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How social-emotional learning became a frontline in the battle against CRT

Classrooms through the decades.
Lucy Engleman for NPR

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly the questions started coming in. Angelyn Nichols, an administrator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, thinks it was sometime in early 2021.

What she does know is that no one really expected them in the first place, and no one expected them to keep coming – week after week, and now, year after year.

That's because the questions involved a decades-old teaching concept many educators thought was settled, uncontroversial territory: the idea that, in order to learn, students need to know how to manage themselves and get along with others.

"Principals were being asked, 'Can you talk to me about how you use social-emotional learning in your school? Are there connections to critical race theory?" says Nichols, who coordinates professional learning for the district. "Families were asking at a PTA meeting. Parents were asking their child's classroom teacher."

But one of the most visible places these concerns emerged was at the school board meetings.

"Our school board meetings have been tense and they've gotten heated," says Natalie Allen, the district's chief communications and community engagement officer. "We saw multiple terms being linked to critical race theory. Social-emotional learning just seems like the latest."

Virginia Beach is not an anomaly.

Although its core concepts have been around nearly as long as public education itself, social-emotional learning is emerging as the latest lightning rod in the battles over what gets taught in schools nationwide.

Across the country, parents and community members have protested angrily at school board meetings, administrators have distanced themselves from the term and legislators have introduced bills trying to ban it. In the last two years, NPR found evidence of disputes specifically concerning social-emotional learning in at least 25 states.

What is social-emotional learning?

Essentially, social-emotional learning teaches students how to manage their emotions, how to make good decisions, how to collaborate and how to understand themselves and others better.

It's more common in younger grades: All 50 states have standards related to SEL in preschool, and more than half have standards in K-12.

It has existed under different names across the decades: character education, 21st century skills, noncognitive skills. In the adult world, they're often called soft skills.

"It was just part of what a good teacher does," says Aaliyah Samuel, president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.

Samuel says social-emotional learning can be broken down into five areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

"Let's say a student is working on a really difficult algebra problem and they get so frustrated because they can't remember what the next step is," says Samuel. "They have to be self-aware enough to say, 'You know what? I'm feeling frustrated. How do I handle this?' "

A student solving a hard math problem, for example, might use all these skills to recognize and deal with their frustration and ask another student or a teacher for help. Think of any situation that happens in a school, and social-emotional skills probably come into play.

"All academics also have a social-emotional component," says Lisa Xagas, an assistant superintendent for student services in Naperville, Ill. "It's impossible to tease them apart because you can't have academics if you don't have social-emotional learning."

Research shows this type of approach pays off. In 2011, researchers looked at more than 200 SEL programs across the country and saw improvements in behavior and academic achievement. A 2015 study found students deemed more socially competent in kindergarten were more likely to graduate from high school on time, complete a college degree and get a stable job in young adulthood. From an economic point of view, another 2015 study found SEL programs yield $11 for every $1 spent on them, by reducing crime, increasing earnings and contributing to better health.

Conservatives began connecting social-emotional learning to CRT

All of which is why the educators in Virginia Beach were puzzled when those questions started coming in.

"Everything related to social-emotional learning that we are putting out there is research-based and it's in demand," says Allen, who handles community engagement at the district. "Very often there's been a narrative created that's not accurate."

In the last year, in states across the country, parents and community members have increasingly been fighting the teaching of social-emotional learning in schools – largely because social-emotional learning has become linked with another flashpoint in public education: critical race theory, or CRT.

Critical race theory, a decades-old legal framework, is the concept that racism goes far beyond the individual: It is systemic and deeply entrenched in our laws, policies and institutions. Nearly 900 school districts experienced anti-CRT protests between September of 2020 and August of last year, according to a report released this year from the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"We've seen a real freak-out on the right about the so-called teaching of critical race theory in schools. And usually the terms of that freak-out are white children are being taught to hate themselves and all children are being taught to hate America," says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York City and the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture.

But critical race theory itself is not something that is explicitly taught in K-12 schools.

