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Missouri's board of education backs off state standards for social-emotional learning

A woman sitting on a stool, left, gestures toward a classroom while a young girl stands beside her holding up a pair of Crayons taped to pieces of cardboard.
File Photo-Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Missouri’s state board of education decided to provide schools with optional guidelines on social-emotional learning to help them cope with worsening student behavior. Commissioners are concerned about potential political pushback to the learning standards, which have been criticized by conservatives.

Missouri’s state board of education will provide schools with optional guidelines on social-emotional learning to help them cope with worsening student behavior.

The board decided at Tuesday's meeting to roll back an original proposal to implement social-emotional learning standards in its K-12 schools after a month-long period of public comment that sparked more than 1,800 responses from parents, educators and community members.

Disruptive student behavior has reportedly grown worse since schools shuttered for COVID-19. Nationally, teachers cite workplace culture and persistent behavior issues as reasons they're leaving the field, leading to a teacher shortage.

To help retain more teachers, the state’s department of education wants students to learn self-awareness, respect and empathy.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners expressed concerns over potential political pushback to the learning standards. Social-emotional learning is one of the latest targets of conservatives who believe it promotes a liberal agenda.

Those concerns were reflected in the comments the department received, roughly one-third of which the Missouri Independent reported were negative. Many respondents raised issues with the learning standards, linking them with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts they deem politically divisive.

Opponents also said these skills are parents’ responsibility, and that state standards would encourage teachers to practice psychology without a license. Many of these comments included identical language, indicating that they were sent by the same person or copied from the same source.

State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said there were two important takeaways from the feedback.

“There's clearly a lot of confusion around what we are trying to accomplish in this process,” Vandeven said. “And two, we clearly have heard very strongly from our teachers that they need our support and making sure that we're helping our teachers address these very, very complex issues that they're dealing with in the classroom.”

The board said it will continue to work on student behavior and classroom management. It will distribute the social-emotional learning standards created by a group of educators, counselors and mental health experts as an optional resource.

Jen Foster, co-chair of the work group that developed the standards, told KCUR’s Up to Date a big misconception of social-emotional skills is that they aren't as important as or take away from class time for academic subjects.

That’s why she says the group encourages teachers to integrate the skills into their everyday teaching.

“It's not replacing or taking away from academics, it's enhancing and making academics easier to be implemented in the classroom,” Foster said, “And (it helps) students to learn skills like persisting and engaging in difficult challenges, and all of those things that we need to have them practicing to improve their academics.”

Respondents who support social-emotional learning said it’s important for students to learn skills like how to manage their emotions and hold themselves accountable, and that those tools will benefit students in the long term.

Teachers and parents narrowly supported the proposed learning standards. Parents were the largest group to comment, making up 46% of respondents. About 52% of them supported the proposed learning standards and 40% did not. Among the nearly 18% of respondents who identified as educators, 52% were supportive and 28% were unsupportive.

Community members made up 13% of respondents, with 38% in support and 48% not in support. The Independent reported groups of employers, legislators, school board members and superintendents were more likely to hold a negative view than positive or neutral.

Board member Mary Schrag said the disparity between community members’ and educators’ views point to a need for more communication.

“(Educators are) more supportive because they know there's a need,” Schrag said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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