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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Elephant In The SEL Room

The Elephant In The SEL Room.
The terms Social Emotional Learning is a hot topic in schools today. I am glad we are paying attention to this. We are told that children and their teachers need to focus on the Whole Child, find time to take care of each other and themselves emotionally. The work being shared is rich in best practices. This is a real need. This is all good. 
BUT, But, and but again people, we should be honest that there is no bigger impediment to the Social Emotional Well Being of our nation's children and their teachers then the constant use of High-Stakes Testing in our public schools.
Our nation's policymakers, legislators, and education reformers think assessing children requires standardized testing. It is easy for people who have little or no experience working with children to view high stakes testing as a way to measure learning. They lack the experiences of sitting with children, learning and growing with them on a daily basis.  Teachers see the child not the score. 
The Latin root of "assess" is “to sit beside.” Not do something to someone. It means both teacher and children learn from each other, they learn together. Teachers get this. They understand everything they need to do comes from sitting besides the children they teach. The data that matters to teachers isn't found on some data wall, it isn't found by logging into some expensive online data gathering system. The data that matters is found in real classrooms sitting next to children we teach. Everything needed to move a child forward is found sitting together. Teachers don't need to go online, or wait for the data to come in. Everything they need is sitting right next to them. In that "sitting beside place". Where it's not about some strategic learning objective, but about caring to follow the child not the score. That place where teachers learn to differentiate their instruction not based on test scores, but directly from the child.  The data that matters isn't found on some magic Bell Curves. it breathes, feels, and sits next to us in our classrooms.  If we really care about the well-being of our children in public schools, we would end this love affair with High-Stakes Testing. start paying attention to child sitting in our classrooms. They are the living breathing data that no testing company ever talks to. It's time to kick the Elephant out of the room.

I walked from Connecticut to Washington DC in 2010 and 2105 to protest High-Stakes Testing and inequity in our public schools. What did I discover about standardized testing in our public schools on those walks? I discovered it was demoralizing teachers and destroying the desire to learn in their students. Those 400 plus mile walks took 40 days to complete each time. I met over a thousand teachers and parents on those walks. All the teachers I met shared that constant testing was destroying the motivation to teach. Destroying the desire to learn in the students they taught. They said they spent 8-12 weeks of the school year preparing for, practicing for, and giving mandated testing. Parents told me the testing is making their children hate going to school. Not one teacher, not one parent, not one student expressed anything positive about the testing in their schools during walks.

What else did I learn about our nation's love affair with High-Stakes Testing? It is stealing 2-3 months of valuable learning time.  It is costing our nation BILLIONS of dollars.  There is no evidence that more
standardized testing ever improved learning in our public schools. The Literature does contain numerous studies documenting an over emphasis on standardized testing increases the number of students labeled special education, students with behavior problems, and anxiety concerns.

18 years after NCLB turned our children into test scores, it should not come a surprise that Social Emotional Learning is emerging as a hot topic. America spent over 1.2 billion dollars on NCLB and RTTT. The real surprise is that after 19 years of testing reform failures our leaders can't see the Elephant in the room. Trust me on this one thing, teachers, children, and parents see that Elephant. 

I say if educators and parents are really concerned about Social Emotional Learning then we should demand that testing money go to supporting and bringing SEL into our schools. Once the testing is gone we will get back the time and funding needed to truly support SEL in our public schools.  Time to kick the Elephant out of the room.
Dr. Jesse P. Turner 
CCSU Literacy Center Director

Parents and teachers together can't be defeated

If you want to listen to the song that inspired my morning walk today its Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing Teach the children.


  1. Except that what you don't realize is that SEL is the new gimmick being pushed by the deformers. It's worse than the Common Core curriculum and testing. SEL programs being sold to public school systems are just another way for the data lords to keep their's not about the "whole child".

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Jesse and with edblisa. "SEL" is a Trojan horse, leading to insidious data collection. It does not mean to deformers what it means to us. Once again they have co-opted language for their own purposes.

  3. John Dewey had something to say about being involved in the fight that we sometimes end up supporting the other. “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” ~ John Dewey
    Something Julian Vasquez Heilig said at 2019 The Literacy For All summer Institute stands out with me from in South Carolina.
    Julian said " I am reclaiming the term "Education Reform." I reject the Traditional Education Reform Movements based on standards and testing of today and the past. I am reclaiming Progressive education reform of John Dewey, that child center education.
    When SEL means yoga, meditation, play, recess, kindness, than. I don't have any teachers uploading data on this stuff, they have fought like hell to bring in a little humanity. Stole some time, have no funding, no other supports than some time for some humanity in their classrooms. The teachers I work with don't believe any of this supports testing or supports market-based reforms. They are reacting to children living with Trauma. Shall we give up on every term? Shall we become so obsessed with the ism of the others that we become some un-education movement?
    Everything we believe goes against these Testing and Standards education reformers, and everything they stand for goes against us.
    I refuse to submit to traditional education reform co-opting the language of teaching and learning. If I give up my meanings and language than they have silenced me. Then they win.
    I am not surrendering language and meaning to any isms.