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Tennessee scraps social and emotional standards collaboration following pushback

The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the the governor’s office and Tennessee General Assembly. Photo by Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the the governor's office and Tennessee General Assembly.
Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich

Following a backlash from some critics and only a month after joining, Tennessee has pulled out of a multi-state initiative meant to help teachers support students’ emotional well-being.

In August, Tennessee was selected from a field of more than 20 states to work with leaders from seven other states to draft standards focused on students’ emotional well-being and mental health in grades K-12. The initiative was spearheaded by the Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, which also awarded Tennessee $5,000 for its work.

The announcement was followed by a flurry of complaints from Tennessee lawmakers charging that the standards were an overreach by the state, even though they would have been voluntary and never would have been assessed. Some groups and bloggers also joined in, charging that the federal government is seeking to track and manipulate kids’ feelings and relationships.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education said they are pulling out due to CASEL’s one-year timeline and Tennessee’s desire to be transparent and to align its work around social and emotional learning with other state initiatives.

“We need to align these various related workstreams, and we want to be thoughtful and transparent about what we are doing,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Wednesday. “Given that, participating in CASEL does not make sense.”

Tennessee is not totally reversing course. The state will continue to develop social and personal “competencies” without working with experts from outside of Tennessee, and on a slower timeline.

“We believe this work is vital to ensuring students can develop their unique abilities to grow into well-rounded lifelong learners and become more prepared for the variety of expectations they will have in the workforce,” Gast said.

The social and emotional standards developed with CASEL would have set benchmarks for what students should know or be able to do in each grade when it comes to skills such as decision-making, self-awareness, social awareness, self-control, and establishing and maintaining healthy relationships.

During the last few years, the word “standards” has become politically charged across the nation, with many mistakenly believing that standards dictate what curriculum is taught in the classroom. Rather, standards establish grade-by-grade learning goals so that teachers and parents know what is expected of students and if they are achieving on grade-level.

The recent pushback over social-emotional standards also has included a wariness of collaborative work across state lines, an attitude that contributed to the state’s decision to scrap the Common Core academic standards for math and reading in favor of “homegrown standards” that Tennessee will roll out in 2017.

“I don’t understand why we have to constantly collaborate with other states,” Rep. Sheila Butt said during a summer study session last month. “We don’t have to do it that way.”

Research shows that a focus on students’ emotional well-being and behavior leads to greater academic success.

CASEL officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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