‘Social and Emotional Learning’ and other nonsense responsible for dismal test scores
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U.S. education test scores have become embarrassingly bad. The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in, and the United States scored below average, as usual. American 15-year-olds performed worse in science this year than they did in 2012 (the last time the test was given), had stagnant scores in reading, and came in 31st place in math out of the 35 industrialized nations that took the test.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss blames the dreadful test results partially on “reformers.”

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“In fact, U.S. students have never done well—not in the history of international tests, including when the American public education system wasn’t under attack by reformers as it is now,” Strauss wrote. She also excuses the dismal scores because, according to her assessment, “Many critics say [the PISA test] is flawed.”

Flawed or not, American kids are doing increasingly poorly on a test I assume is “flawed” for everybody. Strauss can hardly blame “reformers.” Despite great gains being made by the school choice movement, the latest report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates, “In school year 2013–14, some 5.4 million students (or 10 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools.”

That means a significant majority of kids, about 90 percent, remain unscathed by the weapons of “attacking” reformers. Strauss’ theory that people disenchanted with the U.S. public education system are to blame for our nation’s lackluster performance in international tests has a big hole in it. All signs instead point directly to what’s going on inside the public schools 90 percent of our children are stuck attending.

There are many reasons children aren’t learning anything during the long hours they spend in government schools. Sometimes, their teachers don’t show up to work because they’re out on the teachers union picket line demanding taxpayers pick up the tab for their plastic surgery. Other times, students are forced to sit in classes led by totally unqualified teachers who will never leave because they’re protected by tenure.

For every disgraceful teacher, though, there are tons of good ones who are doing their best. The problem often isn’t teachers’ incompetence, it’s that they’re forced to instruct kids using rubbish. Look at the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted initially by 46 states because their federal education funding depended on it. The math is backwards, confusing, and, as the National Review so suitably dubbed it, “dumb.” The reading standards fill students’ minds with filth in the form of raunchy books and with yawn-inducing “informational texts.”

It gets worse: The latest trend among the educational elite is “Social and Emotional Learning” (SEL). Perhaps with so much recent emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), the SEL people figured they should teach the little “career-ready” robots how to feel again. Whatever the SEL people’s motives, their agenda is a waste of time and money, and it obviously hasn’t helped improve academic outcomes. 

“This summer the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) announced it had chosen eight states to collaborate on creating K-12 ‘social emotional learning’ standards,” Jane Robbins and Karen Effrem wrote for The Federalist in October. “All students, from kindergartners through high-school seniors, would be measured on five ‘non-cognitive’ factors: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

“Under such a system teachers become essentially therapists, and students become essentially patients,” the authors wrote. “Supposedly this will clear away the psychological deadwood that obstructs a student’s path to academic achievement.”

Our schools no longer teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Rather than be taught how to think and problem-solve, children are thought what to think and how to feel. All these money-making and money-spending schemes tend to sound nice, of course, but they inevitably fall flat.

Several states have repealed Common Core or renamed the standards to distance themselves from them. For all our sonorous insistence on the importance of STEM—Ed.gov says, “Not enough of our youth have access to quality STEM learning opportunities and too few students see these disciplines as springboards for their careers”—U.S. kids scored nearly dead-last among their international peers. And  two of the eight CASEL states (Georgia and Tennessee) withdrew from the SEL initiative after less than two months. 

An old-fashioned, solid education that teaches a person to reason is invaluable and irreplaceable. The fervent ambitions of STEM pushers and the psychological mumbo jumbo of SEL proponents sound nice, but it’s all nothing but feel-good fluff, and it’s all borne and cultivated within the public education system. So, presuming Strauss wants our nation’s children to perform better on international tests, she might want to consider joining in on the public education system “attack” herself.

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.org) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.