by Karen R. Effrem, MD
As this nation continues to contend with major social and political discord and violence, perhaps the education world is turning to the roots of faith present before and since America’s founding. For the first time, the 51st annual Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) poll on public education issues included questions on teaching Bible classes in public schools. Given that PDK is a secular organization, the results were surprising:
Specifically, among all adults, 58% say schools should offer Bible studies as an elective, and 6% say Bible studies should be required, totaling 64% who favor Bible classes in one of these formats. Sixty-eight percent of parents say the same, as do 58% of teachers.
Support for Bible studies in the public schools peaks at 82% among evangelical Christians, 78% of Republicans, and 76% of conservatives, compared with 51% of Democrats and 43% of liberals. (It’s 59% among independents and 67% among moderates.) Among Democrats, there’s a racial and ethnic division — 67% of Black Democrats support Bible studies, compared with 52% of Latinx Democrats and 45% of White Democrats. Support also is 10 percentage points higher in rural areas than in cities or suburbs — 72% vs. 62%.
There is also significant public support for offering comparative religion classes in the public schools:
More people favor offering comparative religion classes (again with single digits saying they should be required) — 77% of all adults and 76% of parents, rising to 87% of teachers. Support for comparative religion classes is high across groups, including 81% among evangelical Christians, and with no meaningful political or ideological gaps. Support ranges from 71% of those who haven’t gone beyond high school to 86% of Americans with a postgraduate degree.
There is a significant group with concerns about offering Bible classes and about offering comparative religion classes:
About 4 in 10 Americans — 38% — express concern that Bible studies may improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. This concern is shared by majorities of liberals (58%) and Democrats (55%), compared with 28% of evangelicals, one-quarter of conservatives, and about 2 in 10 Republicans. Support for offering Bible studies, naturally, plummets among those who are especially concerned that they might improperly promote Judeo-Christian beliefs.
About one-quarter of adults and parents overall express concerns that comparative religion classes might lead students to question their family’s faith or to change their religious beliefs. Concerns about ill effects of comparative religion classes are lowest among teachers, expressed by about 1 in 7. They are highest among evangelical adults; 37% are concerned these classes could lead to students questioning their family’s faith, and 35% say they could lead students to change their religious beliefs. The same concern is repeated by evangelical Christian parents, with 34% saying they are concerned these classes could lead to students questioning their family’s faith, and 33% saying they could lead students to change their religious beliefs.
This is in contrast to the progressive proponents of social emotional learning (SEL), who say they are concerned for the individual “whole child” while pushing politically charged equity and social justice issues (and also touting, dubiously, that SEL will improve academic performance).
This is especially true when the research and science for SEL is highly questionable (also here). Results of this skeptical research include academic success, growth mindset, brain research, and other alleged scientific evidence for using SEL standards and programs.
In a recent example of the former, ASCD discussed the status of their concept of Whole Child Education. As with SEL, the definition of whole child education is broad and vague. To ACSD, it means everything from school breakfast to mental health and SEL to equity and social justice issues with many other concepts sandwiched in between.
While it is very important to treat children as individuals and not as test scores and data points for the use of government and employers, using subjective, non-academic SEL parameters and programs will not accomplish the goal. Additionally, if the definition of this allegedly individualized whole child philosophy includes SEL, it will not provide the needed contrast to the nationwide effort of the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) and other groups to impose statewide K-12 SEL standards across the nation, which they have accomplished in 15 states, the latest being in Ohio. If ACSD and CASEL really care about the individual child, they should not want or need to centralize control of SEL via these statewide standards, such as having government entities determine what constitutes “responsible decision making” and the other aspects of SEL.
The other major issue is the indoctrination potential in SEL. Rick Hess and Grant Addison of American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the indoctrination aspects of Common Core, and by extension SEL, because so many entities have admitted that Common Core contains large elements of SEL. Education Week admitted that SEL has a large social justice component in 2017 (discussed here). That trend continued this past June with a webinar and article by the federal Institute for Education Sciences’ Regional Education Laboratory that describes equity-based, “transformative” SEL as:
A process whereby students and teachers build strong, respectful relationships founded on an appreciation of similarities and differences; learn to critically examine root causes of inequity; and develop collaborative solutions to community and social problems.
Social justice and equity issues have little to do with academics. In addition, this article also admits, “SEL can look different for each student, depending on the individual’s lived experiences and cultural, racial/ethnic, and economic backgrounds.”
It is estimated that $30 billion per year is spent at the federal, state and local levels on bureaucratic, centralized SEL standards and programs. A report by the Aspen Commission on SEL further admitted that there are more than 100 federal programs with their attendant federal strings and regulations in 9 different departments and agencies that can be “leveraged” to fund and promote SEL.
Thus, local decisions by duly elected school boards in concert with parents to study the Bible and comparative religion to help students, teachers, and communities consider these weighty issues seem to make much more sense. And given the results of this poll from a completely non-religious source, the public seems to believe so as well.