AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
Amid the national backlash over Critical Race Theory, gender theory, and other radical political and social doctrines being peddled in K-12 classrooms, parents are sounding the alarm over a new “variant” of left-wing instructional dogma: “social-emotional learning,” or SEL. While the term sounds innocuous enough, mounting evidence suggests that SEL curriculum is often simply a rebranding of the same dangerous and divisive ideologies that have dominated education headlines in recent months.
If you ask proponents of the concept, they’ll tell you that SEL is all about helping students grow into well-rounded adults who can manage their emotions and interpersonal relationships. Casel, one of the leading organizations that sells SEL programming to schools, defines it as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Much of the terminology that advocates of the doctrine use to promote SEL is drawn from the mental health field. The assertion is that when students are confident in themselves and their identities, they perform better in the classroom. As the Washington Post explained in a recent feature piece on SEL, “social-emotional learning seeks to treat children as human beings with feelings, life goals and even traumas, not just students learning to write essays and solve math problems.”
But while those words sound admirable enough, they’re noticeably lacking any specifics about what SEL learning actually looks like in practice. Does traditional education not “treat children as human beings” or help them achieve “personal and collective goals”?
A closer look at the details of SEL programming reveals some striking similarities with CRT and gender theory-inspired lesson plans that are popping up and causing controversy in school districts around the country. Casel boasts that its lessons will teach students “equity” through an approach known as “transformative SEL,” which explicitly promotes “issues of culture, identity, agency, belonging, and engagement” – all progressive buzzwords. Panorama, another company that provides SEL curriculum to nearly 1,500 school districts, encourages students to “adopt an anti-racist framing” and explicitly promotes SEL “as a vehicle for equity.”
School boards, administrators, and activist-minded teachers have clearly picked up on the cue. In Maryland, one “social-emotional learning” survey asked elementary students to answer the question “how do you feel when you see two men kissing?” Another social-emotional learning program used in a Connecticut school district encouraged first graders to question the sex they were assigned at birth. In Wisconsin, a SEL curriculum from Casel explicitly named “social justice” as its main goal and provided “five tips for your first time [having sex]” to 13 and 14-year-old students. A Virginia district’s SEL training urged teachers to “make your ally status known by hanging a rainbow flag, sharing your own pronouns and/or supporting the school’s LGBTQ groups.”
And despite what SEL advocates have promised, students’ academic performance is getting worse, not better, as more and more of their school day is consumed by learning the tenets of progressivism rather than core subjects like reading and math. One teacher and parent of a student at Harper’s Choice Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, for example, reported that her daughter’s math teacher used half of each class to discuss Black Lives Matter and “equity.” As a result, the class skipped an entire unit of algebra because they “didn’t have time.”
Broad patterns in education data from recent years don’t back up claims of improved student performance, either. A comprehensive analysis from the RAND Institute found scant evidence that SEL programming provides any academic, social, or emotional benefits. Even as SEL becomes ubiquitous in thousands of school districts throughout the country, American students continue to lag behind their international peers in key metrics, while their scores on standardized math and reading tests continue to decline.
Teachers who aren’t on board with this new woke agenda have often been pressured into silence and even threatened by coworkers and administrators pushing the curriculum. One veteran teacher from Northern Virginia who is a self-described Christian and a conservative spoke with AMAC Newsline and explained how SEL has been installed in schools. As this educator described, the creeping influence of SEL in recent years has moved from “optional” lesson plans sold as making teachers’ lives “easier” to mandatory instruction in gender theory and other left-wing constructs.
In one such instance, students were given an extensive survey that asked middle schoolers questions like “How do you feel about your gender?” and “Where do you consider yourself on the gender spectrum?” Parents weren’t informed about the survey, and teachers weren’t told what the district intended to do with the information. “They are trying to mine the emotions of our children and use that information to manipulate them,” the teacher from Northern Virginia explained. “There is an agenda to grab our kids’ souls.”
Some parents have realized the danger posed by SEL programming and pushed back against its implementation in their school districts. Much like Critical Race Theory and now gender theory, SEL is being exposed as another effort by progressive activists to infiltrate schools under the guise of “improving” education.
Nonetheless, SEL remains big business for the activists and corporate interests that back it. According to a recent study from the Tyton partners, school districts doled out $765 million between November 2019 and April 2021 for SEL programming. Notably, much of this funding came from massive stimulus packages passed by Congress which Democrats promised were to get kids back in classrooms. Instead, it seems that school boards and administrators often used the money to double down on their political indoctrination efforts.
Even after significant victories and clear evidence that parents are fed up with politicized education, it appears that the battle to restore integrity to classroom instruction is far from over. In the coming weeks and months, it may well be that social-emotional learning becomes the next front in the culture war, as parents of all backgrounds and political persuasions continue to organize around efforts to demand greater oversight and hold schools accountable for what they teach.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_
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