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Missouri education board to discuss social-emotional learning standards

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri’s board of education will decide Tuesday whether to implement social emotional learning standards for K-12 students.

But though board members praised the potential guidelines during an August meeting as teaching “the basics of what it means to be human,” the proposal has also inspired plenty of negative feedback among the 1,800 public comments submitted in the run up to Tuesday’s meeting in Jefferson City.

The negative comments, which made up roughly a third of those submitted, include accusations that the department is trying to raise “emotionally fragile snowflakes” and establish “critical race theory.”

Five respondents indicated that they were state legislators — all with negative reviews.

Positive feedback was shorter, with comments like, “Looks good to me.” Some were hopeful that students’ mental health would benefit but worried about adding a burden to educators.

Missourians had a 30-day public comment period through the department’s website. The survey prompted participants to identify their title and county of residence.

The groups more likely to hold a negative view than a positive or neutral response were: community members, employers, legislators, school board members and superintendents.

Social-emotional learning, according to the August board meeting, is “the direct attempt to build children’s social and emotional competencies in school settings.”

Of the five Missouri lawmakers who offered comments, one repeatedly described the standards as “psychobabble group think,” and another wanted to “teach the Bible and the Bill of Rights.”

Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Norwood Republican who recently announced a campaign for State Senate, said parents were responsible for the emotional wellbeing of their children.

“This is the role of the family kitchen table. Absolutely inappropriate expansion of government education,” she wrote in DESE’s survey.

Speaking to The Independent, she said she was worried the standards could become a performance measure for teachers and eventually be attached to money.

“Missouri families need to address these issues at the kitchen table,” Kelly said. “These issues should not be added to the demands in the classroom for teachers to perform on.”

Kimberly Bailey, a member of the Missouri State Board of Education from Raymore, said during the August meeting that neither the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nor the state board are advocating for anyone to change their values.

“Like reading, writing and arithmetic, this is just the basics of what it means to be human,” she said. “Then if a community wants to teach values in addition to that… We’re not teaching values; we’re teaching basics.”

Bailey pushed for more words to be defined in the standards, worried people would “weaponize” the guidelines if not clearly explained. The proposal contains a lengthy glossary, defining words like “fair” and “kindness.”

Board President Charlie Shields knew social-emotional learning would create controversy. But he said he sees these traits outlined in his friends on either side of the political spectrum.

“People are just going to attack and say, ‘Well, this has no part in education,’” he said during the August meeting. “Given all the challenges we face… If we can’t (have these standards), how do you expect learning to happen?”

DESE administrators told board members that districts with social-emotional learning are having less teacher turnover, as the standards for respect improves discipline.

The Plato R-V school district, which recently adopted a policy improving school climate and culture, saw teacher turnover decrease from 40% to 11%, said Chrissy Bashore, coordinator of school counseling and student wellness.

Potosi teacher Kim Greenlee, who worked on the standards, said social-emotional learning is “what teachers need.”

“When we spend time and are given permission to spend time with the (social-emotional-learning) standards, we’re going to see that student achievement comes up,” she said. “Because if students feel like they belong, attendance is going to start to rise in a school setting. And if students are there more, we’re going to see that their learning grows.”

Of the 321 K-12 educator responses, 52% were in favor of the standards and 20.4% were neutral.

The largest group of commenters were parents, comprising 46% of respondents, of which 52% were positive.

The geographic spread of public comments were disproportionate to the state’s population, with over 28% of respondents identified as living in St. Louis city and St. Louis County and 12.8% in St. Charles County.

Other items in Tuesday’s meeting include recommendations to dissolve the state’s special administrative boards currently in place over the Riverview Gardens and Normandy Schools Collaborative school boards and return to local governance.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Annelise Hanshaw