For decades, progressive educators have dressed up non-academic social and emotional training in different outfits.  But the goal is the same – to use public education to dictate the next generation’s norms and behaviors.  

Early 20th-century education reformers like Edward Thorndike of the Columbia Teachers College and John Dewey, the father of American progressive education, set out to refashion public education to diminish individuality and family influence in children. They planned to replace it with a collectivist mindset readied for the “workforce.”  By doing so, they could capture the minds and hearts of children in the classroom and substitute “the state for the home and faith.”  

Their socialist behaviorist model was effectively the first version of what we now know as social-emotional learning (SEL), most recently repackaged as the Whole Child educational framework.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  

Moving to the 60s, Dr. James Comer of the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center set out to prove the effectiveness of behavior versus academic focus for student success.  He thought he’d prove his theory by testing it in 650 low-income schools, admitting thirty years later that it was a failure.  Still, his method served as the foundation for today’s school SEL.  

In the 80s, Psychology Professor Roger Weissberg wanted to help students “develop positive self-concepts” and hone skills in “self-monitoring” and “values such as personal responsibility and respect for self and others.”  These seem like loaded phrases subject to interpretation, but apparently, his approach was acceptable enough to keep the behaviorist model train running on its tracks. 

By the 90s, National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) president Marc Tucker helped pass Goals 2000 Educate America Act during the Clinton administration and echoed Thorndike’s goals to advance a socialist workforce development mindset in K-12 education. This was followed by the controversial Outcomes Based Education (OBE) model, which debuted when my kids were school age. 

Thankfully parental backlash in the 90s squashed OBE, yet it morphed and reappeared through CASEL, the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL took time to stake its claim by hosting conferences and sponsoring research, presumably to build a support base.  CASEL’s champion and education advisor to Obama, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford Graduate School of Education, was a known progressive who advocated for educational equity.  Revealing the push for so-called equity versus the much-respected American concept of equal opportunity hit schools long before COVID.  

CASEL’s goals for students include providing “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  Sounds innocuous until you realize their specific definitions for each element are far from what you might think.

For example, CASEL definitively overplays the role of schools in a child’s life when it asserts that “schools have an important role to play in raising healthy children by fostering not only their cognitive development but also their social and emotional development.” That’s a tremendous assumption of power over your children in the classroom, and it is tantamount to brainwashing, not promoting basic good behavior. 

CASELs defense of its emphasis on social and emotional learning via research leaves something to be desired.  First, there are no recent US-based studies. Instead, they cite several outdated ones. A 2006 study asked a national sample of 148,189 sixth through twelfth-grade students if they thought they had social competencies such as empathy, decision-making, and conflict-resolution skills.  The results?  Only 29% indicated that their school provided a caring, encouraging environment.  Um…. okay.  First, how does that prove the need for SEL? And how accurate are the results when parents were not consulted on the answers, given the relative immaturity of kids to answer these questions competently? 

The latest version of SEL – dubbed Whole Child – stems from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.  It includes these expansive elements in its list of critical areas for schools to deliver to students: mental health, cognitive development, social-emotional development, identity development, academic development, and physical health.  Looks like a giant leap toward the early progressive education agenda of Thorndike and Dewey.  Psychology Today piped in as recently as 2022, insisting that educators’ responsibilities extend beyond academics to students’ holistic well-being. Since the pandemic, there’s been a 70% rise in public school students needing mental health services. Identifying and treating the medical causes of these issues can reduce the necessity for ongoing symptom management in schools.  But couldn’t this be the tail wagging the dog as schools push troubling woke culture invading the classroom and school day?

According to research from the Massachusetts-based think tank, The Pioneer Institute, Thorndike equated “learning with training, and believed in the approach of learning by conditioning, and like Pavlov’s dogs [children] could be conditioned to exhibit the desired behaviors by a system of positive or negative consequences linked to particular actions.”  And that John Dewey, the dean of American progressive education, “was equally enthusiastic about manipulating the psychological aspects of learning as a means of manipulating the child.” 

Don’t forget that Dewey was the one who favored the “educational potential of social behaviorism used in totalitarian societies” since those societies “required collective and cooperative mentality.” 

Pioneer’s conclusion? “Carried to its logical conclusion, SEL – now dressed up as Whole Child – can replace parental influence with the ultimate nanny state.” 

Parents, beware of this troubling agenda and protect your children from the brainwashing and conditioning that SEL and now Whole Child use to shape your child in schools.

Tamra Farah has twenty years of experience in public policy and politics, focusing on protecting individual liberty and promoting limited government.  She has worked at the director level for Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, crisis pregnancy centers, and is now the President of

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