Speakers Differ at Lubar Center Program on Whether Success in School Can Increase Social Mobility

When you say “social-emotional learning,” you’ve said something that prompts wide-ranging and provocative conversations about kindergarten through twelfth grade education.

That was the case Wednesday at a morning-long conference in the Lubar Center of Eckstein titled “What K-12 Students Need: Striking a Balance between Social-Emotional and Academic Learning.” The session included moderated conversations with two nationally-known education commentators and a panel discussion with Wisconsin educators who are working on increasing the success of schools in helping children deal with their personal needs as a step toward improving their success in school in beyond.

The conference, a program of the Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education and the Marquette University College of Education, attracted a capacity audience of more than 200, with other people watching it on a livestreamed internet broadcast.

The interest in social-emotional programs appears to be growing nationwide, in part because of the issues children manifest in school and in part because academic initiatives that don’t address matters such as character traits of students often have not changed student outcomes very much.

A brief summary of the speakers comments:

Andre Perry. David N. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., expressed support for the need to address the social and emotional needs of students, but was very dubious of the success schools can have in low-income communities, specifically those that are predominantly African American, in increasing the upward mobility of students. He said that getting better at algebra is not working as a path to a better future for most black children in a place such as New Orleans, where Perry has been involved in education issues for many years. The broader realities of communities such as that, including racism by those holding real power, often make promises of education as a road to success “a farce,” Perry said.

Perry said much more needs to be done to develop communities and give black people the same tools for success that white people have. He downplayed the role of schools, saying, “Kids don’t live in schools. Schools reside in communities.” He also expressed concern that “most social and emotional systems essentially are teaching children how to adjust to broken systems.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, based in Washington, expressed skepticism that most social and emotional learning efforts were effective and concern that too many needs and services related to kids are being put in the laps of teachers who should be focusing primarily on teaching students to read, write, do math and meet other educational needs.

But Finn was more much more positive than Perry about the role that success in schools can play in giving young people from low-income backgrounds a chance at better lives. A college degree remains a valuable ticket to a better future, he said. And there are bright spots across the country when it comes to success in education for low-income students, Finn said.

Cynthia Ellwood, a professor in the College of Education at Marquette University, led a panel of educators who described what is being done in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin to better address the traumas and other issues that make it more difficult for many children to do well in school.

In addition to Ellwood, the participants were Karen Stoiber, professor of educational psychology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Beth Herman, project coordinator for Safe Schools Healthy Students, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; Kim Merath, social and emotional learning supervisor, Milwaukee Public Schools; and Suzanne Breslow, culture dean, for Milwaukee College Prep schools.

Ellwood asked why the social-emotional needs of children seem to be greater now than in the past. Panelists said one key reason is that many children, even in more well-to-do communities, do not have good connections with adults. In surveys of students, the number is sometimes over 50 percent for those who say they do not have an adult in their life they can turn to when they are having a problem. The impact of extensive use of tech devices such as smartphones may also be increasing social problems among kids, some said.

Panelists generally agreed that schools can have positive results from initiatives addressing social and emotional needs.

Video of the conference may be watched by clicking here. In broad terms, Perry speaks in the first 50 minutes, Finn in the next 45 minutes, the two of them speak together in the next 30 minutes, and the panel discussion covers the last 70 minutes.

In addition, an interview with Finn for the WUWM radio program “Lake Effect” may be heard by clicking here.

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