Metro Nashville Public Schools recently held its annual Social Emotional Learning Conference to promote practices that well-known education scholar Chester Finn has called “faux psychology.”
The seventh annual conference, co-sponsored by the behavioral health team at Alignment Nashville, was held June 29 and 30 at Cane Ridge High School. More than 800 educators, experts and community members were expected to attend. According to the Alignment Nashville website, social-emotional learning (or SEL) has “core competencies” which “include self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.”
In a May press release, the school district said it is gaining a national reputation for its commitment to social-emotional learning. The district has a partnership with CASEL, a Chicago-based nonprofit devoted to helping schools implement social-emotional learning.
Writing in Education Week on June 19, Finn equated social-emotional learning with the self-esteem fad that originated in California in the 1980s. Finn is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. In his piece, he wrote:
Today, few people talk explicitly about self-esteem or other kooky curricular enthusiasms of the past, but the worldview and faux psychology that impelled them have never gone away. Of late, they’ve reappeared—and gained remarkable traction—under the banner of social-emotional learning…
There’s nothing exactly wrong with many of these ideas, some of which partake of legitimate performance-character traits such as impulse control and self-discipline. But social-emotional learning also smacks of the self-esteem mindset, with entries such as “self-confidence” and “self-efficacy.” Dig into social-emotional learning’s five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL, and you’ll spot—among 25 skills students are supposed to learn—just one feeble mention of ethics and none whatsoever of morality. You won’t even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism.
Though its partisans will contest the point, social-emotional learning does not seem intended to build character in any traditional sense, nor is it aimed at citizenship. It’s awash in the self, steeped in the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, values, strengths, and limitations.
Finn noted that social-emotional learning has the support of the National Education Association teachers union.
Last year, the Tennessee Department of Education backed out of an opportunity to become part of a CASEL multi-state initiative to promote social-emotional learning when “a firestorm reminiscent of the Common Core pushback erupted, with some criticizing the initiative as a national program to have public school children taught how they should feel,” according to an article in Chalkbeat in September 2016.
Tennessee continued to promote social-emotional skills, but without collaborating with other states and without considering them learning “standards” but rather “competencies” that are optional and not assessed. Metro Nashville Public Schools was free to continue its work with CASEL begun in 2012.
Tennessee conservative groups that pushed back last year said social-emotional learning is an invasion of privacy in that students are sometimes questioned about their personal beliefs and experiences.