"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Selling SEL (Social Emotional Learning)

By the late 1960s, James Comer had begun to implement public school interventions in New Haven, CT that focused on the social and emotional needs of children living in poverty.  This was the beginning of the modern social-emotional learning movement. 

Principals, parents, teachers, and social services professionals worked together to evaluate and alter school programs that these stakeholders deemed to be exacerbating behavioral problems among poor children in New Haven.  To the surprise of no one, student attendance and achievement improved as a result, as did overall school climate and relationships among students and between students and staff:
In the late 1960s, during his early days at Yale School of Medicine's Child Study Center, James Comer began piloting a program called the Comer School Development Program. It was, as he wrote later in a 1988 Scientific American article, centered on his speculation that "the contrast between a child's experiences at home and those in school deeply affects the child's psychosocial development and that this in turn shapes academic achievement."

The School Development Program focused on two poor, low-achieving, predominately African American elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut, that had the worst attendance and the lowest academic achievement in the city. With help from the program, the schools established a collaborative-management team composed of teachers, parents, the principal, and a mental health worker. The team made decisions on issues ranging from the schools' academic and social programs to how to change school procedures that seemed to be engendering behavior problems.

By the early 1980s, academic performance at the two schools exceeded the national average, and truancy and behavior problems had declined, adding momentum to the nascent SEL movement.
Then with the birth of the "no excuses" movement and zero tolerance policies in schools during the 1990s, the focus of social-emotional learning shifted away from attempts to alter school environments to take into account the effects of poverty on children.  Instead, the new social-emotional learning began to shift toward altering children so that become immune to the effects of poverty, thus capable of high test scores without the need for expensive social interventions or time-consuming community input. 

Soon thereafter there began the incessant glorification by the media of high test scores from the KIPP Model charter schools, which served to accelerate the effort to alter children's behaviors to fit the segregated authoritarian corporate model of schooling.  This turning of social-emotional learning on its head set us on a track that continues to gain political traction today, even as skepticism and resistance grow among child advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, and education rights activists. 

What began with Comer as a humanitarian impulse to better fit schools to the needs of impoverished children has become a kind of behavior sterilization craze for poor children that we have not seen since the physical and mental alteration programs of the eugenics movement a hundred years ago.  What was once a collaborative process among parents, health care personnel, principals, and teachers to develop humane education programs to fit the needs of children has become a small menu of canned indoctrination programs aimed to fit children to the needs of corporate reform schools.

As a result of increased awareness of the oppressive and abusive conditions of KIPP Model charters, the callow positivity wrapped in civil rights rhetoric by privileged TFA recruits in the charter chain gangs grows more stale by the day, and the brash, insensitive preaching by Barack Obama on the virtues of "no excuses" ideology sounds more and more hollow. 

Even the NAACP has started to awaken to the educational genocide taking place in the corporate hell schools that are offered poor parents as choice schools.

With the coming of the new federal ESSA, we see that a new generation of neoliberal policymakers are now incentivizing states to come up their own measures of non-cognitive skills for social-emotional learning.
Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and director of the university's Social-Emotional Learning Lab, describes SEL as the process through which we learn to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships, and avoid negative behaviors.
Rather than modifying school environments or programs to address the needs of children living in poverty, the onus now is on changing the students, themselves, to fit corporate needs of Common Core testing factories.  And, of course, making these children and their teachers "accountable."
What about that tricky issue of measuring social-emotional learning? The controversial approach has been heavily discussed lately because the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to add an "additional indicator" to their school accountability systems in addition to traditional factors, like student test scores. While the law lists examples like school climate and student engagement, some have suggested that including social-emotional learning in accountability might be an effective way of spreading it to more schools. A group of California districts, known as the CORE districts, have already experimented with the concept.
At present, eight states have signed up to work with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to develop SEL standards. Eleven states are standing by to use those standards, once developed. 

Will we end up with a Common Core of behavioral and character standards that all children will be subjected to?  If NEA, AFT, NPE, Lamar Alexander's team, and the Clintonians have their way, that is where we are headed.


  1. Anonymous7:27 PM

    I taught SEL to elementary students for six months. The goal of the program was to recommend non-violent alternatives to resolving the conflicts. We sat in Restorative Justice circles, viewed videos and hashed out ideas. I do not know that the kids learned much, but I got a glimpse into the stressors of their lives and why some of their fuses were so short. In a fifth grade class, every single child knew someone personally who had been killed by gun violence.

    Abigail Shure

  2. Antwan Wilson, a Broadie Superintendent of the Oakland Public Schools, meets with eight other California superintendents at least four times a year in Los Angeles as part of a privately organized group that calls itself California Office to Reform Education (CORE) with a published mission to reform California's education system. The word "Office" was included in the title when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger help in organizing this group of California superintendents as the corporations directors.

    Unfortunately, the media refers to this private group's activities as "CORE districts' activities". The conotation attached to that label CORE districts is that this private group is representing the districts in which these CORE superintendents work.

    But, that is a misleading association as these CORE superintendents are working in an un-elected private organization and cannot represent their school districts unless directed by their publicly elected school boards. It is the school district's school boards that should be speaking for the district.

    Unfortunately, Arnie Duncan provide the CORE organization's request for a waiver from NCLB to the districts that the superintendents worked in; and most, but not all of the districts that employed with CORE superintendents accepted the waivers for their districts. Understand that most of the Districts receiving the waivers did not actually vote to accept the waiver before or after receiving the waivers. I know Oakland was one district that never even discussed the waiver at its school board meetings but shifted money from NCLB Title I tutoring programs to programs the District's administration wanted as replacement. The act of shifting money was a form of accepting the CORE waiver without having to take a direct public vote on the waiver.

    Now the CORE private group is lobbying in California for the legislature to back it in making SEL part of the State's evaluation of students.

  3. The Middle School movement has suffered the most in this return to a quantitative approach to education. In the private & elite public schools the idea that social-emotional learning would play a strong role in the early adolescent, ran counter to those school's culture for exclusivity, credentialing and bragging rights. As their test scores and other measurable were not under a microscope, they phased out much of the these goals and practices, instead making their schools mini high schools. The urban public schools were pressured into mimicking the self selective schools, with the never ending penchant for testing. The under performing rural schools have been left mostly on their own to try and fend for themselves. Even the ardent supporters of social emotional focused education still push their children into the college track, and thus prevent them from seeking out alternatives to the liberal arts domination found in virtually all public and private schools today.