State board sets ‘social-emotional’ standards for students: ‘I don’t believe we live in Mayberry anymore’

There was debate over privacy concerns and whether teaching social-emotional learning should be the family’s responsibility

The state school board on Tuesday approved a set of “social and emotional learning standards” for Ohio schools by an 11-6 vote, after lengthy debate over privacy, effectiveness and whether teaching those behavior skills are the schools’ role, or a family responsibility.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria described social-emotional learning (SEL) as developing the skills and knowledge to regulate emotions, develop positive relationships and make responsible decisions. The state’s new strategic plan for K-12 education put SEL on equal footing with math, English and other academic subjects.

In recent years, more attention has been paid to emotional, behavioral and other non-academic hurdles that prevent a variety of kids from learning at their best. Dayton-area schools have begun a variety of efforts on those fronts.

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“The concerns that have been raised are valid. … Things like the standards being measurable, and another burden on schools and educators, taking the place of family unit responsibilities and getting out of our lane, so to speak,” Fairfield Union schools Superintendent Chad Belville told the state board Tuesday. “But over the past few years, we’ve been pushed by society’s demands to assume some of those roles and responsibilities through necessity.”

Belville said schools are being forced to fill a void for an increasing number of students who don’t have good support at home. But DeMaria and several state board members said teaching social-emotional learning can help all students, regardless of their circumstances.

“This was probably the single most frequent issue raised in the stakeholder engagement process (for the state’s strategic plan),” DeMaria said. “There’s a strong research base to support the use of social-emotional learning approaches in schools.”

The standards look at social-emotional competencies such as self-management and responsible decision-making, and list a variety of skills that students can acquire in each grade band on the way to mastering those competencies.

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DeMaria said the state will not test for SEL success and will not include it in the state report card. He said the standards are voluntary and it will be up to schools and districts how to use them. But he listed a wide variety of ways that he said good SEL helps — better academics, attitudes and behaviors for students, improved classroom management for teachers, plus improved climate and safety for schools.

State board member Kirsten Hill said she opposed the standards for a wide range of reasons, disagreeing with DeMaria on research into SEL benefits, suggesting that SEL “overpathologizes children” via reviews by untrained personnel, and saying “government-established SEL norms” erode personal freedom.

State board member Mike Toal of Sidney said he thinks SEL is actually more important than base academics. But he questioned how these standards could be implemented effectively, saying “you cannot improve something unless you measure it.”

State board members Nick Owens, Linda Haycock and John Hagan all raised the issue of where the line is between schools’ and families’ responsibilities. Hagan questioned whether some parents would take a step back and say they don’t have to teach their kids this anymore because the school is doing it.

Owens, a Brown County assistant prosecutor who represents Clark, Greene and many other counties on the state school board, said schools are stepping up because in too many cases, that family role is already gone.

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“I get to see on a daily basis (in court) where people don’t have the structures in place to make the right decisions,” Owens said. “One of the things that has come up often is that these standards would be taking over the role of the family. I don’t believe we live in Mayberry anymore. … I’d like to think the family does exist, but not to the extent it did in the past.”

State board member Sarah Fowler said schools should get parents’ permission to survey students about their emotional issues, and make sure any data that was shared be protected. Hill asked how educators could know whether their SEL efforts had any impact on academic performance.

Representatives of the Hamilton, Dover and Cleveland school districts who helped write the standards told the state board about their efforts on social-emotional learning, but agreed it’s hard to quantify.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said social-emotional learning effectiveness is not something that can be measured on a report card, arguing that “you know it when you see it,” based on orderly, engaged classrooms and motivated staff. Jillian Ahrens, a leader of Cleveland schools’ SEL efforts, agreed.

“We’re so ingrained to think about testing. I’d ask you to think outside the box,” Ahrens said. “By implementing these standards, we can help kids not melt down, not be suspended, help them be good citizens.”

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