Culture wars: Why social emotional learning is under attack in public schools

Kenneth Palmer

Tarinda Craglow has counseled school-age children in Phoenix for nearly two decades. When she started working with kids through community nonprofits around 2004, only a handful of them were experiencing homelessness. Now, she’s a school social worker in an alternative education high school district, and a high number of the 1,500 students she’s responsible for qualify for services under a federal aid program for homeless students.

Craglow has spent years advocating for basic rights like housing and health care for Phoenix’s at-risk youth. But her latest battle has been in Arizona’s public schools, as one of the grassroots organizers behind SEL4AZ, an organization pushing education leaders to double down on the educational concept known as “social-emotional learning” (SEL), which holds that giving students ongoing instruction on how to manage their emotions can help them succeed socially and academically.

Social-emotional learning has long been accepted as part of curriculums across the country, from pre-K through high school. It’s backed by a large body of research and decades of practice. Recently, though, it has become the latest target in the school culture wars. Anti-SEL campaigns led by conservative parent groups, lawmakers, and political strategists are gaining momentum across the country. Since 2021, there have been disputes over social-emotional learning in at least 25 states, according to NPR — from bills that have tried to remove the concept from school curriculums altogether to heated parent board meetings where parent rights’ advocates vehemently denounced it.

Social-emotional learning teaches students what are conventionally known as “soft skills”: the social and emotional tools that help students make good choices, manage their emotions, create positive relationships, and collaborate.

Its supporters say these skills are more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic, which ushered in new challenges for kids all across Arizona. State test results released over the last two years show that a majority of third to eighth grade students failed statewide exams in both English language arts and math. Arizona, like most states, showed no improvement in reading scores and showed significant declines in math scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which is administered biennially to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state. Students in Arizona are missing school more than ever before. A study on the state’s K-8 chronic absenteeism rate — the rate at which students miss 10 percent or more of the school year — rose to 22 percent in the 2021 school year, up from 14 percent in 2019. About 15 percent of children in the state live in high-poverty areas compared with the national average of 9 percent.

But Craglow and other advocates and educators who support SEL are in stark opposition to Arizona’s new public schools leader.

In November, Republican Tom Horne ousted incumbent Democrat Kathy Hoffman to reclaim the role of superintendent of public instruction, a seat he held from 2003 to 2011.

In January, Horne, who oversees more than 2,700 schools that educate more than 1.1 million students, announced that the Education Department’s new focus is increasing test scores and empowering parents by nixing social-emotional learning and eliminating critical race theory (CRT), the other educational concept conservatives have latched onto in recent years. The attacks on SEL and CRT have come alongside other strategies like restoring “traditional” discipline including suspensions and expulsions, threatening “failing” schools with state takeover, and making students test to graduate.

For the young people she supports, Craglow is often the link between school, home, and community. She provides mental health interventions when necessary, helps alleviate family stress, and develops strategies to increase academic success. But after more than two years of a global pandemic, the interventions have become more difficult. The children she supports need more, and she sees social-emotional learning as guidance, the healing salve that can help students and families make it through.

“I have kids calling me daily saying, “Hey, my family, we can’t afford our rent. I don’t know where we’re going. How can you help?” Craglow said. “And then there are the kids on the streets by themselves. Families are broken up all over the place because there’s not enough money and everything is expensive right now.”

Finding multiple opportunities to let children know that “we care, that they matter, and that we are going to show up for them no matter what” makes all the difference, Craglow says. “That’s what social-emotional learning is all about. When we have those kinds of conversations, kids show up in the classroom and they have a better sense of how to process whatever challenges they might be facing.”

The case for greater implementation of social-emotional learning is obvious, Craglow and other members of SEL4AZ believe, which is why they’re perplexed by the new urgent need to advocate for the decades-old concept that has historically benefited from strong bipartisan support.

“There’s nothing new about social-emotional learning,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian and history of education professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “What’s new about it is that it has become a lightning rod in the culture war. … Schools have always been foci of controversy. But in the case of SEL and CRT, the controversy is about something that is extremely ambiguous and much less targeted than other battles. CRT and SEL are almost memes. They’re symbols of things that people don’t like.”

