Here is an excerpt from an article in my local paper the day after school board elections were held last week. [ Note: North Colonie is a suburb of Albany, New York.]
“In North Colonie, some voters said they agree with the “parents rights” movement, though they declined to give their names. ‘Things are going on the parents aren’t aware of,’ said one North Colonie voter. ‘Things are being said in the name of equity.’”
This sounds like the sentiment expressed at the Meet the Candidates forum that I watched for my home district, Guilderland. The idea that ‘things’ are being slipped into the curriculum under the guise of equity without parental knowledge was a concern of more than one candidate. This notion fits in with the larger conspiracy narrative that plagues our nation. It is alleged that unnamed forces are in cahoots to indoctrinate our children.
I have so many questions about this line of thinking. When I watched the candidates express this thought, I wondered first who was slipping this material in? Was it a teacher, a principal, the superintendent, the state education department? No names or titles were offered when they made their argument.
What exactly was being slipped in? One candidate mentioned a math problem where the pronoun used was he/she. The candidate suggested this was needlessly confusing. I thought to myself, it could be clunky, but is it really that big of a deal? What harm would it do? Would it actually lead a 7 year old, for example, to question their gender identity? They probably wouldn’t even notice it unless an adult brought it to their attention.
Or, was there more to it?
I decided to look for myself. Could I find examples of the types of material being used as part of this indoctrination? When I started doing the research the first thing I found was that some of the ‘new’ language being included in math textbooks was because social-emotional learning (SEL) goals were being incorporated into those texts. Furthermore, some commentators seemed to be conflating the use of SEL with critical race theory.
Apparently an analyst at the conservative think tank, Manhattan Institute, said the following about social emotional learning in a New York Times article and it has gained traction: “The intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” said Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the Times reports.
“Reinterpret normative behavior”? What does that mean? I googled it and normative behavior is that which we think should be normal. Hmmmm. Is he saying that schools are trying to change norms of behavior? Perhaps reconsidering norms of behavior would be a fruitful effort in view of the state of the world – and I am not just referring to the current state of affairs. Reflecting on my school experience and that of my children, I think school climate (the health of our relationships as they play out in school) could have been better. We might have a more well-adjusted adult population had we addressed this earlier.
And what left-wing ideology is he referring to? Let’s take a closer look at what SEL offers.
I am familiar with social emotional learning from my years serving as a member of the New York State Dignity for All Students Task Force and from research and work done as a writer of policy for school boards across New York State. One of the organizations at the forefront of the research and implementation of SEL was, and still is, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – casel.org). I refreshed my understanding by reviewing some of their summary material. This is the statement from their website:
“We define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. SEL is 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.”
In that statement there are five core competencies:
Recognize and manage emotions
Develop caring and concern for others
Establish positive relationships
Make responsible decisions
Handle challenging situations
One might read that list and think either that all sounds exactly right – this is what we want for our children, as much as they need to read, write and do math, they need to know how to cope in the world. Or, a person might look at that list and wonder what the public school’s role is in developing those competencies. I hope we can agree that it is impossible to read this list and see how it teaches critical race theory – it would take monumental leaps to get there.
Over the course of my life, ideas about SEL have evolved. When I was in elementary school, in the 1960s, little time was spent teaching us to manage our emotions. The assumption was that children just figure this stuff out – you pick up on social cues, you make mistakes and go from there. Unfortunately, not everyone was successful at that. When I started my professional career, families and schools were still thinking of aggressive behavior among children as ‘boys will be boys,’ and ‘kids need to toughen up’ and other dismissive adages, without appreciating the price we were paying for that approach. We had normalized that behavior. As we became aware of the dangers of bullying, including the rise of cyberbullying, more enlightened thinking emerged.
Not to go into a whole history of the evolution of this, but societal changes have meant that public schools have taken more responsibility for supporting the whole child, meaning not just their academic needs. Some might argue that this is misguided or that it is asking too much of schools, but needs must be met. Children who are hungry, fearful, or unhealthy can’t learn (certainly not at the rate of their peers who are fed, stable and healthy). If children arrive at public school unprepared to learn, how can a school be successful? If our goal is to graduate citizens ready to contribute to our society, it behooves us to do what we can to meet their needs. Academics can’t be neatly separated from other aspects of their lives. If only we could, things would be much simpler.
I guess the question is: have ‘things’ gone too far? I’m not sure I know what that would look like. I can imagine some satirical sketch on SNL of children spending the day in a circle singing Kumbaya instead of learning to multiply. But that isn’t what SEL advocates, nor is that what is being described by unhappy parents.
One of the places where this controversy is playing out is Florida, which made the news recently when it removed 24 math textbooks from their list of approved texts because they included social emotional learning goals. I tried to find examples of the objectionable text. The New York Times found some examples (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/us/florida-rejected-textbooks.html). The Florida Education Department released four pages of offending material.
According to the material released, when SEL is incoroporated it might involve calling children’s attention to their feelings when solving a difficult math problem – a thought bubble on the side of the text might remind the student to persevere, or might remind them to be respectful when disagreeing about how they solved a problem in discussions with a peer. In a high school textbook they used statistical data on implicit bias as the basis for an exploration of data analysis and statistics. The data came from Project Implicit (https://www.projectimplicit.net/).
What is the problem with these examples? Are the messages softening our children up in a damaging way? One of the recognized barriers in developing math skills is students’ preconceived ideas about it. Encouraging a more positive mindset seems at worst harmless and at best helpful.
Is the data set used in the high school textbook on implicit bias controversial? Why not ask high schoolers to assess the quality and ideas introduced by the data? What a great opportunity for discussion. Those who disagree with the findings might take a deep dive into the methodology and find it flawed, thereby advancing our understanding. If a student is troubled by the conclusions suggested by the data, what a great opening for discussion with parents.
This takes us full circle, back to the original quote from the voter in North Colonie. What ‘things are being done’? Education and society are evolving. This has ever been so.
A lot of issues are getting tangled up and making it more difficult to talk about. Social emotional learning is not an agenda to make children gay or trans, or to make them feel guilty about being white. It is about learning to manage emotions. Somehow racism, gender identity and expression, and the whole history of the United States, have all been tied up together in the culture war and SEL has been offered as the problem. It would be a tremendous loss if SEL was sacrificed on the altar of our current politics.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I have to believe we can have meaningful dialogue if we focus on the heart of the issue (what do our children need), without the accusations and fear of vicious reprisals.
Schools are caught in the middle of all of this. They serve students, parents and the broader community. Sometimes those interests are not aligned. It can be very hard to find common ground. We are not helped in finding that space if people assume the worst about each other, if they use inflammatory rhetoric or rely on sound bites for information instead of looking more deeply into the facts. We must do better. Our children and our democracy demand it.