Flawed Report Uses Pseudoscience to Promote “Social Emotional Learning”

October 17, 2018

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


The latest report of the National Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Learning continues to promote questionable brain science in the service of having government schools, corporations, or their foundations set norms for and assess the values, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions of students from cradle to career. Here are some of the many reasons this report is so debatable:

Poor Science

The report includes several key statements based on alleged brain science that should raise concern about its validity:

  • According to a 2015 study published in the journal Science, only 39 out of 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals could be replicated. This obviously casts suspicion on the validity of many of the 242 references cited in this paper to make the claims that it does. It is also notable that the references for this paper are published separately from the paper. That is the first time I have seen that done for an academic paper. It almost seems that there is an effort afoot to make the paper’s assertions more inconvenient to verify.
  • There is much scientific controversy about the pretty and flashy colored images of the brain underlying many of the claims in this paper. As discussed by the Alliance for Human Research Protection and Science Alert in 2016, Swedish scientists published an article in the Proceeding of the National Academies of Science showing that a 15-year-old software bug used in the interpretation of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies (fMRI) created “cause false positives — suggesting brain activity where there is none — up to 70 percent of the time,” rendering the results of up to 40,000 studies invalid. The graphics credits for the paper’s figures were from studies published in 2004 and 2009 during the 15-year period this software glitch was in place.
  • Psychiatry, the branch of medicine dealing with social emotional health and illness, admit a lack of scientific basis for their diagnoses and treatments, so why should anyone take the studies proffered in this paper as valid and reliable enough to follow its recommendations? For instance, Steve Hymen, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said in 2013, “the underlying science remains immature.”

Focus on Victimhood and Identity Politics

There is much discussion in the paper about issues such as “stereotype threat” and how “if one’s cultural beliefs and values feel at odds with those of the dominant cultural group, the conflict can cause misalignment between a person’s goals and ways of being and the expectations of the setting.” To fix this perceived cultural oppression in the schools, they want government “interventions and supports in the home, school, or community that specifically target cultural well-being [to] improve educational, socioeconomic, and health outcomes.” This social justice focus is not at all surprising given that one of the paper’s authors is Linda Darling Hammond, co-chair of this commission as well as co-chair of the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) and radical terrorist Bill Ayers’ choice to be Secretary of Education under President Obama.

No Attention to Breakdown of the Family

The government subsidy of fatherless families has been happening since the 1960s, and the sociological problems with that approach have been documented since the 1970s beginning with Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The myriad of studies and articles documenting the downsides of growing up in a single-parent household and collated at wonderful websites like Marripedia is completely ignored in this paper. These downsides include increased social emotional distress and mental illness, school problems and failure, acting out, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy and drug use. Any paper that makes recommendations about the social emotional, cultural and family status of children without discussing the research around this issue and making recommendations for reversing this destructive policy doesn’t merit much consideration.

Americans concerned about this issue should instead be paying attention to researchers like Dr. William Jeynes of the University of California-Santa Barbara, who did review of data from more than 20,000 African-American and Hispanic high school students in the National Educational Longitudinal Survey. He found the spectacular result that two-parent families and religious observance actually erases the achievement gap. Minority students with intact families and high levels of religiosity scored as well as all white students on most achievement measures and higher than black and Hispanic counterparts without intact families or high religiosity. This is something that more than $2 trillion dollars, SEL, and five decades of oppressive, unconstitutional federal education interference have never come close to achieving.

Conflicts of Interest

The list of funders for this commission contains all of the usual suspects — including the Gates Foundation. Three of the funders for this commission are foundations tied to corporations that have profited or will profit handsomely from the expansion of SEL curriculum, monitoring software (Microsoft/Gates) and hardware (Hewlett Packard/Hewlett), or from psychiatric medication when a child is falsely labeled abnormal by these subjective standards and mental screening tools and referred to a mental health professional (Johnson & Johnson/Robert Wood Johnson [RWJ]).

It is also important to note that Johnson & Johnson and RWJ promoted a New Freedom Commission in Mental Health recommendation that heavily supported mental screening and a medication algorithm pushing new (at the time) and expensive antipsychotic medications funded by taxpayers for foster children that were not any more effective than older medications and that had harmful and sometimes deadly side effects. The Johnson & Johnson division Janssen Pharmaceuticals profited over 1000-fold from their investment in this scheme, though the scandal was later exposed by whistleblower Allen Jones and was key to multiple state investigations and lawsuits against the corporation. The advice to follow the money rings true in spades here.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that SEL is a pseudo-scientific concept that will ultimately harm children’s freedom and privacy while increasing government interference and corporate profits. Instead of promoting SEL and all that comes with it, schools should instead:

  1. Focus on real academics in schools, not Common Core.
  2. Enforce reasonable discipline based on actual behavior, not racial quotas.
  3. Promote two-parent family formation.

Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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