States Rush to Adopt “Social Emotional Learning” Standards, Despite Red Flags

June 10, 2019

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


Despite all evidence and even advice from proponents to be careful in the implementation, supporters of social emotional learning (SEL) standards, assessments, and data collection are following the same playbook as those who imposed Common Core standards with little discussion or buy-in from parents and teachers. As recently discussed, the full Ohio State Board of Education (OSBOE) is preparing to adopt statewide social emotional learning (SEL) standards at its meeting tomorrow after a subcommittee adopted them in May. Arkansas is also imposing new SEL standards with minimal discussion between the SBOE and the public.

Thanks to Ohio SBOE members like Kirsten Hill, Sarah Fowler, and John Hagan, more attention is being drawn to these controversial and subjective SEL standards. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the concerns and mentioned both the Pioneer Institute white paper on SEL and the article on the Ohio vote in this space:

Hill has been mailing postcards created by Dr. Karen Effrem, founder of Florida-based Education Liberty Watch and a former Common Core opponent, questioning what the state will measure and who will have access to the data. Effrem has also raised issues online about SEL work in Ohio and other states, while co-authoring a white paper for the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, which also opposed the Common Core, calling SEL “the New-Age nanny state.” [Note: Education Liberty Watch is Minnesota-based, and I continue to fight Common Core, however it is rebranded.]

There is new evidence that SEL is too subjective to assess and should never be used for any kind of accountability system. A new review of the ongoing SEL value-added school climate surveys and other data being collected since 2013 shows yet again that SEL is nearly impossible to accurately measure. The study — done for the California CORE of eight large districts, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, and operating under a waiver from the federal government under No Child Left Behind — shows the following:

  • “…the estimated school effects [on SEL] are not stable from one year to the next year for most schools… This lack of stability points to the likelihood that survey-based measures of SEL may not be accurate enough to create school growth measures that identify true differences in school performance consistently over time.”
  • “Given these constraints, our results suggest that school value-added measures based on SEL surveys should not be used for high-stakes decision making.”

Sadly, that is not stopping them from trying to measure and use SEL, which does not prevent our children from being psychoanalyzed via survey and having their privacy violated by use of all these school culture and climate surveys:

However, this does not mean that SEL should not be measured, or that such value-added approaches may not be useful and promising based on other measures of SEL…As such, educators, administrators, policymakers, and researchers should work together to further develop and improve SEL measurement for various uses.

These school climate surveys have been known to ask very controversial questions, frequently without parental consent. And because these surveys are now being attached to state assessments, it is highly likely that students’ answers to sensitive questions are being included in school data entered into state longitudinal databases and used by private third parties without consent.

SEL also continues to be promoted for purposes for which there is no evidence to support them. Education Dive had an article titled “Social-emotional learning plays key role in trauma recovery, tragedy prevention.” While the teacher writing the blog post may have had some success with exercise and mentoring to improve focus and attendance, discussion of the presumed benefits of these techniques in helping heal after a school shooting or in preventing such a tragedy are purely speculative:

  • “If schools wait until after an adverse event to create a social-emotionally supportive culture, however, it may already be too late.”
  • “Not only could this training be helpful when students do face a tragic situation, but teaching students how to prevent bullying and to be kind and inclusive may even prevent a school shooting from happening in the first place.”

In fact, the results of school-based mental screening and mental health programs have been mixed at best. Screening tools have astronomically high false positive rates, and misdiagnosis of especially vulnerable child populations has increased, as has use of psychiatric drugs that actually cause suicide and violent rages, the very problems they are supposed to prevent.

It therefore makes zero sense for states like Ohio and Arkansas to have statewide standards because even the strongest proponents in the SEL world admit schools and students should not be assessed for high stakes purposes. Yet the Ohio strategic plan, from which came the effort to impose the statewide standards, contains language that the state does want to assess students on SEL parameters.

In addition, Ohio wants to let districts come up with their own SEL programs. So, again, the question must be asked: Why have statewide standards? You have one more chance to contact the board to ask these important questions. In order to maintain our constitutional republic and parental rights, we must guard our children from these bureaucratic schemes, be they SEL, Common Core, data mining, and home visiting. Thank you for your efforts so far. Please stay engaged.


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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One comment on “States Rush to Adopt “Social Emotional Learning” Standards, Despite Red Flags”

  • Bill R Betzen says:

    While there is value in dissecting almost anything, it requires the item studied to be dead, fragmented.

    That is happening to education. Many who never mastered the lifelong art of teaching are wanting to improve it. They first tried improving teaching as a mostly test-driven process leaving a wasteland of damage. Now the needed focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is taking the most valuable element a teacher brings to their art, and killing it for the dissecting. Can we talk about SEL without needing to create an instrument to measure it?

    Teaching is much more than the pieces, but we must fight to protect every piece.

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