A national commission convened by the Aspen Institute just released a report titled, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” with the hope (pun intended) that it will gain as much traction as the seminal report it pays homage to. Two years in the making, the Aspen report features six macro-level recommendations—all generally unobjectionable—for states to better integrate social, emotional, and academic learning into their schools and communities. These days, a lot is riding on SEL, especially among funders who are feeling once bitten, twice shy since Common Core launched in 2010.
The pursuit of collaboration and consensus was clearly top of mind among the report’s authors. Let’s come together on what unites us (“a shared vision for the future prosperity and well-being of our children”) rather than focusing myopically on what divides us (“divisive policy arguments”). In today’s polarized era, efforts like Aspen’s to find common ground is something we need more of, and their investment in what should be an integral part of every young person’s experience is worth commending. But notwithstanding the luminary status of those who signed onto the report’s conclusions, there are five potentially problematic elements that could prevent this noble endeavor from getting real traction.
The first is the title itself. Grammatical quibbles aside, “hope” is hardly a clarion call for action, and in this context it feels like an attempt to gloss over the unfinished work that still remains in education reform. I understand the desire to radiate optimism, but the title is simply disingenuous given the sobering reality of our current state of affairs. We could do with less cute sloganeering and trendy jargon, and more courage and perseverance when it comes to tackling the hard questions.
Second, some will view the report’s principal thrust as a retread of the debunked self-esteem movement. Those who have been to this rodeo before may be pardoned for a touch of skepticism here. Few things raise the antennae like the term “whole child”—and with the report’s embrace of it and other variations like “whole learner” and “whole student,” it’s hard to overlook the potential for misuse by those who might prefer to deflect energy and attention away from academic knowledge and skills.
Third, the report’s endorsement of restorative justice opens up the sizable can of worms around school discipline. If there’s any topic within education policy that needs a reset, it might be this one. As a former teacher and principal, I’ve seen the benefits of making discipline—to the extent possible—less about punishment and more about teaching opportunities. Unfortunately, the fault lines that have been created by the current debate have become so extreme, making it far more difficult than it’s probably worth given the report’s aim of posing “unifying” solutions.
Fourth, experience teaches us that the education establishment will leverage recommendations such as “fund[ing] dedicated positions in schools and districts to intentionally engage partners” to happily push for more dollars, specialists, and bureaucrats. This will be an instant turn-off for most reddish states and communities, and likely also for some of purplish hue. In light of past, present, and future labor disputes, states and districts are already groaning under their current budgetary obligations.
Finally, readers might be more energized if the report had clearly addressed the link between SEL and classroom “order,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “the state of peace, freedom from confused or unruly behavior, and respect for law or proper authority.” As former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once said, “Learning cannot happen in a classroom that is out of control.” With a few exceptions, the desire to protect June from Johnny’s mayhem transcends partisan divides.
Still, Aspen has released a solid and respectable report. Business leaders will nod their heads in agreement on behalf of the soft skills that are in short supply in today’s workforce. The authors’ call for policy to “create the enabling conditions for state and district level innovation” is a page from Andy Smarick’s “capacitating conservatism” playbook. And it’s true that the resurgence of state and local authority post-ESSA presents a unique opportunity for states to lead on this issue.
The question is whether they’ll step up to this plate. For better or for worse, schools have been called upon to address the debilitating effects of non-intact families and other societal maladies. SEL could be the missing ingredient to ensure more students don’t fall through the cracks. Done wisely and well (a not insignificant caveat), it can help create the conditions for not only academic success, but moral and civic progress too. Let’s hope this shiny new report doesn’t end up gathering dust on the shelf.