SEL and School Boards: The Latest Culture War Cocktail


It’s been said, if you want to witness a culture war, go to a school board meeting. Ain’t that the truth. Unfortunately, R. Roger Rowe is no different than the rest of the country right now. The newest trigger? SEL, an acronym which stands for social and emotional learning.

Last Friday, a school board meeting was held where SEL advocates were given a platform to explain why a more structured form of SEL needed to be adopted and implemented by the school. Some who spoke were a part of a disbanded SEL committee, whose members were initially appointed by the current superintendent Donna Tripi, who resigned and will be leaving at the end of June when her contract expires. 

I was compelled to write about this meeting and the subject matter, because it comes back to something I will continuously bang on about. There is something fundamentally wrong with civil society and community when individuals are terrified of publicly speaking to their own truth and set of convictions because they believe they will be personally and professionally persecuted — aka “cancelled.” So kudos to those who banded together donning green shirts on Friday to champion the importance of mental health and their cause.

Scarlet Letter 

However, others reached out to me who attended that meeting and described feeling (not actually) silenced and marginalized by the outnumbered one-sided response of it all. And perhaps having an alternative viewpoint is a minority position, but the divisive nature of so many of today’s topics are such that, if you disagree or are undecided, you are automatically Scarlet-lettered as an adversary and thus, ironically, socially bullied into shutting up.

As I have preached ad nauseam, we can’t evolve without open dialogue. If our own neighbors can’t honestly express their opinions out of fear, we humans are gonna be heathen relics stuffed and stuck behind dusty glass down some hall of an extraterrestrial natural history museum. I have approached several Rowe parents to cover school developments, and have ended up empty handed. 

So what is SEL exactly and how did it transmute into the mother of all third rails? The concept of SEL has been around for decades before it was packaged into this acronym. The Social Emotional Learning Alliance for the U.S. describes it as a practice that helps kids and adults learn and apply the skills necessary to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy, establish strong relationship skills, and make responsible decisions. 

Bi-Partisan Support 

Like many schools, R. Roger Rowe has promoted “kind to the core” type slogans and programs to promote and develop such skills. For example, when a child resists blurting out an answer and instead raises their hand, or when they respectfully concentrate and listen to a teacher’s instructions, or when they act productively as a team player — these are all expressions of SEL. What sane parent could object to this. Indeed, according to a relatively recent Fordham University study, a majority of parents across the political spectrum believed that “learning life skills and social skills at school is just as important as academics.” This month, Democrat and Republican Senators introduced a bi-partisan resolution designating March 6-10, 2023, as “National Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Week” to recognize the critical role SEL plays in supporting the academic success and overall well-being of students, educators and families.

In the wake of significant upticks in school gun violence, teen suicide, bullying and abject trauma caused by the pandemic, SEL’s “whole child” approach gained stratospheric momentum. And with the subsidy bump of Covid Federal recovery funds, many schools and districts across the country increased spending on SEL by a record 45% between November 2019 ($530M) and April 2021 ($765M) alone.  

Something that initially seemed grass roots and organically inspired started to rapidly spin into a more formalized and structured billion dollar industry. The company likely to profit most from this movement is CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, whose founders have seized the moment and successfully launched initiatives to influence states and districts to adopt their five-part framework, the “CASEL 5,” of SEL standards: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. In addition to compiling, synthesizing and conducting its own research into SEL, lobbying state and federal agencies for increased SEL program funding and adoption, CASEL helps implement SEL practices by working with school districts to reach an estimated 1.7 million students in more than 3,000 schools. 

Popularity Begets Scrutiny 

But with popularity comes scrutiny, and SEL is no exception.There’s the use of amorphous language and jargon that even CASEL has confessed causes confusion and misinterpretation of its cause. There are also concerns about government and corporate overreach into the personal lives and psyches of students. SEL “screeners” are questions used to assess how an individual student thinks and feels; proponents argue that such questions are used to guide school-wide programming and identify students who many need help or are at high risk for harming themselves or others.  

However, such screeners created by for-profit firms have raised privacy concerns from, for example, left-leaning parent groups and school leaders in New York City, who have rallied other families to opt out of such assessments due to what they see as the invasive nature of the questions and the possible danger of sensitive personal information being leaked in a data breach. As one parent stated, “My children are not the raw material for your Edu business…You don’t get to mine their mental health so you can sell us stuff.” 