When I asked Horne how he planned to do away with social-emotional learning, especially since social-emotional learning competencies have for years been intentionally embedded into K-12 classrooms across the state, he told me he wasn’t sure yet. And when I asked him to define social-emotional learning, he said that, like critical race theory, it was difficult to explain. But he’s motivated by the teachers who have complained to him about all the instructional time that has been devoted to SEL. (Though advocates say SEL is a practice that educators should embed throughout the school day, a 2017 national survey found that teachers spend about 4.3 hours a week on SEL, or just 8 percent of their working time inside and outside the classroom.)

And though he couldn’t tell me how many teachers have complained to him about SEL, he said he has “pretty vivid images of what’s been going on.”

“My heroes are math teachers who love math, history teachers who love history, and so on,” Horne wrote in a recent column. “They want to teach their subjects bell to bell, but can’t because under social-emotional learning they have to play what they describe as ‘dumb games’ during class time.”

For Horne, this kind of instruction is probably one reason test scores dropped. “On the surface, it all sounds fine, but SEL is probably the biggest distraction of all from academics,” Horne told me. “There has to be a reason test scores are so low — it’s not all due to Covid. This is only our second week, so we need some time to develop detailed plans. But I campaigned on this, so I’m going to do it.”

What is social-emotional learning?

Though researchers first used the term “social-emotional learning” in the 1990s, its tenets have been used under a slew of other names in schools across the country: character development, 21st-century skills, workforce readiness, employability skills, noncognitive skills, mindfulness, grit, growth mindset, whole child development, moral development, positive youth development, and behavioral skills, among others.

How teachers implement social-emotional learning varies from classroom to classroom, but it starts with a teacher who is mindful of how they lead. “If a teacher encounters a difficult situation in the classroom, how they deal with it in front of their students is a lesson in social-emotional learning,” said Justina Schlund, the director of content and field learning at CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), the organization that has helped create the education standards for social-emotional learning used in all 50 states.

Social-emotional learning means that an educator is deliberately taking the time to teach students the skills they can’t necessarily learn through a lesson about parallelograms or The Great Gatsby. SEL instruction can include teaching kids how to think before they speak, helping students understand how their identities are related to learning, or finding ways to share their emotions positively. If a student gets frustrated by an exam, a math problem, or a peer, social-emotional learning teaches them to take a step back, recognize their frustration, and act accordingly.

Before joining CASEL, Schlund led the SEL office at Chicago Public Schools, where she oversaw the implementation of SEL at nearly 450 schools in the district. “When we taught teachers to implement these standards, it was always clear to us that SEL is just part of what any effective teacher does,” she said.

The benefits of social-emotional learning are difficult to deny. A recent meta-analysis, which reviewed studies of 1 million students over the last 10 years, found that SEL approaches have consistent, positive effects on student outcomes, including increased social and emotional skills, attitudes, and academic achievement, and fewer problems with conduct and emotional distress.

Students who participated in SEL programs that addressed the five core social and emotional skills it aims to teach — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making — improved their academic performance by 11 percentage points compared to students who did not participate in SEL, according to a 2011 meta-analysis. The academic impacts have long-term effects: In follow-up assessments years after students participated in SEL, their academic performance was an average of 13 percentile points higher than students who didn’t participate, according to a 2017 meta-analysis.

There’s economic value, too. A 2015 study from Columbia University found that SEL programs produce $11 for every $1 spent on them by lowering crime, increasing wages, and producing better health outcomes for students who learned SEL skills. Nationally, spending on social-emotional learning has grown 45 percent to $765 million between November 2019 and April 2021, according to a 2021 study.

For Craglow, SEL instruction can also be a retention tool for teachers. “If kids can’t talk about their feelings and if they don’t know how to express themselves to their teachers and manage their emotions, teachers will continue quitting left and right,” said Craglow.

