Building social, emotional skills ignored

By Tom Dunn - Guest columnist

In the early 1990s, the political hijacking of public schools began in earnest. It was during that period that the state began mandating academic standards and state tests under the pretense that students were graduating from high school lacking in skills necessary to function in the real world. In fact, if one would take politicians at face value (and I never do), one would think that anyone who graduated from high school before the decade of the ‘90s did so with no expectations placed upon us. Apparently, they believe that those of us who are more than 30 years old received a diploma for occasionally showing up to school while semi-conscious. Of course, that is not true.

The truth is, academic standards have existed since schools were invented. Publishing companies have always printed teaching goals, objectives, standards, lessons, and teaching strategies in teachers’ editions of textbooks, and teachers used them every day. But, the process of teaching didn’t stop there. There were behavioral expectations placed upon us as well. So, this notion that standards didn’t exist until politicians brilliantly dreamed them up is pure hogwash and is, frankly, an insult to those of us who graduated long before this political intrusion began. The expectations that existed before politicians “invented” them have enabled folks like me to learn to string words into sentences, count all the way to twenty with our shoes on, and hold reasonably responsible jobs throughout our lifetimes. They also may explain why we have landed men on the moon, wiped out devastating diseases, and can speak in real time to someone sitting halfway around the world.

So, try as they might, politicians don’t get to take credit for our successes.

One of the biggest mistakes those of us in education have made over the years is allowing people who know so little to take so much control of educational policy development without putting up a bigger fight. Based on information contained in “A Nation at Risk,” which was published during the Reagan administration and which (falsely) claimed that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” we have allowed politicians to dictate what was important in a child’s development and how education should be implemented even though we knew they were wrong.

Their intrusion would have been fine had they had any level of expertise on the topic, but they had (have) none. That has resulted in the creation of public policies that are supposed to improve a child’s chance at success, but, in reality, have little to do with helping him or her become successful.

Since the entire premise for the downfall of education was the lack of academic rigor that supposedly existed in our schools, the natural focus of public policies landed squarely on increasing academic expectations. Policy makers have, for all intents and purposes, ignored every other important skill a child needs to succeed. Boondoggles like the Common Core have been created under the (false) premise that academic achievement equates to future success, but we know that a person’s success is based on so much more than that.

In a recent study, researchers from Penn State and Duke University discovered that the best predictor of future success has nothing to do with reading and writing, and everything to do with the social and emotional skills children possess at 5 years old. The social and emotional skills identified in this research included how well kids shared, listened to others, resolved problems with their peers, and were helpful. The data shows that kids who have trouble cooperating, listening, and resolving conflicts are less likely to finish high school and more likely to experience legal and substance abuse problems as they grew older. The correlation is striking. (If you are a parent, Google it.)

In an article she wrote for The Business Insider in which she reviewed the findings of this research, psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do,” poses the question, “With all the evidence that supports the importance of social and emotional skills, isn’t it incredible to think that we still pour most of our resources into teaching kids academic skills?” (If you are a parent, Google it.)

It’s not incredible when you consider that politicians base their decisions about how to spend our resources on political platforms, not scientific research.

In the same vein, in a separate Harris poll of 1502 college freshmen, 60 percent of respondents said they wished they had gotten more emotional preparedness before they entered college. Emotional preparedness is defined as taking care of oneself, adapting to new environments, controlling negative emotions or behavior, and building positive relationships. These same students felt as if too much emphasis was placed on academic preparation and that despite all their efforts to build impressive resumes, their ultimate success was negatively impacted by not having the necessary emotional skills to thrive. (If you are a parent, Google it.)

The good news is these skills can be taught. The bad news is we continue to ignore them. How about if we stop doing that?

By Tom Dunn

Guest columnist

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.