many SEL studies that have flaws and mixed or negative results.

We have discussed this aspect a number of times (see here and here for example). Even proponents and SEL experts admit there are problems with the research. This includes research on the academic achievement, brain science, and genetics aspects of SEL to name a few. In many ways, it is like the research on preschool described above or that of psychiatric drugs. There are grand claims initially for these programs or products, but with time and further scrutiny, the claims fall apart like wet tissue paper.

In addition to all of that, SEL research expansion would continue to use our children as lab rats, often without consent.  

3.) The final report only contains two token mentions of privacy, which is gravely endangered by the SEL and the ed-tech phenomena.

The rate and extent of social emotional data collection — via federal assessments like the NAEP and federally mandated state assessments, education technology companies like Knewton and Dream Box that are collecting millions of data points per student per day, and foreign entities like OECD and China — is becoming difficult to follow. That is why the gutting of the federal privacy law, FERPA, during the Obama administration and the recent passage of FEPA that will create a de facto national database is all the more maddening.

Protecting student privacy amid the collection of this very sensitive data with weak government protections, and in the midst of government and third-party data vacuuming, is not possible and is one of the main reasons that formal SEL training via the schools should be staunchly opposed.

4.) The Commission believes that there will be no federal control or interference for states and districts implementing SEL — even while one of their interim reports lists scores of federal programs supporting those concepts.

No kidding. After the Commission policy brief lists 111 different federal programs in 8 different federal agencies, plus the Corporation for National and Public Service that can be “leveraged” to achieve their SEL nirvana, Commission co-chairman Tim Shriver and putative conservative Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute solemnly intone that the report “should not be mistaken for an invitation to federal policymakers” to get involved in SEL. Apparently they think that after No Child Left Behind, Common Core, ESSA, and now the latest travesty, the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act (FEPA), the parents of America will continue to play Charlie Brown as these people enact Lucy’s role and rip away the football of local control, parental autonomy, and data privacy one more time.

5.) The Commission believes that somehow teachers can and will want to “develop expertise in child development and in the science of learning” with all of their other burdens, when there is no clear consensus on the science of SEL and in the midst of national teacher shortage.

Wonderful, experienced teachers are leaving the profession in droves because they are forced to teach the academically inferior, developmentally inappropriate, and psychologically manipulative Common Core while they are monitored on everything they teach via poorly validated tests that affect their pay and tenure via incomprehensible algorithms, have their desired curriculum removed from their classrooms, and are required to act as amateur psychologists in order to prevent school shootings and suicide.

6.) The Commission expects that SEL programs and curriculum will fill the cavernous social emotional void for the millions of children growing up in fatherless homes.

The statistics are overwhelming that children — especially boys — from fatherless homes have more SEL problems. Examples include:

Conversely, Dr. William Jeynes of the University of California at Santa Barbara, after reviewing data on 20,000 high school students, found that minority students coming from two-parent families with high religiosity had no achievement gap with their white peers and outscored other students in their same racial groups. This is orders of magnitude better than the results (or lack thereof) from more than 50 years and over $2 trillion dollars of federal education spending and interference.

Nevertheless, Oregon is already illustrating where the long-established efforts and madness of government stepping in for parents is going. There is a proposed “emergency” law before the legislature to mandate universal home visits.

Despite the very coordinated foundation, corporate and government push, SEL is not scientific, beneficial, or protective of privacy and freedom of conscience. Do not just #walkaway from this boondoggle, but run!


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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