Monday, August 8, 2016

Standardized Character

Here we go again.

Eight states are going to launch a program for social and emotional learning in their classrooms. A collaborative group has been put together to craft the whole business. I'm going to get in early here with a prediction that nothing good will come of this.

I understand the impulse. On top of the usual rantings about Kids These Days, we see the references to research that today's students are more self-centered, less empathetic. A big story in the Atlantic just last month questioned if increased concern about academics have pushed morality and empathy out of classrooms. And every classroom teacher can tell tales of students who are stunningly, sometimes terrifyingly, lacking in the most basic empathy-- socially and emotionally adrift or broken.

And we know that employers, neighbors, co-workers, friends and family put a huge value on social and emotional factors. When we're trying to sound all edu-sciency and professional, we call this stuff "non-cognitive skills," but civilians more commonly refer to behaving like "a decent human being" or at least "not such an asshole."

So there's absolutely no question that these things are important. I would even argue that it's impossible NOT to teach them in some way shape and form in your classroom. It's a group of humans, so intentionally or not, consciously or not, you (and your students) are modelling various social behaviors and skills.

However, absolutely none of the above means that what we need is a set of Decent Human Being Standards that are a subject of both instruction and assessment.

The problems with doing so are like the problems with coming up with a standardized description of an educated person, only a thousand times more so. That is self-evident in the culture right this minute-- we cannot agree whether Donald Trump is a huge asshole and a terrible person, or the kind of strong, tough leader that exemplifies the best kind of man (spoiler alert: it's the former-- but my point is that not everyone thinks so). The ed reform movement itself has invested heavily in the notion that democracy is a snare and an obstacle, and what schools need is a strong visionary CEO, a notion that challenges the very idea of what the best kind of people are.

"Decent Human Being" is a social construct, and it's always a subject of debate, which means any kind of standardized program built around DHB will reflect its creators choices. And this is why I can't believe we're headed down this road again, because every time we try, the same thing happens.

But let's look at the work of that coalition. What have they decided about what makes a Decent Human Being?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has a list of five core competencies for social and emotional learning (yeah, this is also shaping up as one more competency based learning program).

* Self-awareness
* Self-management
* Social Awareness
* Relationship Skills
* Responsible Decision Making

For those keeping score, Social Awareness will be the one to spark the controversy that eventually kills this-- that's the one that means the ability to "empathize with others from diverse cultures and backgrounds." Remember all the people who thought Common Core was evil because it would teach their children to tolerate gay people? They will be hollering "Told you so!" and tweeting Glen Beck en masse.

But basically, yeah, these are generally desirable skills for human beings to have.

What are the outcomes of this supposed to be? CASEL sees it like this:

And again-- the predicted outcomes are unobjectionable and probably generally true. So why are you getting the impression that I do not welcome CASEL's work?

If we poke around the CASEL site, we start finding language like these mentions under the policy recommendations section. CASEL highlights several bills that they think were good steps forward. Some of the bills are dumb, with aims like making sure that future teachers are taught about social and emotional learning. Are there teacher programs that don't mention SEL? Because those would be unusually crappy programs.

But other bills keep taking us back to language like "evidence-based social and emotional learning programming" or making sure that pre-teachers learn about SEL programs with "demonstrated effectiveness."

Ed Week notes that this SEL emphasis dovetails nicely with ESSA's requirement for more factors to be measure in defining "school success."

Social and emotional health, emotional intelligence, growing into a better and more mature human being-- these are all admirable and worthwhile goals, and they must be on our radar as teachers if we are going to teach the entire child.

But. But but but but but but BUT!

These qualities (or skills or competencies or whatever you want to call them) cannot be taught or measured in any sort of standardized manner.

CASEL has a brief about evidence-based strategies that just hints at how a few states are already using SEL standards to engineer more betterer human beings. It's not super-encouraging.

We can try to help each of our students to become a better person, but we cannot require them all to become the same person.

The attempts, of course, are already being made. A pilot version of the fourth grade NAEP (the Nation's Report Card) includes, along with several pages of personal questions about what your home is like and what work your parents do, a section of self-assessment of personal qualities. Here's just one block:

There are several pages of questions that assess the student's character (of course, this kind of self-assessment only works if the student has already mastered the self-awareness competency). It's personal and intrusive and kind of creepy. But I doubt that the intent is nefarious. As the debate moves more and more toward the roles of personality and character in education, I have no doubt that there are plenty of researchers, policy makers, and eduwonkists who simply think that it would be interesting, even useful, to collect and study a bunch of information about student personality and character.

