Saturday, February 22, 2020

Social and Emotional Learning Is Drawing Fire

I told you so.

If you are of a Certain Age, you remember Outcome Based Education, the Next Big Education Thing of the 1990s. Its basic idea was to reduce education to observable behaviors-- all those lesson plans with "The Student Will Be Able To...," are artifacts of OBE. The architects were intent on reducing all learning to something cold, hard and observable instead of fuzzy objectives like "After we've covered this unit, the students will kn ow stuff."

This was not necessarily a terrible thing. But the architects made one crucial mistake. They decided that they would include non-cognitive objectives-- having self-esteem, making sound decisions, tolerance, all that good soft skill squishy stuff.

Social conservatives freaked out. Phyllis Schafly, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and a host of others sounded the alarm about government indoctrination, and ultimately, OBE was stomped into the dirt.

This stuff-- what we now call social and emotional learning-- is a really hard needle to thread in education policy. Almost like someone took a third rail and bent it into an eye-of-a-needle shape.

On the one hand, it's absolutely necessary stuff. Young humans have to learn how to interact with other humans, and many of them, for reasons ranging from family of origin to simple biology, aren't very good at it. This becomes a problem in life that overwhelms other issues (I once had a student who couldn't hold a job, regularly quitting with the complaint "that guy thinks he can just boss me around," and "that guy" was always his actual boss).

It seems like learning things like "be responsible" and "work with others" and "don't be an asshat" would be unobjectionable, and as I've pointed out before, 95% of the "This Teacher Changed My Life" stories focus not on content, but on SEL stuff.

But as soon as you start trying to turn it into curriculum, you get into trouble, and I have for years now been expressing my disbelief and how blithely folks like the personalized [sic] learning crowd have been pushing SEL programs.

And here comes the backlash. Meet Jennifer McWilliams.

So let's tug on this thread and see what we find. Jennifer stood up against the indoctrination of a SEL program and was fired "on the spot" (and yes, that means that either there are some pieces missing from this story, or Jennifer's union is terrible even by Indiana standards).

Jennifer is wearing her Purple for Parents t-shirt. That's a group that started in Arizona in response to Red for Ed. While they say they're pro-teacher, they are not such fans of the NEA, and they have some thoughts about what Red for Ed is "really" about:

This sinister agenda is really about turning America into a socialist-dependent nation, by turning our children into social justice warriors who will vote to change the Constitution and our founding American principles.

So many of the old issues are here-- the evil union with its leftist agenda, creeping communism, and of course the Common Core. And the usual opposition to federal involvement in education; one such group may have provided the text that got McWilliams in trouble.

McWilliams has been giving some interviews to like-minded groups, like "Freedom Project Media," which explain further what the issue is:

Also deeply troubling to the Indiana teacher was the use of an “SEL” program known as Leader in Me, which she said has “taken over the school.” “It is on all of the bulletin boards, in the language of EVERYTHING, determines praise and awards, literally everything,” she continued, adding that the school does not have the right to teach children controversial values.

One of her big concerns was that the SEL programs trains children to “compromise” on “everything.”

And Rebecca Friedrichs, the anti-union teacher turned lawsuit face turned activist, has picked up the story and passed it along on the interwebz. And McWilliams has a Go Fund Me, because nothing fights creeping socialism like collective action, I guess.

The objections to "government schools," the claims of Christian persecution, the charges of indoctrination-- none of this is new, but Social and Emotional Learning has become the "and now" in many of these stories, the final proof that public school is Very Naughty. And the SEL blowback is showing up in more soberly way right wing publications like the Federalist. Tennessee and Georgia have both backed away from the CASEL initiative.

It's a somewhat discouraging issue because there's nobody to cheer for here. The far-right fear that everything is a conspiracy between evil unions and evil communists to destroy this great nation from the inside so that the Illuminati can install godless papists to drain our precious bodily fluids is tiresome and unhelpful because we need to talk about conditions on this planet. Meanwhile, SEL is hugely important in education and probably almost impossible to implement in any kind of formal manner that tries to extract the human element from teaching young people how to be better humans. Does it belong in schools? Of course-- you can't have humans together and not have some sort of SEL occurring. Should it be formalized with a curriculum and tests and data collection? Are you nuts? You can't and you shouldn't try to set up a program based on your idea of a standardized decent human being.

And education policy folks keep making the same damn mistake, from OBE to Common Core to, now, SEL, and it keeps getting worse, because every time the far-out-in-right-field crowd sees it as one more piece of proof of a wider and more complex conspiracy against them and gets triggered all over again.

In the meantime, we can follow this story and enjoy the irony of someone who feels she lost her job unjustly, but who opposes the existence of a union that could have offered her protection from unjust firing if she weren't living in a right to work state.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding post. I feel your frustrations in the search for a cheer-worthy protagonist.