Schools have been concerned with character formation and values since Plato sat with students under an olive tree. Today’s “social and emotional learning” is consistent with this age-old impulse. But in its form and function it can represent something different—and more worrisome—than its progenitors, especially when employed without full discussion of its priorities and methods.
It should go without saying that schools have a role to play in attending not just to academics but to the overall well-being of children. This isn’t controversial. Schools have been concerned with character formation and values since Plato sat with students under an olive tree. Teachers have worried about the “whole child” at least since Dewey.
You know there’s a “but” coming.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is consistent with that age-old impulse in schooling, but in this latest form and function it represents something different than its progenitors. In a new paper for the American Enterprise Institute on “the unexamined rise of therapeutic education,” I argue that SEL has drifted ever closer to the central purpose of schooling without a full and appropriate discussion of its priorities, role, and methods. It risks pushing teaching toward a field of work more akin to therapy, social work, or even the clergy, but with insufficient consideration of the potential downsides of doing such sensitive work haphazardly. Perhaps mindful of this under-examined expansion of its priorities, SEL has been promoted by its enthusiasts as intertwined, even inseparable, from the academic mission of school. But it actually risks heralding a significantly different vision for public education, one that blithely declares settled a century-old debate between traditional and progressive, or “whole child” approaches to schooling.
Former University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene, now at the Heritage Foundation, has argued persuasively that SEL represents an educational priority “as old as education itself,” but in its present form is estranged from the moral and religious roots that make it compelling and effective. By contrast to traditional notions about character education, SEL “seeks to appeal to elites’ secular and scientific preferences by using psychological concepts, attempting to validate psychological scales to measure those concepts, and then using those measures to centrally manage improvement in SEL goals,” Greene recently wrote.
Uprooting SEL from its classical and religious foundations pushes teaching inevitably, by process of elimination, into the realm of what a pair of British authors, Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes, have dubbed “therapeutic education.” In a 2009 book, the pair described how ideas and techniques borrowed from popular psychology have aggressively inserted themselves into classroom practice along with the idea that “emotional well-being, emotional literacy, and emotional competence are some of the most important outcomes of the education system.”
Parental ambivalence—if not outright hostility—to such an approach to SEL is clear from Fordham’s recent report How to Sell SEL: Parents and the Politics of Social-Emotional Learning. On the one hand, Fordham’s poll shows strong support for anodyne SEL goals such as learning to set goals and achieve them, and believing in oneself. But on the other, nearly half (49 percent) of Americans surveyed agreed that schools “should focus on academics and leave social and emotional learning to parents and others.” As I note in my report for AEI, at some point concern for students’ emotional health and well-being, however well intended, can become too personal, intrusive, and sensitive to be a legitimate function of public school and thus the state. Many Americans appear to feel this way, too.
The line is more likely to be crossed when teachers are pressed into quasi-therapeutic roles that they are ill-prepared to play or that they may embrace reluctantly or reject entirely. As damaging to children as it might be for a teacher to perform poorly at teaching reading, math, or history, the effect of a teacher doubling as a poor (or poorly-trained) mental health professional can be even more dire.
One great danger, woefully under-discussed, is the potential to stigmatize children from disadvantaged subgroups, whom teachers may be encouraged to see as trauma victims, resulting in low expectations, not because of soft bigotry, but the quasi-therapeutic language of “trauma-informed” pedagogy, which asks teachers to keep front of mind how various forms of adversity may have impacted students cognitively. But as I’ve noted previously, “trauma” has come to be so promiscuously defined as to alarm even the public health experts who pioneered our understanding of “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs. It is not just likely but nearly axiomatic that every student in a high-poverty school will be viewed as suffering the effects of trauma with little or no appreciation or allowance for the structures in their lives, such as supportive family relationships and community ties that mitigate against the effects of stress.
