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How social-emotional learning became a target for Ron DeSantis and conservatives

A teacher walks through an empty classroom at Hazelwood Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 11.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
A teacher walks through an empty classroom at Hazelwood Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 11.

Between fights over mask mandates and new legislation dictating how history should be taught, schools have become a battleground for America's culture wars. Recently, the Florida Department of Education announced that it was rejectingdozens of math textbooks because they incorporated "prohibited topics" or "unsolicited strategies," such as critical race theory.

New York Times national correspondent Dana Goldstein says Florida officials have given little evidence to back up these claims. Goldstein and her colleague Stephanie Saul reviewed 21 of the rejected math textbooks and found very little mention of race. Instead, Goldstein theorizes the objections related to the inclusion of topics concerning social-emotional learning.

Goldstein says the rejected textbooks addressed social-emotional learning in a variety of ways. "Some of them were quite awkward," she says. "There was one fifth grade math textbook from McGraw-Hill that had sort of a simple fractions question, and then right underneath it said, 'How do you understand your feelings?'"

Other social-emotional lessons were more seamlessly integrated. One high school textbook asked students to rate from 1 t0 4 how much they struggled with a concept. Another included cartoon figures encouraging students to ask a friend how they solved a problem.

"And then there were lots of references to this idea of grit, this idea of perseverance, and reminders to children that math is hard and they should keep going to find the answer," Goldstein says.

The goal of social-emotional learning is to provide kids with a set of skills that they can draw on when they face challenges later in life, Goldstein explains. But, she notes, some conservatives see it as something that opens the door to larger discussions about race, gender and sexuality.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed what critics have dubbed a "Don't Say Gay" bill, which prohibits school personnel from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. He also signed the so-called "Stop W.O.K.E. Act," which proponents say was designed to prevent both students and employees of private companies from feeling discomfort or personal guilt because of historical wrongs that have to do with race, gender or national origin.

Ultimately, Goldstein says, the convergence of politics and education is nothing new: "I'm the author of a history book about fights and debates about education since the 19th century till today, and one of the themes I draw out in my book is that there are always these moral panics over what goes on in schools, and we are definitely in a moment like that right now."

But, she adds, our current battles over education are coming at a particularly critical time, when many kids have lost a year and a half of in-person schooling due to the pandemic.

"Instead of coming back with a huge focus on getting kids up to par emotionally [and] academically, and bringing parents in as a support for kids who have lived through a lot the past two years, instead, we're seeing this huge focus in many communities on these culture war issues," she says. "It does call into question, for me, whether the classroom is just another front in this deeply divided and partisan political reality that we're all living through."

Interview highlights

On how right-wing activist Chris Rufo has made social-emotional learning a flashpoint for conservatives

Rufo ... has been instrumental in sort of putting out the idea that any discussion of racial inequity is, in fact, "critical race theory." Sort of introducing that terminology to conservative media and then, you know, pushing these laws that a third of states have passed, limiting how race, gender and sexuality are taught. ... From the critical race theory conversation, he then moved on to [a] LGBTQ set of issues and creating a real movement there to limit how those are talked about. ...

Mr. Rufo stated to me that while social-emotional learning "sounds positive and uncontroversial in theory, in practice, SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogy, such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism." He continued to say that the intention of SEL is to "soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of repression, whiteness or internalized racism, and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology."

I think one thing that really jumped out at me here was his notion that it would "soften children" to, you know, talk about their feelings and to encounter this social emotional learning content at school. A few people responded to my reporting on this saying like, this sounds really misogynist. Like it's almost it's too touchy-feely or too feminine for kids to talk about their feelings. But there's also an even more nefarious reading of this, you know, this idea of progressives or teachers as "groomers," which is circulating very widely in right-wing social media right now. The idea that somehow by talking about these different subjects and school teachers are sort of actively almost converting kids to gayness or to transgenderism.

On how many states in the U.S. choose their own textbooks

It's fewer than half that, at the state level, reject or accept textbooks for use. But Florida is one of the three big states that does do a process like this of accepting or rejecting textbooks at the state level. The other two are California and Texas. These three states really have a huge influence on what kids will see in textbooks, because the big publishers ... really want these states to approve their books so that they get out to more kids and more districts buy the books.

On how one rejected Florida math textbook addressed racial inequity

There's a lot of research showing that math anxiety is very real and that girls and kids of color feel it more than white males do. And another way that this is addressed was one of the few places where we did see race in the books. One high school math textbook had these mini biographies of mathematicians and all but one of them were of mathematicians through history who were women or nonwhite. Obviously, probably the majority of mathematicians through history were white men, so that was clearly a very purposeful decision, I think, to show kids that might have more anxiety about math, that, hey, this could be a career for you. Although that is in no sense critical race theory, as theorists would understand the term, I have seen throughout the country that any time that sort of white male achievement is underplayed in the curriculum, it can become a target of this movement.

