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Missouri education board moves forward with social-emotional learning standards


State education officials continue to cautiously move ahead with a plan to implement social-emotional learning standards for all Missouri students, though concerns about possible political blowback hang over the process.

The Missouri State Board of Education agreed earlier this month that K-12 social-emotional learning standards are an essential part of the school day. But members were worried politicization of the phrase “social-emotional learning” may complicate the public comment period — which is open until Sept. 15.

“People are just going to attack and say, ‘Well, this has no part in education,’” Missouri State Board of Education chair Charlie Shields said during discussion.

“As we move this forward, I think it’s imperative to frame it as: This is what has to happen for learning to take place,” he continued.

The standards presented to Missouri’s Board of Education address how students should interact with their peers and their educators at school by setting expectations in three categories: me, we and others.

The plan, met with compliments by the state board, will have to survive political scrutiny before implementation, for the phrase “social-emotional learning” has been a target both in Missouri and nationally.

In 2022, former Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office demanded emails from a University of Missouri program containing phrases like “social emotional learning” and “positive school climate.”

And at the request of Georgia nonprofit Southeastern Legal Foundation, Schmitt subpoenaed seven school districts regarding student surveys on school climate and social-emotional learning. Southeastern Legal Foundation, in a letter to Schmitt, described social-emotional learning as “really just thinly disguised political indoctrination.”

A survey by the Fordham Institute, a right-wing education nonprofit, showed in 2021 that parents largely supported the teaching of social-emotional learning skills, like “responding ethically,” garnering 81-93% approval.

But when asked if social-emotional learning should be taught in schools, only 51% agreed or “somewhat agreed.”

Democrats favored the program more than Republicans, with Democrats twice as likely to support teacher training in social-emotional learning.

Shields said the state’s plan promotes character traits he sees in friends on both sides of the aisle.

The “me” standards focus on self-awareness and healthy processing of emotions. “We” looks at teamwork, collaboration and respecting classmates. The “others” category calls for empathy and treating others justly.

The proposal doesn’t include activities or lessons but looks for student indicators of social-emotional achievement.

For a goal of “advocating for self to promote health, safety, and personal needs,” indicators include “clearly stating one’s needs” and “willing to ask for help,” according to the standards document.

For “fair and equitable treatment of others,” students would “demonstrate impartiality and honesty” and “treat others well without expecting or receiving more than your share in return.”

There are five standards in each category with associated behaviors.

“We’re not advocating that everyone has to change their values to all meet the same values,” said Jen Foster, co-chair of the work group developing the standards. “We’re advocating for basic human dignity, and those are two different things.”

The standards include a glossary, defining terms like “kindness,” “dignity,” “respect” and “fair.”

“I don’t have to agree with you to treat you well. So we have to capture that in our definitions,” said Kimberly Bailey, a member of the state board from Raymore.

She was the most vocal about definitions, adding that she was worried the standards would be “weaponized” into teaching a worldview.

“The base of it is basic human civility,” Bailey said. But she worried that some words, like “advocacy,” might be used for a political agenda.

As she finished her thought, Shields interrupted her: “Crazy people are telling our students what to think about things,” he said. “That is not what this is at all.”

Bailey asked Christi Bergin, co-chair of the group that created the standards and associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Missouri, if the standards were “psychologically sound or culturally driven.”

Bergin, who has a doctorate in child development and early education, said she felt everything in the document is “important.”

“Everything I am looking at, I think, is psychologically sound,” she said. “I don’t have concerns about anything on here.”

Parents, educators and other stakeholders will give their opinion through Sept. 15 during the 30-day public comment period. These comments will be reviewed at the board’s October meeting.