In sum, and with respect to my Fordham colleagues, the impetus to “sell” SEL is premature, however well-intended or earnestly one views it as a complement to a school’s academic mission. In too many places, social and emotional learning is not just an enhancement to teaching practice, but a potentially profound shift, one that raises questions about education’s role in society and the assumptions we make, with or without public and parental input, about the social, cultural, and economic roles a school plays—and is permitted or encouraged to play—in a child’s life.
Under federal law, states must assess students annually in reading and math in grades 3–8 and at least once during high school, as well as testing science once in elementary, middle, and high school. These requirements were established twenty years ago under NCLB at a time when policymakers and lawmakers had a limited set of tools for measuring academic achievement, and really nothing for gauging student growth. Today we can see several compelling reasons why states should start annual testing earlier, as in grades K–2.
The battle to ensure the success of our students is largely won or lost in the early years. If a child is a poor reader by the end of first grade, there’s a good likelihood that child will remain a poor reader at the end of third grade, creating a devastating downward spiral. In this sense, our current assessment regime has it exactly backwards by beginning to measure when it’s already too late. Instead of waiting until third grade, what if we had a “check engine” alert signal as early as kindergarten that could provide reliable and valid state-level data on how kids were faring, especially in reading?
More than half the states have a definition of kindergarten readiness, and at least as many require entry assessments that might be used or adapted as part of a K–2 testing and accountability system. Ohio, for example, has a “well-intended but rudimentary approach” to measuring growth in the early grades, requiring districts to test students every year in K–2 as part of its third grade reading guarantee. In fact, early testing already exists in many formats (e.g., MAP Growth and i-Ready), which means a lot of states wouldn’t be starting from scratch if they set out to expand the scope of their assessment systems.
Unlike the standardized exams administered to older students, assessing young children usually requires one-on-one assessment using a short, non-written format. This parameters can be costly and time-consuming if the right systems and structures aren’t in place—challenges that were understandably insurmountable two decades ago. However, we now have the tools to design and offer assessments that are less intrusive, more routine, yet still yield valuable information. As Oscar Goldman might have said, “We can rebuild our tests. We have the technology.”
One such innovation is that of voice recognition and AI (think Alexa or Siri) as a means of quickly and efficiently gauging the oral reading fluency of young students. There are many examples, including those developed with federal support, yet few states are taking advantage of these options within their assessment systems. The federal government is uniquely positioned to lead on a new vision for measurement and accountability—as they have started to with IADA—but there is so much more that could be done with user interface and user experience if content matter experts, engineers, and psychometricians were brought to the table.
Another benefit of testing kids earlier is avoiding the poor instructional decisions that come from assessing them later. In particular, the over-enrollment of Black boys in special education might be mitigated if states and districts had more actionable K–2 data to gauge students’ reading proficiency when teacher interventions can make a huge difference. As Robert Pondiscio explains:
Any discussion about “equity” in education that is not first and foremost a discussion about literacy is unserious. Wide and persistent gaps between White and Black students, stretching back decades, make it abundantly clear—or ought to—that state education officials have no more urgent business to attend to than ensuring that every child can read in every school under their control or influence.
Gauging the effectiveness of elementary schools using data from K–5 would be a significant improvement over what we do now, which really just looks at growth in the fourth and fifth grades (i.e., using the tests in grades 3–5). This constraint encourages schools and districts to shunt their less effective teachers to the early grades, which again, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.
Widespread distaste for more testing will make this idea a challenge to put into practice, but the alternative is to continue burying our heads in the sand about our children’s most formative years. That’s unfair to our students and teachers, given all that we now know about the importance of early elementary school. It’s time for states to stop flying blind. Annual exams in grades K–2 could pay huge dividends if the data help encourage schools and districts to intervene with struggling students before they fall irretrievably behind.
Kathryn Paige Harden is a behavioral genetics rock star at UT Austin. Unsurprisingly for a college professor in a liberal town, she identifies as progressive. The seeming contradiction between her research interests and her political views has drawn broad attention to her first book, The Genetic Lottery.