"The defense of most educators has been: 'I don't even know what critical race theory is. I've never heard of it until you, the conservative at the school board, brought it to my attention,' " says Andrew Hartman, a professor and historian of educational trends at Illinois State University. "But of course, all educators now know what social-emotional learning is. It's something much more tangible. It's a curriculum that is officially being implemented in schools all across the country."

A few years ago, conservatives began to connect the two concepts. A 2021 article in the Washington Examiner said conservative activists were calling social-emotional learning a "Trojan horse" for both critical race theory and transgender advocacy. In April of this year, a conservative group referred to it as a "new variant of the "CRT-virus."

"It will be concealed as a number of different things," another article published on the right-wing website The Federalist says. "Most common is something including 'social justice,' 'equity and diversity,' 'multicultural education,' or 'social-emotional learning,' which is the most deceptive because it doesn't sound like it involves race at all!"

An "IndoctriNation Map" on the website of the conservative group Parents Defending Education tracked "incidents" in schools related to gender ideology, ethnic studies and social-emotional learning. The conservative Center for Renewing America includes social-emotional learning in its glossary of "CRT-related terms."

How the SEL-CRT narrative is impacting schools

In some places, these attacks have had real consequences. In Georgia, an administrator tasked with leading a district's diversity, equity and inclusion efforts was forced to resign before she even started, with one protester referring to social-emotional learning as "synonymous" with critical race theory.

In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill last year trying to limit how educators talk about race and racism in the classroom. One of those lawmakers, Rep. Chuck Wichgers, added an addendum of terms he thought were associated with CRT, including social-emotional learning.

And when the Florida Department of Education issued specifications for this year's social studies textbooks, it indicated: "Critical Race Theory, Social Justice, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social and Emotional Learning, and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited."

Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says some of the angry debates about social-emotional learning are a direct reaction to the stories about SEL that conservatives are seeing on social media, Fox News and elsewhere.

"I think a lot of people wind up wedged into these debates about something like SEL, not because they necessarily have paid a lot of attention and have decided that, 'Gosh, you know, in good faith, we really disagree,' " Hess says. "It's more a gut level reaction to the other team and to be with your guys, than it is to really parse like, 'What are we arguing about here? And is there a more constructive way to solve this?' "

For some parents, the outrage is rooted in mistrust – particularly of organizations that provide SEL resources and recommendations to school districts.

A lot of people wind up wedged into these debates about something like SEL, not because they necessarily have paid a lot of attention ... It's more a gut level reaction.

Hess says many parents feel "this is a case of big, deep-pocketed, liberal, coastal foundations coming in, led by people who went to elite colleges who aren't from their communities, pushing ideological agendas that they find problematic and then calling them racists and idiots when they push back."

"If there's anything more likely to turn skepticism into full blown rebellion, it's hard to think of what it might be," he added.

SEL has always had an identity component

Hess says many conservatives ultimately feel social-emotional learning spends too much time talking about identity.

But Hartman, the Illinois State University historian, says there actually is an important identity component to teaching students how to get along with others.

"It's pretty impossible to do social and emotional learning without larger social issues coming into play. It's not just about individuals. It's about how an individual is situated in a society," Hartman says. "If you're going to be a healthy, emotional individual, you're going to have to understand your own identity relative to society."

CASEL is quick to emphasize that social-emotional learning is not tied to any political viewpoints. But the organization acknowledges that questions of identity and culture might come up, for example, in conversations about social awareness, one of the organization's key SEL competencies.

"Social awareness is about developing a better understanding of people around you so that you understand different perspectives and build healthy relationships," Samuel, the CEO, says. "For students, this might mean learning about different cultures, reading about different people's experiences and perspectives, or studying historical figures and their strengths."

If you're going to be a healthy, emotional individual, you're going to have to understand your own identity relative to society.

Some SEL advocates want those conversations to be more explicit about systemic racism.

Dena Simmons, the founder of LiberatED, an organization which aims to center racial social justice in social and emotional learning, says being able to talk about social-emotional learning without talking about identity is an example of white privilege.

