by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In some quarters of K–12 education, perhaps most, the increased focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) is viewed as an unambiguously positive development—a welcome course correction after more than two decades of focus on academic standards, testing, and accountability. But SEL, which is typically presented as an academic enhancement, not a distraction, carries more cause for concern than is commonly acknowledged. It represents a different vision for public education.
There is a substantive moral message in SEL that is largely unacknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, by its promoters and enthusiasts. The bland, pseudoscientific, and somewhat inscrutable term “social and emotional learning” grafted onto the academic effort of schooling masks its nature, which heralds a reimagining of schools’ and teachers’ roles. Advocates insist SEL serves academic outcomes and is thus a natural extension of a school’s mission. But even if this were true, it is an invitation for schools to expand their role and influence in a way that might not be universally applauded, particularly by conservative families and teachers.
Inherent in SEL is an under-discussed change in the role of the teacher, from a pedagogue to something more closely resembling a therapist, social worker, or member of the clergy—no less concerned with a child’s beliefs, attitudes, and values. At the very least, the rise of SEL, under the cover of jargon and educationese, has become a largely unquestioned feature of mainstream education thought and practice, with insufficient discussion and debate about its effect on schools’ missions.
Whether SEL can benefit academic outcomes is an interesting and important question, but it’s secondary. The more salient question, which tends to go unasked but must be settled first, is about the appropriate business of a school.