On comparing a textbook used in California to an edition used in Texas

Just to talk about LGBTQ issues for a moment, the Texas textbooks do reference them in a few places, mostly in regard to contemporary debates over something like marriage equality. That is totally different than what you will see in California, which passed a law in 2011 that actually required schools to teach the contributions of LGBTQ Americans throughout history. In response to that 2011 law, the big publishing companies created thousands of words of new historical material on LGBTQ issues all throughout American history. So if you pick up a California book, you will learn about non-binary gender identities among Native American tribes in the 19th century. You will learn about same-sex families living as enslaved people. None of this would be covered in a Texas textbook. Perhaps most controversially, in California, you will learn about early gender reassignment surgeries in the 1950s. It's simply inconceivable that the state of Texas would ask publishers to include something like that in books. ...

The book looks the same, the cover's the same, the title's the same, the author is the same, but you turn the pages and you find these small differences, a paragraph here or there, but they can really give a really different view.

On Florida's Parental Rights in EducationLaw (which critics call a "Don't Say Gay" law), requiring parents to be notified if students go to mental or physical health services

Quite a lot of it is an attack on counseling services or social-emotional services that may be provided by schools. It requires schools to do this new bureaucratic thing, which is to create a list of all of the mental health or physical health services that are available on campus and provide that to parents and let them opt out of any element of it. And it also requires schools to immediately notify parents if students come to them for mental or physical health services. Again, it's very broadly and vaguely written. ...

The intention of those that wrote the bill would be to allow parents to object to schools affirming children's gender identity. So, for example, if a child who is assigned female at birth goes to a counselor and says, "I'm not sure I want to use she/her pronouns anymore. I want to maybe dress a little bit differently," the national standards of the counseling profession in the United States is to affirm that these are normal questions to have for that child. And if the child would prefer different pronouns, to use different pronouns, and to explore having the child dress in a way that feels right to that child.

Now, what those that wrote this bill would like to see happen is that immediately upon a kid raising any issue like this, parents would be immediately brought into the discussion, and it would be parents who would be allowed to drive what the response would be. So if mom or dad feel that, no, the message here is you're a girl, you're born a girl, you will always be a girl, and we are not affirming this questioning for you, that would be what the counselor would do and what the school would do. That is the intention here. But there is nothing in the bill limiting this parental control over counseling to gender issues. And I think that's really important to point out.

On the "Stop W.O.K.E. Act," (Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed into law

This is an act that's supposed to prevent both students and employees of private companies from feeling discomfort or personal guilt because of historical wrongs that have to do with race, gender or national origin. And what it says is that that type of instruction or diversity training in workplaces cannot occur. ...

So discussions of white privilege, the idea that all white people, even those that may suffer from other forms of discrimination in their own lives, carry some privilege due to their skin color. That would certainly seem to be off limits by the way this bill has been written. Diversity trainings, which are popular in corporate workplaces and also popular at many schools, would not be allowed here.

On how the "Stop W.O.K.E. Act" makes it difficult to connect history to current events

Learning history can be very difficult, very emotional, and can bring up very hard discussions and personal feelings. And so it seems very difficult for a teacher to broach some of these topics in their classroom while guaranteeing that students would not feel those feelings.

I will say that the bill does include language guaranteeing the right to bring up those subjects that you just mentioned, such as slavery or segregation or discrimination against women throughout history. But I think what it really is taking a target on is tying those historical topics to the present day, and specifically the framework that we are still living with the historical impacts of those discriminations, and we can still see that discrimination around us in various ways. That's the through line that is really targeted here.

Take the issue of segregation, for example. You'd have to be blind in America of 2022 to think that school segregation is over, or housing segregation, in which we have neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or predominantly white or predominantly Latino, is not here. Obviously, we are still living with the results of our history. And so it does seem to be that the purpose here is to not talk about that, to pull a shroud over the fact that history is not just in the past, but something that we live with today.

On how educators are responding to the debate over what they can teach

In some of the more conservative communities, where these fights have been really heated over the past year or so, teachers are really scared to speak out. It's not uncommon for me to come across a teacher who is commenting anonymously on some of these controversies, but who hesitates to speak out with their name attached. But you do see teachers who are brave, who go to the microphone at board meetings and who do speak to the press about why they disagree with these attempts to control what they do in the classroom.

I think there's no doubt that it's a scary time to broach subjects from American history, subjects from contemporary American life, or that are in the news in the classroom. I very often talk to teachers who hesitate to talk with their students about something like theJan. 6 insurrection in the halls of Congress or talk about who won the 2020 presidential election because they know that it's just a super-charged issue in their communities.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: April 27, 2022 at 8:00 PM AKDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Chris Rufo's last name as Rufu.
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