Partisans of social-emotional learning are wont to make their case in utopian terms: Create better learning environments and good things will happen to kids, to academic achievement, to the society in which we live, etc.
From the home page of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL):
Our work is critical at a time when educators, parents, students, and employers increasingly recognize the value of SEL. Together, we are united in our call for schools to educate the whole child, equipping students for success in school and in life.
Here’s how Aspen’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development began its final report a year ago:
After two decades of education debates that produced deep passions and deeper divisions, we have a chance for a fresh start. A growing movement dedicated to the social, emotional, and academic well-being of children is reshaping learning and changing lives across America. On the strength of its remarkable consensus, a nation at risk is finally a nation at hope.
Even when addressing policymakers, the utopian impulse remains strong. The Commission developed an entire separate “policy roadmap” aimed at those folks and urging to advance the cause. Here’s its pitch:
Policy can play an essential role in moving efforts to support the whole learner from the periphery to the mainstream of American education, and from the realm of ideas to implementation. This document is rooted in the belief that policy should create enabling conditions for communities to implement locally crafted practices that drive more equitable outcomes by supporting each and every student’s social, emotional, and academic development.
Nothing wrong with any of that, except…that’s not actually how policymakers tend to think or set priorities for actual actions that are within their power to take. Keep in mind how concrete and finite are almost all of those actions. They can pass laws, issue regulations, hire people, create budgets and appropriations—and sometimes use their bully pulpits and hearings and such to draw attention to things.
That’s about all the weapons in their arsenals. But what do they deploy them against? By and large it’s not against utopian goals and ambitious change-the-world schemes and top-to-bottom institutional rebootings, no matter how worthy. There’s very little constituency for such things.
What they are motivated to attack are concrete problems in the here and now, the kind that worry their constituents, that have some political payoff, that rectify injustices, advance tangible goals, and boost positive metrics that people notice and care about.
Concrete problems, immediate challenges, visible irritants, attainable goals—things that are clear and present and mostly tangible. Not utopian.
That, I believe, is the big divide between most SEL proponents and their policy language, and bona fide policymakers and the sorts of things they focus on.
But it’s a bridgeable divide, bridgeable if the SEL crowd will recognize that a nontrivial number of the clear-and-present problems already on the minds of policymakers would, if successfully addressed, advance the SEL cause in big ways. Not just “recognize” this but also strategize with policy folks about tangible solutions to here-and-now problems that, viewed another way, are manifestations of the need to do something about SEL (and, often, students’ mental health, safety, and wellbeing).
Let me illustrate with six examples. Remember: Start with the problem that’s already on people’s minds, not a grand vision of how to make the education world a better place:
- Bullying, violence, weapons, and discipline. These could be viewed together or separately, and there’s not always a consensus on policy remedies. Yet almost everyone agrees that schools need to be safe places for kids, both physically and emotionally. Nobody wants weapons (much less shooters) in school, kids hurt by other kids, or classrooms so disrupted that learning is interrupted. Easing any—much less all—of these problems in schools would be a huge boost for SEL.
- Drugs—opioids especially, plus vaping and other addictions. The generic “drug problem” has been on the policy agenda for a long time, and there are sundry school-related programs to address it, as well as much research, mainly in the medical arena. (See, for example, “The Role of Schools in Combating Illicit Substance Abuse” from the American Academy of Pediatrics.) But today’s opioid crisis is tearing apart families and communities, with dire consequences for kids and schools. As with so many big challenges, much of it arises outside school, and it’s not something that schools alone can solve. But it would behoove the SEL crowd (and the many educators who want to advance it) to ally themselves with broader efforts to curb the drug problem.
- Homelessness. Schools can’t solve the underlying problem here, either, but many actions within their power can ameliorate its education effects, such as enabling kids to remain in the same school when they move or enter a shelter. Longer school days and help with food, clothing and hygiene are also beneficial.
- Over-testing and over-reliance on test scores to judge schools, kids, etc. This is obviously a hot issue, much on parents’ minds as well as teachers’, and a nontrivial part of the push for SEL and whole-child education stems from concern that U.S. education policy is too narrowly focused on the things that tests purport to measure—and in just a few subjects. Among the problems on my list, this one is most squarely within the purview of ed policy, yet changing anything major would require coordinated efforts across all levels of government, as well as substantial changes in school structures and practices.
- Drop-outs. There are umpteen efforts to reduce drop-out rates and boost graduation rates. Some—such as ersatz credit recovery—introduce their own problems. But top-notch, fully-aligned schools and systems that are able to serve kids successfully, engage their interests and meet their needs from K (or pre-K) through high school, often customizing and personalizing their school experiences, are the best possible antidote. And by engaging their interest and meeting their needs—social and emotional, as well as academic—much good will be done for those kids, their peers, their families, and our society.
- Civics, citizenship, and character. These can get controversial within SEL ranks, but there’s huge policy interest across the country now in better civics education and in developing young people into good citizens, with all that that entails. There’s also much parental concern with children developing sound character and values. As I see it, the case for SEL will be strengthened in many quarters if the explicit linkages are made and—once again—if SEL promoters ally themselves with purposeful efforts to advance character and civics education.
Whatever you think of these particulars, I hope the strategic point is by now obvious: The policymakers that SEL devotees seek to engage in advancing their mission are more likely to resonate with an approach based on problems that they (and their constituents) already recognize and want to do something about than an approach that basically portrays an idealized form of education and urges them to help make it happen.