The red, one-room school house is a synecdoche of the common school. A place where children from uncommon backgrounds received common instruction and a chance at success limited only by their effort. But after studying human behaviors and our roughly 26,000 genes for fifteen years, Harden concludes that educational success is less about hard work and more about the genes you inherited. We need to uncouple economic success from school success, she says. Ameliorating the worst consequences of losing the genetic lottery is admirable, but Harden’s proposals seem unlikely to work. Focusing policy more narrowly on education reforms is a more winning ticket.
Harden’s genetic findings are not news to teachers, administrators, and education policymakers who have long understood that, despite our obeisance to the term, hard work alone doesn’t explain student outcomes. In 2011, Michelle Obama claimed that she became a lawyer because she was “not good at math” at a White House event honoring promising young girls in math and science. But as Harden noted in 2018, “many progressives resist acknowledging [genes’ influence]...fearing that it will compromise their egalitarian beliefs.”
Reflecting this disconnect, in the same speech, the former First Lady said that “doctors and scientists are something that anyone can become, no matter how much money your family has, no matter where you come from or whether you’re a man or a woman.” That’s just not so, Harden would tell Mrs. Obama. But, she says, even if we can’t all be well-compensated professionals, “the existence of genetically caused human differences [doesn’t] waive our social responsibility to address inequality.”
Valorizing our meritocratic and capitalist system is a policy house built on sand, according to Harden. She quotes author Michael Lewis, who told Princeton’s class of 2012 that “people really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck—especially successful people.” Harden risks their opprobrium.
In 1994, the late Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray made similar claims in The Bell Curve. In 1971, Herrnstein outlined the case for IQ’s influence in a nineteen-page article in The Atlantic. Harden calls Murray and Hernstein “profoundly inegalitarian” for their “eugenic” belief in the superiority of people with higher IQ scores. She does not, however, suggest that we “abandon using selection criteria for desirable social roles and opportunities.” In this sense, Harden agrees with Herrnstein, who wrote, “the premium given to lawyers, doctors, engineers and business managers is not accidental, for those jobs are left to incompetents at our collective peril.”
By implication, she also agrees with Stanford sociologist David Labaree, who described colleges and universities as efficient social sorting machines, determining who gets ahead and who does not. Only in Lake Wobegon are “all the children above average.”
So what exactly would the good professor have us do? She has three proposals, two reasonable and one less so.
The first is to study DNA more comprehensively. We know tons about the genomes of white Europeans but not nearly enough about other equally important ethnic groups. Their genotypes might be similar. Or different. Researchers can’t say, and that makes it hard to assess the efficacy of interventions aimed at disadvantaged groups. Instead of charging them $200, companies like 23andMe could pay minorities to participate, making clear how their genes will be treated better than Henrietta Lacks’s were, and making their DNA available to researchers like Harden.
“Social scientists have failed, time and time again,” writes Harden “to produce interventions that bring about lasting improvements in people’s lives.” By asking kids to spit in a test tube, we could incorporate genomic controls into assessing the impact of a reading intervention the same way we isolate their parents’ income or family status (with appropriate privacy controls, of course). This is her second proposal.
Lastly, like Marxist social critic Freddie DeBoer, whose 2020 philippic against education reform she praises, Harden believes wealth shouldn’t arise (mostly) from college completion. Inspired by philosopher John Rawls’s theories of justice, she proposes that although they leave school sooner and engage in less complex work, hairdressers should enjoy material success similar to heart surgeons.
Alas, 2,000 years of philosophy have yet to discover a viable utopia. Harden’s idea is not only grossly misguided in a free society—why, for example, would anyone train to be a heart surgeon if cutting hair allowed for the same lifestyle?—it has zero chance of gaining any traction in the United States. Even more moderate versions of Harden’s ideas do little to address the problems of which she speaks.
According to economist James Heckman, for example, generous welfare policies make Denmark more economically equitable than the U.S., but they don’t change “the same fundamental inequalities in education and skill formation and intergenerational dependencies.” The children of Danish criminals are still more likely to end up in jail than college, and Danish bankers have higher social status than bakers.
