Florida made national headlines when it announced it was rejecting 54 math books and claimed, without proof, that some wanted to indoctrinate children with “critical race theory” and other inappropriate topics.
But what most surprised some educators and academics was the state’s determination to ban books containing “social emotional learning.”
After all, a decent description of that principle can be found in Florida’s new “individual liberty” law (HB 7), one administration Ron DeSantis called its “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 on Children, which champions social-emotional learning.
The law, signed by DeSantis on April 22, says Florida public school students must “learn life skills that build confidence, support mental and emotional health, and empower students to overcome challenges.”
Children, it adds, should also learn “self-awareness and self-management. Responsible decision making. Resilience. Relationship skills and conflict resolution. Understand and respect other points of view and background.”
All of those skills fall under the “social-emotional” umbrella, and helping children learn them increases their ability to absorb academic lessons and is critical to their well-being, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Posamentier.
Schools reported an increase in student fights, threats and disruptions this year, and the US Surgeon General warned in December of the “urgent need” to address children’s mental health crisis, noting an increase in depression and anxiety.
“I worry that Florida is inadvertently removing practices and strategies that build resilience in children when, in fact, that’s what they really want to do,” he added.
The idea of ”social emotional learning,” a term coined in 1997, is to help children “learn the skills everyone needs to interact in life,” said Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at the University of Groningen. Rutgers University and director of the university’s social department. – emotional character lab.
It’s also an acknowledgment that children who are upset—whether it’s a disturbance at home or an argument with a friend—have a tendency to reject schoolwork.
“When kids walk into the school and someone thinks they can put their coat in their locker, put their books in the locker, and put their emotions in the locker, then they don’t really understand kids,” Elias said.
It makes sense to build “social emotional learning” classes into math textbooks, he and others added, because many students find the subject difficult and even scary.
Florida students struggled with math during the pandemic. For example, the percentage of elementary and middle school students who passed the Florida Standards Assessment math exam fell to 51% in 2021, from 61% in 2019.
‘I would note that math anxiety is a thing; so I hope every set of math texts would have something to reduce it,” Walter Secada, a professor in the Department of Education and Learning at the University of Miami, agreed in an email.
Secada, whose academic field is math education, has consulted about elementary school math books in the past, but not the ones recently rejected by Florida.
The Florida Department of Education, which announced the textbook’s 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 has also declined to give specific reasons why each textbook was rejected.
In a June memo to textbook publishers, it called “social emotional learning” an “unsolicited strategies” that did not conform to state standards.
The term “social emotional learning,” often referred to as SEL, has become a term that some conservatives have lumped together with other subjects they claim have been improperly cast into public education.
The Florida Citizens Alliance — which targeted textbooks it viewed as pro-Islamic and is now pushing to remove books it finds offensive from school libraries — called for 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 a subject taught in public schools.
But critics, such as the Alliance, say its principles have seeped into K-12 classrooms with the aim of making white children feel guilty and teaching students to hate the United States. Some see CRT in efforts to promote diversity and equality, and align with “social emotional learning” because its supporters say it helps create more equitable schools.
At DeSantis’s urging, the State Board of Education banned the teaching of CRT in June, and the Florida legislature passed its “anti-wake” legislation this spring.
The state said some textbooks were rejected because they did not conform well to Florida’s new math standards, but half were rejected because they contained subjects the state had banned: CRT, “social emotional learning,” “culturally responsive education in relation to CRT’, and “Social Justice Related 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 books. They all made it onto the state’s new “not recommended” list.
Educators chose the textbooks from a list the state released in May, selecting the ones they felt best met Florida’s new math standards. They were willing to spend millions of dollars—more than $25 million in Orange County alone—so that the new textbooks would be on campus when the new school year begins in August.
Florida has passed new math standards to be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year, creating the need for new math textbooks.
Now many districts are waiting for the publishers to appeal or make changes. The education department announced Thursday that nine textbooks were returned to the approved list after publishers made changes, in part by “removing awakened content.”
A review of the kindergarten through fifth grade math books chosen by the Lake, Osceola, Orange, and Seminole schools but rejected by the state found no clear-cut race-based lessons. But the books contain tips designed to provide encouragement or explain how to handle problems — lessons that could be classified as “social emotional learning,” even if the term wasn’t used.
“When we do math, we work together,” reads a first-grade book by McGraw Hill, the series chosen by Lake and Osceola schools. “We listen to our friends and our teachers. We think along about the ideas of others.”
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A fifth-grade text asks, “How can you work well with a classmate, even if you don’t agree with it?”
The K-5 math books chosen by the Orange and Seminole schools, from Savvas Learning Company, tell sophomores, “Encourage others. Tell your partners they can do it!” and “Remember your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. They can help you learn!”
However, it is not clear whether those passages were the reason those books were rejected.
Nearly a week after the textbooks were rejected, the education department published four samples of offensive 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 that classes would be held on “social emotional learning,” although it does not describe them.
Elias, the Rutgers professor, said he was surprised at Florida’s decision to reject textbooks with such lessons.
“So many kids don’t try their best because of fear,” Elias said. “You do it proactively. You make it part of math education,” he added. “It makes perfect sense.”