In an article from May in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Aida Cerundolo warned parents that public schools may be psychologically assessing their children without consent.
“The mental-health information teachers are now obtaining, storing and tracking…is equally as sensitive as that which is collected in a pediatrician’s office,” Cerundolo says.
And she’s right.
Tests like the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, which ask teachers to rate students on how often a child “carr[ies] himself with confidence” or “cope[s] well with insults and mean comments” are being used with increasing frequency in public schools across the country, without parental consent or adequate privacy protections.
But where did this sudden interest in assessing children’s “social and emotional” skills come from? Is it really nothing more than a “noble” endeavor, meant to identify students in need of intervention, as Cerundolo claims?
Or is there more to it?
As with most education fads that sweep the nation, there is much more to the story – and be forewarned: it gets ugly.
When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – now called ESSA – was reauthorized in 2015, a provision was included encouraging states to include non-academic performance measures in their accountability plans.
“[The] law calls for … a shifting away from the narrow focus on academics,” explained Ulrich Boser, author of “Learning Mindsets and Skills: An Opportunity for Growth with the Every Student Succeeds Act,” in an article in NEA Today.
As a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), Boser is fully aware of the value of this non-academic data.
CAP is one of the nation’s leading drivers of Social Impact Bonds (also called “Pay for Success”) – a system in which private lenders provide upfront capital for social or educational programs, in return for payment with interest when programs reach agreed-upon “outcomes.”
These bonds, while still in the early stages nationwide, are already generating big payments for banks like Goldman Sachs – and investment groups are preparing to launch a derivatives market on top of the bonds. It’s a market that experts predict will reach into the trillions of dollars over the next few years.
And investors are already turning their attention to the “value” social-emotional (SEL) data can play in making these bets.
Using dubious statistical analysis to claim that big financial rewards are possible from social emotional programs, groups like the “Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts” are now lobbying aggressively for the advancement of social impact bonds.
Nationwide, the drive to promote and standardized “social and emotional learning” outcomes is being driven by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Led by Timothy Shriver of the Aspen Institute (another organization heavily promoting social impact bonds), CASEL recently made headlines when a high-profile academic, Angela Duckworth, pulled out of its multi-district experiment in promoting “social emotional” learning.
Duckworth – famous for her research on “grit” – wrote in the New York Times that she had “contributed, inadvertently, to an idea [she] vigorously opposes: high-stakes character assessment.”
But the SEL experiments and data collection continue to ramp up, with ed-tech investors and developers seeking their piece of the pie by developing games and apps meant to assess social-emotional skills.
A report from the World Economic Forum called “New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology” calls on developers to “creatively embedding SEL features into products that support foundational academic skills,” and to use “innovative new technologies – such as wearable devices, virtual reality and apps – [that] enable students to master important social and emotional skills.”
(You didn’t really think “social emotional learning” meant investing in things like lower teacher-student ratios or school counselors, did you?)
And what of the social-emotional skills themselves? Who or what organization decides what types of skills to embed in digital apps?
Industry leaders have taken the reigns on that too, calling for a workforce with skills like “grit,” and “self-discipline.” Skills that generate financial return are the ones get included, the rest are tossed aside.
Even long-time reformers like Chester Finn are questioning the social-emotional skills now being promoted in schools:
“Dig into social-emotional learning’s five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL,” Finn wrote in a recent article in Edweek, “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.”
If all of this — investors using kids’ psychological profiles to gamble on the results of social programs, while using technology to generate a compliant, productive workforce — sounds like a dystopian nightmare to you, know that you are not alone.
But here’s the thing: they can’t do it without the data… so opt your child out of this type of profiling today.