As a parent, husband of an ESL teacher, and founder of a charter school, I’ve spent decades in the trenches with the genetic challenges that Harden describes. Our divisive politics suggest that alternative welfare schemes and universal basic income are unlikely to be realized soon. Neither Harden nor anyone else is suggesting Gattaca-style engineering; apart from the immorality, the technology is just not there. But two educational reforms could ameliorate some of the impact of the genetic lottery.
The first would be to teach students to read. Year after year, 64 percent of public school twelfth graders score below proficient on NAEP. The rates are worse for boys; low-income, Black, and Hispanic students; and a host of other subgroups. While few students will earn a Ph.D., nearly all will learn to read well if taught with systematic phonics and coherent content, neither of which are consistently emphasized in teacher training programs or school curricula.
In addition to its economic utility, reading instruction inculcates the virtues we value. Esteemed Greek history professor Donald Kagan could have been speaking of reading when he wrote that “every successful civilization must possess a means for passing on its basic values to each generation. When it no longer does so, its days are numbered.” Young people are imperfect, but reading and discussing great literature helps them develop kindness, grace, and love for their fellow humans that make for a more just society. Prior to progressives like John Dewey rethinking pedagogy along Romantic lines, schools chose lessons not just because they taught pupils to read, but because the stories elucidated valuable precepts. Lessons, like the one conservative Chief Justice John Roberts shared with his son’s classmates that “your success is not completely deserved and the failure of others is not completely deserved either,” seem congruent with Harden’s beliefs.
A second thing we could do is end the myth of college for all. Some may consider this excuse making. Admittedly there’s an appearance of elites like me pulling the ladder up behind us. But if 72 percent of the fastest-growing jobs don’t require a B.A., and 75 percent of high school grads won’t obtain one, we need better alternatives. When KIPP, a large charter network, ditched its motto “Work Hard. Go to College.” many groaned. But as one leader at the network told me recently, it’s counterproductive to pretend a student with a 2.0 GPA at the start of their junior year is going to college. A KIPP student now gets up to six years of advisory support in school and after graduation to navigate options like certification programs and junior college.
Reformers interested in addressing this challenge should support a two-year residential program that combines a KIPP-like counselling approach with reading re-enforcement, statistics, and life skills coaching. Despite her focus on genes, Harden agrees that environment matters, too. The teachers in such a program would be recruited specifically for this program. This avoids the conflicts of the college-industrial complex where tenure-track faculty are rewarded for publishing research, not mentoring and inspiring young people. The texts taught should be selected to support both reading and civics goals, much like the McGuffey Readers that—imperfect though they were—once served as our de facto national curriculum. Learning to cook, do laundry, and form relationships with students from different backgrounds reinforces valuable non-academic traits that parents try to teach.
The Genetic Lottery makes clear the challenges we face, and boldly calls on progressives, who have long feared acknowledging genetic influences, to takes their heads out of the sand. But Harden’s proposal that society “be structured to work to the advantage of people who [are] least advantaged in the genetic lottery” is utopian and unlikely to influence the debate meaningfully. Renewed interest in the science of reading is a hopeful sign of what is likely to be a more achievable reform. Kids who can engage with the deepest thinkers from our past and present are more likely to appreciate, and aspire to, the more equitable world Harden would like to build.
During the first full school year after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, enrollment in U.S. public schools fell by about 1.1 million students, or 2 percent of prior K–12 enrollment. A recent study by Thomas Dee and three other Stanford University researchers examines how school reopening decisions affected those declines, as well as what they reveal about parents’ instructional preferences.