"You can't have those conversations without talking about identity ... Social-emotional learning is so that people can get along better. We also have to talk about why people don't get along," Simmons says. "If we don't apply an anti-racist, abolitionist, anti-oppressive, anti-bias lens to social-emotional learning, it can very easily turn into white supremacy with a hug."

Some prominent SEL programs do talk about racial justice and racism. The website for Second Step, for instance, has a section dedicated to Anti-Racism and Anti-Bias Resources. When educators don't acknowledge that identity component, it can make things worse, Mehlman Petrzela at the New School says.

"I know it's really hard to have these nuanced conversations, especially when often some of these attacks are scary, and they're bad faith, and they're distracting from teaching kids," she says. "But I do think it's really incumbent upon people to paint the full picture of what's going on here. Because without that, I don't really think we can move forward."

The fear that teachers are indoctrinating children is not new

The actual term "social-emotional learning" has existed since at least the 1990s. In 1997, researchers at CASEL published a book titled Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators. But social-emotional learning, in a broader sense, has existed for much longer.

"One of the great ironies of the backlash around teaching morality or values in American education through social-emotional learning today is that American schools have always been about teaching values and character," says Mehlman Petrzela. "And for much of American history, that focus has been on pretty conservative values, quite honestly."

One of the great ironies of the backlash around teaching morality or values in American education through social-emotional learning today is that American schools have always been about teaching values and character.

In the mid-1800s, small books called McGuffey readers sought to instill morals in young readers. Around the same time, Horace Mann, an education reformer and proponent of public education, saw schools as the "great equalizer" in society.

"This is where you impart in children not only academic learning, but the sort of beauty of the American experiment that one can transcend," Mehlman Petrzela says. "You work hard. You are industrious. You don't lie. You are a good member of your community. Those are values."

In the early 20th century, John Dewey advocated for the idea that schools should educate the "whole" child. By the 1950s, there was "life adjustment" education, which focused on social order and patriotism as a response to growing fears of communism. Coronet Instructional Films were shown in schools, with titles like "marriage is a partnership" and "mind your manners."

Then the 1960s happened. Some teachers began to address topics like social justice and racial equality – and, much like we're seeing today, those teachers faced a backlash.

The fear that teachers are trying to brainwash or indoctrinate children has been around for a while. Today, it's present not just in the disputes over SEL and CRT, but also in the current debates around sex education, transgender rights and banned books, says Mehlman Petrzela.

"I sometimes cannot believe how much what we are experiencing right now feels so similar to what we have gone through in other moments, particularly in the 1960s and 70s," she says. "The rhetoric is the same."

How one school district is finding common ground with parents

But in places like Virginia Beach, educators weren't there 50 years ago. They're in schools now, stuck in the middle of a political fight that feels new, at a time when many students are struggling and need more support managing their emotions, not less.

Angelyn Nichols, the district's lead for social-emotional learning, says 2020 put a heightened scrutiny on public education – one that's been rapidly evolving. First, it was about COVID policies. Then, after the police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against racism, the conversation shifted to critical race theory. Now, it has spread to any topic deemed to be related to critical race theory.

That's when Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian Pilot.

"Conflating good and longstanding work — such as our work around social and emotional learning — with things that simply aren't happening in our schools, debating who is more invested in our children, and undermining the credibility of public education with accusations of indoctrination is disappointing at best and debilitating at worst," he wrote.

Spence asked community members to look for common ground. For Nichols, that's been easier to find outside of the school board meetings, in one-on-one conversations with parents.

"We can sit down together and say, 'Can you share with me what part of this is a concern for you? Which skill here do you feel is a threat, feels like indoctrination, or is of a concern for you?' " she says. "I've never exited one of those conversations where both parties didn't say, 'I actually think this is really important.' "

She feels good about the progress they've made so far this year. In September, the school board passed a resolution that, in part, supports the continued teaching of social-emotional learning in schools.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.