How social-emotional learning became a political issue

Critics of social-emotional learning, like Parents Defending Education, a group tracking what it says is “liberal indoctrination,” say the programs focus too much on children’s identities. It shouldn’t matter what a child’s race or gender is, these parent groups say. If a teacher spends too much time talking about identity, they risk making students “feel bad” about parts of their identities that they can’t control.

To be clear, most SEL frameworks have no connection to identity politics, but critics of SEL have conflated it with critical race theory, a concept rarely taught in grade school that argues that racism is endemic in American society. In the past two years, following the peak of the CRT backlash, several states including Virginia, Indiana, and Oklahoma have tried to enact legislation that restricts the use of social-emotional learning or bans the use of government funding to support these programs. And across the country, some parents are pushing for the removal of social-emotional learning. Reports have shown that many parents, including those pushing for the removal of SEL, still aren’t aware of what it actually is.

So how did we get here?

When parents couldn’t find evidence of critical race theory being taught at their children’s schools, political strategists went back to the drawing board to find something that would stick, said Jim Vetter, the co-leader of SEL4US, a national SEL nonprofit. “They started focusing on SEL as the Trojan horse to get CRT into our schools,” Vetter said. And that has meant scrubbing the phrase “social-emotional learning” from school district websites, more teachers who are afraid to correspond with parents on the subject, and an overall chilling effect, Vetter said.

For Zimmerman, the assault on SEL speaks to even broader changes in the story of America’s public schools. “The reason we got here,” Zimmerman said, “is because, since 2016, enormous rifts have been exposed in the United States around what we think the country is and what we think it means. Think of the term ‘Make America Great Again.’ No matter what you think of that slogan, it embodies a conception of the country that millions of people share, and millions of people don’t share. I think what’s happened is a lot of our fundamental disagreements about the nature of America have come to the fore.”

Why the SEL and CRT fight isn’t dying

Grassroots organizers with SEL4AZ believe that Horne might just be misunderstanding what social-emotional learning is. “Maybe he hasn’t looked at the statistics behind it yet. He has a lot on his plate, so maybe, maybe there hasn’t been time for him to research that yet,” Craglow said. “I think he desires to make a difference, but I think he maybe just doesn’t understand it.”

But whether Horne “gets” social-emotional learning may not make a difference in his war against it. “My goal is to have the kids learn more and get the test scores up. They’re in the bottom of the well right now. It’s a tragedy. It’s an emergency,” Horne said. “We have to have a sense of urgency about it, which means we have to focus on academics. Teach the subjects and not get off on other distractions. That’s the basic message.”

While SEL4AZ organizers are optimistic that Horne might move forward with his stated support for Character Counts, a national program that teaches students character skills like respect, civility, and humility, what SEL advocates say is SEL by another name, Horne told Vox that he wasn’t sure since he heard that the program might be “infiltrated.” Since I spoke to Horne, the Arizona Education Department’s Character Counts landing page has been renamed “Character Education.”

For Horne, any talk about race is a distraction too. “Race is irrelevant,” he said. When I asked Horne what he’d say to the Black and Native American students — who are suspended at higher rates in Arizona — he replied: “I’d tell them to behave.” He added, “Belonging to a certain race is not a license to disrupt other kids’ learning.” But at the same time, Horne said he believes that any teacher who displays a racial bias against students should be fired.

The conservative attacks on CRT and SEL represent a new nationalization of educational politics. Education has historically been a local and state issue, but there’s a new level of national tension and fraught discourse in education that we haven’t seen before.

“Thanks to social media and different ways of communicating, it’s a lot easier for a figure like [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis to get a national audience for complaints of this sort,” Zimmerman said. (When I asked Horne whether he planned to follow in DeSantis’s footsteps in advocating for a ban on AP African American studies, he told me he hadn’t gotten there yet, as he had his “own controversies to get through.”)

Zimmerman said that the national school curriculum debates make it even more urgent to broaden the discussion and get more voices in.

“We need more parent activism, not less, right now,” said Zimmerman. “The parents who are attacking CRT and SEL have had their say, and I think the only meaningful and legitimate response to that is for other parents who see the world otherwise to exert their voice.”

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