They use federal data to gather district enrollment counts from 2015–16 through 2019–20, but because the federal government has not yet released district by grade-level enrollment data for the 2020–21 school year, they collect those data directly from state departments of education. Their sample includes traditional districts but not charter schools unless authorized by a traditional district. They also use district-level opening plans aggregated by Burbio, a digital platform used by more than 80,000 schools nationwide to power their yearly calendars. In the pandemic, Burbio tracked instructional mode status for roughly 1,200 districts at various points in time by school and grade level through special agreement with them. The Stanford team’s analytic sample—which relies on Burbio’s sampling strategy—ultimately encompasses 35 percent of all public school students and is more urban and suburban compared to national statistics, while also including slightly higher concentrations of poor students. Analysts also track Covid-19 prevalence at the county level and state decisions around Covid-related restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders and public transportation limitations, which could influence school instructional mode and parents’ perception of Covid-19 risk.
Descriptively, results show that half the districts chose remote-only instruction, while 27 percent chose in-person and 23 percent chose a hybrid model. The authors employ a comparative interrupted time series design that helps control for the fact that remote-only districts tended to be larger and more urban and already showed decreasing enrollment patterns preceding the pandemic.
The headline finding: The decision to offer remote-only instruction in fall 2020 contributed materially to disenrollment from public schools. Specifically, their estimates show that offering remote-only instruction exacerbated disenrollment by 42 percent (i.e., a change from 2.6 to 3.7 percent) relative to in-person instruction, while hybrid instruction had small and statistically insignificant effects. To frame these effect sizes against the national decline in public-school enrollment, Dee and his team explain that public schools previously enrolled roughly 49 million students and that roughly 57 percent of students faced remote-only instruction as of November 2020. The additional enrollment decline in remote-only districts implies that public schools lost roughly 300,000 K–12 students as a result of these decisions. Which suggests that widespread adoption of remote-only instruction explains roughly a quarter of the disenrollment from public schools. They also find that the effects of remote-only instruction on the decline in public-school enrollment were particularly concentrated in the kindergarten and elementary grades. Remote instruction did not appear to influence middle or high school enrollment—nor contribute to dropout behavior—nor did hybrid instruction have an impact either way.
Interestingly, the effect of disenrollment relative to remote instruction in districts serving higher concentrations of Black students was nearly twice as large as in districts serving lower concentrations of Black students, a finding consistent with survey evidence that Black parents disproportionately supported remote learning.
As for the future, the analysts say that the sharp drop in kindergarten enrollment could be an especially thorny problem. A substantial number of kiddos whose parents redshirted them to avoid fully-remote learning likely started kindergarten this fall (assuming that some or all of it was in-person), creating an unusually large mixed-age cohort. That will usher in unusual and unexpected staffing requirements as the cohort makes its way through the system together over the next twelve years. But let’s be honest: That’s just the tip of the iceberg relative to the changes required to help students recover in the wake of the pandemic.
SOURCE: Thomas S. Dee et al., “The Revealed Preferences for School Reopening: Evidence from Public-School Disenrollment,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (August 2021).
Results of a recent survey published by Amazon’s Future Engineer offshoot show several disconnects between the interests, experiences, and aspirations of U.S. students in regard to computer science. While many of the jobs that await today’s middle and high school students will likely be even more technology-focused than they are now, more specifics are required—beyond those illuminated here—to make sure that high-quality education and training is in place to leverage legitimate interest from young people and to properly connect them with the work they will ultimately undertake.
The survey was conducted electronically by Gallup in June 2021, with a total nationwide sample of 4,116 public and private school students. Just over 1,800 were high schoolers, the rest middle schoolers. Weighting adjustments were made to closer match the sample to national demographics of gender, grade, race/ethnicity, and school type per the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2019. No breakout of responses between public and private school students was included.
Interest in computer science was high among survey respondents, with 62 percent saying they would like to learn about the topic. That included 53 percent of female students and 72 percent of male students. Among Black students, however, females were slightly more likely to say they are interested in learning about computer science; and Black female students are more likely than White or Hispanic females to report interest (61, 51, and 52 percent, respectively). Overall, female students were significantly less likely than males to say they planned to study computer science in college and would someday like to have a job in a related field.