CASEL has a brief about evidence-based strategies that just hints at how a few states are already using SEL standards to engineer more betterer human beings.

But I have two thoughts in response. 

One is that just because we would be interested to know something, it does not automatically follow that we are entitled to know it. There are undoubtedly many folks who would like to hear the conversations that Bill and Hillary Clinton have as they go to bed, or see a picture of Princess Kate in her underwear, or, God help us, gawk at a picture of Donald Trump's penis. Before I marry you, I might find it useful to hire a PI to unearth every single detail of your life ever. It would be useful, in terms of keeping society safe, for the authorities to be able to monitor all citizens at all times. But those are all bad ideas, no matter how much someone wants access to those things. And this is a double bad idea because we are talking about children. But I have no doubt that for the cradle-to-career folks, the ones who want students to emerge from school with full-stuffed data backpacks that tell future employers and the government everything they could possibly want to know about those young humans-- for them, collecting and assessing this non-cognitive data is a must. Do they want it? Sure they do. Our appropriate response to that as a society should be, "So you want that data. So what."

Second is that you cannot standardized humanity. You cannot develop a standardized picture of what a Decent Human Being is, and therefor, you cannot measure or assess how closely someone matches that profile, just as you cannot say, "Here is the perfect man profile-- anybody who married this man would have a happy marriage." It is simply not possible.

And it's certainly not possible to reduce Decent Human Being to a checklist of competencies. You can't hand a child a list of performance tasks to knock off and then declare, once the list is all completed, declare, "Now you are a Decent Human Being."

Deja Vu All Over Again

If you remember Outcome Based Education from twenty-five years ago, then you may recall that this is exactly the sort of thing that killed it. The states said, "Well, of course, we want to see that students display the right values and behavior," and a whole bunch of parents said, "Umm, exactly whose idea of right are we talking about" and a great hubbub ensued, and when the dust cleared, OBE was in the dustbin of educational history. I see no signs that the current crop of human designers retained any lessons from that earlier debacle.

So what should we do?

I am not going to try to write a few paragraphs about How To Create a Decent Human Being. Some religions have spent fruitless centuries on the problem.

There's no question that as teachers, we need to be aware of our students' social and emotional needs, development, and challenges. This is not news. But both the development and judgment of human decency comes from direct human-to-human contact, not from a program designed and standardized tests that are given.

The eight states currently involved in this initiative are California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington. If you're in one of those states, you might want to check around and see what they're up to. 


  1. Texas is making sounds about including this nonsense in our schools, too. While basing funding on performance, and cutting school budgets to force teachers to "be creative." It's madness.

  2. Listen to Dr. Duke Pesta- The Case against Common Core- on You Tube. All this is part of the Core and controlling kids. He goes through in detail with references!! Excellent. I teach and am seeing all fall into place. Bad news. I will try to stay my course of what I know is right. And it's not any part of Common Core. Trump will I hope get rid of dept of Ed and Common Core, which will unfortunately take about 20 years to undo.

  3. In MA, Chris Gabrieli, failed gubernatorial candidate and educational gadfly has set up a "non-profit" (naturelment) called TransformEd which "measures " SEL by distributing student surveys. School systems of course must pay for the surveys, directing scarce dollars away from other priorities. And Gabrieli and his staff all draw a salary from this business whereas previously they did not.
    Brought to us by thr usuals: BillandMelinda, New Schools Venture Fund, etc.

  4. To avoid snarkiness, I will come out and plainly say that there are definitely many teachers who need some training in decent behavior. When I look back at what was dished out to me growing up, I realize that I must have had quite a bit of grit. I can name three people who said things to me that should have cost them their ended up banished from education but for financial crimes as a principal, not the sexual harrassment that I endured from him in 6th grade.

    I thought parents were supposed to teach decent behavior and school teachers were supposed to reinforce it. What do I know? I am just Jane Q. Public. I am supposed to believe that the professionals know better than me. When the professionals cannot agree, what happens? Well, I guess you get idiotic programs like the one mentioned in this post. I think this is psychological abuse. More experimenting on young people. "The experts" abandon their dumb ideas in a few years and leave a lot of pain in their wake. No accountability. Something has got to give.