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SEL Is Easy to Love, Which Should Make Us Nervous

Last week, the Aspen Institute released the handiwork of its big national Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD). There was a big-time launch, accompanied by lots of nodding luminaries and oodles of goodwill. And I'm good with that. The push for social and emotional learning (SEL) is pretty damn easy to like.

At the same time, I find myself wondering, "How the hell did we get to a point where it's a big deal to observe that children learn better when they feel valued, respected, supported, and safe?" But that's where we are.

We got here, of course, because No Child Left Behind's earlier, equally well-intentioned, equally sensible effort to insist that students should be able to read and do math eventually morphed into a bizarre exercise in Office Space-style management. And without even wading into last decade's teacher evaluation mania or last century's character education goofiness, let's just acknowledge that we have an unfortunate history of seemingly sensible ideas going south, and leave it at that.

All of which shapes my mixed feelings on the new enthusiasm for SEL. I'm entirely supportive of the premise. As Aspen Commission co-chair Tim Shriver and I wrote last week:

This embrace of social, emotional, and academic learning is a moment of opportunity. Done wisely and well, it's an opportunity to translate growing knowledge about how people learn into real-world practices that benefit students. It's an opportunity to focus on values and student needs that matter deeply to parents and unite Americans across the ideological spectrum—things like integrity, empathy, and responsible decision making.

Most importantly, it's an opportunity to put an end to the era of false choices in education. Schools should not have to choose between chemistry and character; between trigonometry and teamwork. Since the dawn of the republic, teachers and schools have been tasked with teaching content and modeling character . . . What might strike some as a faddish enthusiasm for the "whole child" should be nothing more than a measured call for schools to once again unapologetically be about academic achievement and also the social and emotional skills that equip students for citizenship, life, and work.

I mean every word of that. And yet I find it a whole lot easier to think of all the ways this low-key, decentralized, likable enterprise can ultimately do more harm than good.

For one thing, SEL must be about helping children build the capabilities that promote learning and academic success; it cannot become an excuse to displace content instruction, burden teachers, or justify dubious pedagogy. I'm far from confident we can maintain that balance.

For another, there are a whole host of vendors, goofballs, and charlatans who have a program, intervention, or curriculum they're looking to pitch as an answer to the SEL challenge—I've little confidence that schools and systems are equipped to sort the wheat from the chaff.

And, in a moment when many in education seem inclined to drape pretty much everything in ideological garb, I fear that schools will struggle to tackle sensitive dimensions of SEL without alienating many parents or tripping over the same cultural divides that laid low Common Core.

It's hard to know what exactly might be done about all this, but a good place to start is with the simple admonition: Be aware of the potential pitfalls. When reforms seem intuitive, enjoy broad support, and have few obvious detractors, it's natural for supporters to focus on "scale" and "implementation" rather than to spend time worrying about what could possibly go wrong.

Common Core is a useful example. After all, those who've been around long enough can recall back in 2008 and 2009 when the simple intuition behind "high standards" felt like a no-brainer, and rooms filled with nodding luminaries and oodles of goodwill were taken with the venture's promise. And then Common Core ultimately got blindsided by cultural divides, design challenges, unrealistic promises, goofy things that got done in its name, and the downsides of unexpected early success.

I've often wondered whether that venture might have played out differently had the proponents spent more time early on worrying about such things. Here's hoping that SEL advocates make it a point to explore a different playbook.

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