In terms of access, 70 percent of respondents reported that computer science courses were offered at their schools; however, just 49 percent had actually taken one. Low-income students living in rural areas were least likely to report course availability in their schools. In large cities, where computer science classes are presumably more common, only 67 percent of Black students said their schools offered them, versus 81 percent of Hispanic students and 88 percent of White students. Access to school-based courses also predicted interest in the topic: Among students who said computer science classes were offered, 68 percent said they were interested in learning about the topic versus 49 percent of those whose schools do not offer such courses. Same goes for sustaining interest: Among students who reported no access to computer science classes, interest in the topic falls from 63 percent at fifth grade to 23 percent at twelfth grade; where classes are available, reported interest still falls, but from 85 percent to 59 percent.
Finally, having adult role models was strongly linked to students’ computer science career plans. Just over half of students reported having a role model in the field, although no definition of the term was provided by surveyors nor did students identify their role models. Responses were lower for female students (49 percent) and Black students (45 percent). Students in urban areas were twice as likely to report having a computer science role model than were their rural peers, which the analysts connect to a similar gap in access to classes, which likely means that students are generally thinking of classroom teachers when referring to a “role model in the field.” More than 60 percent of students who reported taking a computer science class at school said they have role models in the field versus just 45 percent of those who reported not taking a class.
The report makes no recommendations other than to boost the number of computer science classes in schools and the number of adult role models for students. This is okay as far as it goes, but focusing on teachers as high-tech role models seems less than ideal, and not thinking beyond the classroom walls is troublingly status quo–centric. Surely any such boosts within schools would favor the same areas and kids the current set up favors, and the rural and low-income schools that are lacking in computer science would continue to lag behind without specific efforts to widen access to technology education for the traditionally-underserved. It also entirely ignores the many and various free DIY online options available to anyone with sufficient bandwidth and some rudimentary knowledge, as well as non-profit organizations whose missions are dedicated to growing a diverse pipeline of future coders and computer engineers.
Policymakers and employers like Amazon can definitely make use of the statistics in this report, but here’s hoping that they look well beyond our nineteenth century school structure to build their high-tech future.
SOURCE: “Developing Careers of the Future: A Study of Student Access to, and Interest in, Computer Science,” Gallup and Amazon (October 2021).
On this week’s podcast, Tom Toch, director of Future Ed, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss D.C.’s teacher-hiring strategy, and why other districts can and should follow suit. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how teacher specialization in elementary schools affects student achievement.
Amber's Research Minute
NaYoung Hwang and Brian Kisida, "Spread Too Thin: The Effects of Teacher Specialization on Student Achievement," retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (October 2021).
- Fathers at Southwood High School in Shreveport, Louisiana reduced student violence by forming “Dad’s on Duty” and being a positive presence. —Joanne Jacobs
- Checker Finn talks everything from gifted programs to the future of NAEP in this interview with Rick Hess.
- Ohio's new quarantine protocols are going to keep more kids in school. —AP News
- Overly-cautious quarantine protocols in Montgomery County, Maryland, are disrupting kids’ education, despite sky-high vaccination rates. —Washington Post
- “Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out.” —Washington Post
- U.S. News’ elementary and middle school ranking system is all about student demographics and tells us nothing about educational quality. —Hechinger Report
- On March 2020, Massachusetts issued a scathing review of Boston’s public school system. With problems worsened by pandemic closures, can the district reform itself? —Boston Globe
- Falling NAEP scores bolster the need for more evidence on student achievement. —Morgan Polikoff
- New York City’s struggle to improve the equity and effectiveness of its gifted programs is a problem shared by districts across the country. —The 74
- “It’s vital to understand who really runs public education, and it’s not parents.” —David French
- Glenn Younkin, a candidate for governor of Virginia, ran an ad about a mother being upset that her son, a high school senior, was assigned an explicit book in his AP English class. Should she have the right to opt him out of reading it? —Hot Air
- “Preschool enrollment has plunged: what that means for school readiness.” —Education Week