“Social and Emotional Learning.” It sounds so innocuous, so appropriate and positive. School officials and policy makers are asking: How could any parent oppose the development of social and emotional skills? But parents are growing more and more alarmed – and for very good reasons.
Social Emotional Learning, often referred to as SEL, has changed over time. Originally, the goal of SEL was to promote morally neutral soft-skills such as self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and goal setting.
In 2020, everything changed with the shift to “Transformative SEL.”
“Transformative SEL” is basically race and gender ideology embedded into what had previously been neutral student competencies. “Self-Awareness” encompasses “identity,” with “identity” defined now through the lens of “intersectionality.”1 “Self-management” encompasses “agency,” with “agency” defined through “resistance” and “transformative/justice-oriented” citizenship.2 “Transformative SEL” embraces the pedagogical philosophy of “culturally relevant/responsive” practices, pioneered by professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, the woman who brought Critical Race Theory to K-12 education.3
One cannot have a working knowledge of SEL without understanding the importance of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL is the single most important entity in the field of SEL and by 2020, they had completely embraced Transformative SEL.
“What these [SEL] programs do,” says Jennifer McWilliams, a former teacher and SEL expert, “is use innocuous language like ‘social emotional learning,’ that sounds nice, to cover the Trojan Horse that it is for bringing in the Critical Race Theory ideology, gender identity / sexual orientation [instruction], and social justice education.” 4
SEL proponents often disagree with this characterization. But parents need only look to CASEL’s website to see the evidence. For example, in its “Roadmap to Re-Opening,” CASEL defines “self-awareness” as “examining our implicit biases,” and “Self-management” as “practicing anti-racism.”5 CASEL’s former CEO, Karen Niemi, declared “we believe that our work in Social and Emotional Learning must actively contribute to anti-racism,” and that SEL can “help people move from anger, to agency, and then to action.”6
One can have an academic debate about whether it’s appropriate to equate “anti-racism” with “critical race theory.” But no less a prominent liberal intellectual than Yale’s David Bromwich has declared that “anti-racism” is an ideological doctrine.7 By positioning SEL as a champion of an ideological doctrine and a tool to channel “anger” into “activism,” CASEL has rendered its enterprise explicitly ideological, partisan, and political. As the SEL brand expands, some school districts are leveraging it to implement practices not explicitly endorsed by CASEL, such as gender identity and sexual orientation instruction in elementary schools. 8
But they say it’s “evidence-based”?
Don’t believe them. Those claims are greatly exaggerated and the rare evidence of positive outcomes was a result of the old version of SEL. On the contrary, there is anecdotal reason to believe that this newer version of SEL is contributing to a decline in students’ social and emotional health. It’s too soon to know for sure.
Other reasons to ask questions and stay vigilant:
- School surveys have become central to SEL implementation. These surveys ask students highly sensitive questions about their mood, their beliefs, their family, and even their sexuality.9 Parents are not always informed about the nature of these questions, nor do they have strong reason to trust that the answers will remain private. Earlier this year, hackers stole personal information of over 820,000 students in New York City Public Schools.10 If SEL encourages schools to create more robust and sensitive datasets on their students, we should expect further hacks and data privacy violations.
- SEL effectively asks teachers to act as therapists.11 Trained only with pop-psychology and one day professional development sessions, it encourages them to probe into students’ psyches, to uncover and address “trauma.” There is a reason why medical ethics prohibits the practice of therapy by unlicensed and untrained individuals.