Dr. Rick Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute
Why do you believe the SEL field is gaining momentum and how do you hope the upcoming SEL Exchange captures and advances that momentum?
I think SEL is gaining momentum because it makes a lot of sense to educators and parents, especially as a corrective to two decades of testing mania during which the human face of schooling was too often neglected. SEL is an opportunity to focus on values and student needs that matter deeply and that unite Americans across the ideological spectrum—things like integrity, empathy, perseverance, and responsible decision making. All that said, I have grave concerns. I fear that SEL will be captured by ideologues, product-pushing vendors, or instructional progressives who are all too happy to sacrifice rigor and content in the name of student-centered pedagogy. More than anything, I hope that the SEL Exchange takes seriously the need to protect this valuable effort from charlatans and agenda-driven “allies.”
At the Exchange you’ll be participating in a plenary session focused on social and emotional learning, citizenship, and goals for education in America: can you give a sneak peak of a few insights you’ll be sharing in October?
I’ll suggest that one of SEL’s many virtues is that it provides a powerful opportunity to find common ground in a polarized country, precisely because it touches on shared values. At the same time, there is obvious disagreement about how some of those values—like diligence and self-discipline—play out. After all, many social and emotional “skills” can pretty quickly run into the realms historically occupied by morality and faith. The “science” of SEL will sometimes wade unavoidably into these realms, and that it’s not clear how such tensions will—or should—play out. Recognizing this may help foster a useful humility, an appreciation for the role of faith-based partners, and a healthy willingness to let SEL unfold very differently in different communities.
What is the project or initiative you’re working on that you’re most excited about/has the most sense of urgency for you?
Over the course of three decades, I’ve come to believe that the easy part of any school improvement venture is coming up with a good idea. The tougher part is figuring out how to grow and sustain that idea. And the toughest part may be keeping advocates, education professors, vendors, policymakers, and starry-eyed leaders from hijacking your sensible idea and driving it off a blind curve. With that in mind, I am pleased by my AEI Education team’s ongoing series of analyses focused on helping SEL advocates reflect on the challenges ahead, anticipating some of their potential blind spots, and sharing constructive criticism from those who want to support SEL but have concerns about how the effort is unfolding.
What is one must read book or resource recommendation for educators and SEL field-builders from your library?
I think those in this field will do well to read University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene’s challenging essay, “The moral and religious roots of social and emotional learning.” In my experience, SEL advocates tend to downplay or dismiss the moral and faith implications of their work. I suspect this is partly because the push has been driven by cosmopolitan advocates, educators, and academics who are most comfortable when they’re talking about research, policy, and instructional practice. I think that many of them feel like things get dicier when the discussion veers into questions of morality and faith. While I understand all too well that Greene's take doesn’t reflect how many in the SEL community see things, it’s important to appreciate that Greene has incisively articulated how millions of Americans will ultimately make sense of SEL.