Rejecting ‘social emotional learning’ in math books doesn’t add up, puzzled educators say

Florida made national headlines when it announced its rejection of 54 math textbooks, claiming, without evidence, that some aimed to indoctrinate children with “critical race theory” and other inappropriate topics.

But what most puzzled some educators and academics was the state’s determination to ban books that included “social emotional learning.”

Advertisement

After all, a decent description of that tenet can be found in Florida’s new “individual freedom” law (HB 7), the one Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed his “anti-woke” measure and pushed as a way to ban critical race theory, said Jordan Posamentier, vice president of policy and advocacy at the Committee for Children, which champions social emotional learning.

The law, which DeSantis signed April 22, says Florida’s public school students should learn “life skills that build confidence, support mental and emotional health, and enable students to overcome challenges.”

Advertisement

Children, it adds, should also learn, “self-awareness and self-management. Responsible decision making. Resiliency. Relationship skills and conflict resolution. Understanding and respecting other viewpoints and backgrounds.”

All those skills come under the “social emotional” umbrella and helping children learn them boosts their ability to absorb academic lessons and is crucial to their well being, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Posamentier said.

Schools this year reported an increase in student fights, threats and disruptions, and the U.S. Surgeon General in December warned of the “urgent need” to address a children’s mental health crisis, noting an increase in depression and anxiety.

“I worry that inadvertently Florida is removing practices and strategies that build resilience in kids when that, in fact, is what they truly want to do,” he added.

The idea of “social emotional learning,” a term coined in 1997, is to help children learn “the skills everybody needs to get along in life,” said Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and the director of the university’s social-emotional character lab.

It is also a recognizes that children who are upset — whether because of upheaval at home or a fight with a friend — tend to tune out school work.

“If kids walk into school and anybody thinks they can put their jacket in their locker, they can put their books in the locker, and they can put their emotions in the locker, then they don’t really understand children,” Elias said.

Building “social emotional learning” lessons into math books makes sense, he and other added, because many students find the subject hard and even anxiety producing.

Advertisement

Florida students struggled with math during the pandemic. The percentage of elementary and middle school students passing the Florida Standards Assessment math exam, for example, dropped to 51% in 2021, down from 61% in 2019.

“I’d note that Math Anxiety is a thing; so I’d hope that any math text series would include something to help mitigate against it,” agreed Walter Secada, a professor in the department of teaching and learning at the University of Miami, in an email.

Secada, whose academic field is math education, has consulted on elementary school math textbooks in the past but not on the books recently rejected by Florida.

The Florida Department of Education, which announced the textbook rejections two weeks ago, did not respond to questions about its opposition to “social emotional learning” or how it differs from the required skills listed in the new law. It also has declined to provide specific reasons why each textbook was rejected.

In a June memo to textbook publishers, it called “social emotional learning” one of several “unsolicited strategies” not aligned to state standards.

The term “social emotional learning,” often dubbed SEL, has become one some conservatives lumped with other topics they argue have been wrongly infused into public education.

Advertisement

The Florida Citizens Alliance — which targeted textbooks it viewed as pro-Islamic and is now pushing to get books it finds offensive pulled from school libraries — called it one of the “many tentacles” of critical race theory in a tweet last year.

Critical race theory, first proposed by legal scholars, says racism is embedded in the country’s institutions. Historically, it has been a law school or graduate school subject and not one taught in public schools.

But critics, like the alliance, say its tenets have seeped into K-12 classrooms with the aim to make white children feel guilty and to teach students to hate the United States. Some see CRT in efforts to promote diversity and equity, and they tie in “social emotional learning,” because its supporters say it helps create more equitable schools.

At DeSantis’ urging, the State Board of Education banned the teaching of CRT in June, and the Florida Legislature passed his “anti-woke” legislation this spring.

The state said some textbooks were rejected because they didn’t align well with Florida’s new math standards but half were rejected because they included topics the state prohibited: CRT, “social emotional learning,” “culturally responsive teaching as it relates to CRT,” and “social justice as it relates to CRT.”

When the state announced the textbook rejections, every Central Florida school district — as well as most of the state’s largest districts from Duval County to Polk County to Broward County — had already selected new elementary school math textbooks. All of them ended up on the state’s new “not recommended” list.

Advertisement

Educators picked the textbooks from a list the state released in May, selecting ones they thought best met Florida’s new math standards. They were ready to spend millions of dollars — over $25 million in Orange County alone — so the new textbooks would be on campuses when the new school year starts in August.

Florida adopted new math standards that are to be implemented in the 2022-23 school year, creating the necessity for new math books.

Now, many districts are waiting to see if the publishers will appeal or make changes. The education department announced on Thursday that nine textbooks made their way back onto the approved list after publishers made changes, in part by “removing woke content.”

On Friday, the department posted an updated list on its website, showing more books had been approved, including the kindergarten-to-fifth grade math books Orange and Seminole county school leaders wanted to buy.

A review of the K-5 math books chosen by Lake, Osceola, Orange and Seminole schools but rejected by the state found no obvious race-based lessons. But the books included tips meant to offer encouragement or explain how to approach problems — lessons that could be classified as “social emotional learning,” even if the term was not used.

“When we do math, we work together,” reads a first grade book from McGraw Hill, the series chosen by Lake and Osceola schools. “We listen to our friends and our teachers. We think about others’ ideas.”

Advertisement

A fifth-grade text asks, “How can you work well with a classmate even when you disagree?”

The K-5 math books chosen by Orange and Seminole schools, from Savvas Learning Company, tell second graders, “Encourage others. Tell your partners they can do it!” and “Think about your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. They can help you learn!”

It is not clear, however, if those passages were why those books met with initial rejection.

Earlier Friday, Savvas spokesperson Richard Weird emailed a statement saying the company was “actively working with the Florida DOE to resolve any issues” and that company officials “remain optimistic” their textbooks would be approved.

Tyler Reed, a spokesperson for McGraw Hill, said in an email that his company also remained in conversations with the education department. “The dialogue was productive. We will continue to engage with the DOE in the coming days as we work to address their concerns,” he said.

Nearly a week after rejecting the textbooks, the education department released four examples of objectionable math questions sent in by the public but didn’t say which textbooks they came from. Two dealt with data on racism and two noted there would be lessons on “social emotional learning,” though it did not describe them.

Advertisement

Elias, the Rutgers professor, said he was puzzled by Florida’s decision to reject textbooks with such lessons.

“So many kids don’t put their best effort forward because of anxiety,” Elias said. “You do it pro-actively. You make it part of math instruction,” he added. “It makes perfect sense.”

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com