The feeling was mutual amongst many parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, who discovered the public school system there signed a five-year contract to pay an out-of-state consulting firm, Panorama Education, whose investors include Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, almost two million dollars from Covid emergency funds for an SEL screener that would collect private data (including individual student identities and their answers) from 190,000 students districtwide and make “interventions” as needed. 

“Unlicensed Therapist”

Other SEL issues raised are more ideological, as some have questioned the need for schools to preach values they believe should be taught at home by parents rather than by teachers who are already overwhelmed and now have to assume the role of  “unlicensed therapist.” While SEL advocates believe, especially post-Covid, that kids need all the social-emotional support they can get, others are convinced that the aftermath of Covid’s painful toll on academics requires a back-to-the-three-Rs basics. And then there’s a big chunk of parents weighing all the data and fall somewhere in between all these SEL pros and cons. 

Most of the challenges with SEL seem to have arisen following its federally funded and corporate-driven approach. As one university professor wrote recently in an academic publication, SEL “advocates may genuinely want to see support build from the ground up, but the reality is that federal policies have contributed to the SEL movement’s recent growth. Further, it is state governments, not local educators and community members, that have created SEL standards, and it is CASEL’s five-part framework that most states have adopted.” 

When parents don’t hear the acronym, but learn that this type of learning is meant to be therapeutic — teaching kids practical coping mechanisms, helping them be more empathetic and resilient, providing them with fundamental life skills — most step right on board. But when the practice becomes a top-down, packaged, one-size-fits-all approach that the school pays a business top dollar for, it starts to raise eyebrows. 

Redefining SEL 

While CASEL and its supporters have refuted accusations of its program being ideologically driven, pointing to (debatable) scientific data suggesting SEL improves mental health and academic outcomes, it has not necessarily helped its argument by redefining SEL in 2020 to include language about “identity development, educational equity, and adult-student co-creation of learning environments in service of more just communities.” In addition, CASEL added a new expression of its SEL framework, “Transformative SEL” or “T-SEL,” to incorporate “ways in which SEL can be harnessed to advance social justice.” 

In a research brief issued in 2021, CASEL stated that T-SEL was introduced “as a way to integrate an explicit equity and social justice lens into the conceptualization and implementation of SEL…aimed at interrupting the reproduction of inequitable educational environments by attending to issues of identity, agency, belonging, and related issues such as power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, social justice, empowerment, and self-determination.” Some of the questions used in screeners clearly incorporate this new angle to critically examine roots of inequity, such as, “How confident are you that students at your school can have honest conversations with each other about race?” Or “How often do you think about what someone of a different race, ethnicity or culture experiences?” 

Therapy? Ideology? Science? All I know is there is a lot at stake here. These are our kids. And the programs we implement to educate and support our children have an immeasurable impact on their mental health, their sense of self, their personal and professional relationships, how they navigate the complexities of the world around them, and their future. 

Data-Mining Dangers

There are a lot of questions and no easy answers. Personally, with all the concerns over mentally toxic social media platforms like TikTok and the like data mining and manipulating one of the most vulnerable groups in society — innocent children — in order to sell product or push an agenda, it makes me wary of any company being paid to collect the individual identities and practically HIPAA-level psychologies and private thoughts of minors who are unable to understand the implications of their answers and how this sensitive data may be used (perhaps against them). Any school should have explicit parental permission to proceed with such SEL programs to ensure all are aware of what they specifically entail. 

Curricular transparency is key if SEL proponents want a buy-in from a broad spectrum of parents. CASEL’s current president has said as much about SEL’s future success: “We need to be intentional about making sure parents are at the table…Schools will also need to better integrate SEL across the curricula, so it’s not seen as an ‘add on’ that’s crowding out academics.”  

According to my sources, SEL advocates at Rowe want the school to purchase the CASEL program at a cost of around $250,000 and hire a counselor for about $100,000 to implement it. School Board President John Tree has stated that nothing will be decided until a new superintendent is hired. 

Cost-Effective Solution

With the school currently operating at a deficit, perhaps a more cost-effective solution that could also garner greater support would be to hire a counselor who can build a homegrown, definitively apolitical, Rowe-bespoke SEL program, without CASEL’s pricey pre-packaged brand. 

I’m sure there will be much further discussion about this critical and clearly emotionally charged subject. I hope future dialogue enables all opinions to be aired openly and listened to respectfully. We all want the best for our kids, but how to get there requires a lot of adulting. Come to think of it, maybe we parents could use a lesson or two in SEL.