What Florida won't teach its kids

Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis addresses attendees on day one of the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis addresses attendees on day one of the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

State board of education officials in Florida are facing a grave conundrum: How can they defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’s political demagoguery, and still keep their jobs?

The answer became obvious this week: They can’t. At least not without distorting valid educational objectives and repressing, to use their own chilling language, “prohibited topics.”

DeSantis has had lots of ideas in the last couple of years about education in Florida. He threatened to remove elected school district officials who refused to comply with the ban on mask mandates during COVID’s peak. That was after banning the (non-existent) teaching of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in public schools. He also mandated instruction on “the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies” during government class. Now DeSantis -- who’s working hard to out-trump Trump -- has found a new target in his escalating culture war: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

That’s why Florida’s department of education announced in the ominously triumphant press release titled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students,” that they were rejecting 54 of 132 math textbooks publishers had submitted for their consideration. Why? Because the books:

... were impermissible with either Florida’s new standards or contained prohibited topics – the most in Florida’s history. Reasons for rejecting textbooks included references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core, and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.

What is SEL exactly? According to the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the non-profit educational foundation that developed the SEL framework, it is intended to help students "develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” SEL emphasizes five basic competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship building.

Scary stuff, right?

Not if you care about academic performance and long-term results.  Research involving more than 270,000 students found that “SEL interventions that address the five core competencies increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, compared to students who did not participate.”  What’s more, “… early social and emotional skills development helped to reduce societal costs required for public assistance, public housing, police involvement, and detention.”

Never mind that SEL is what Republicans used to call “character building.” This approach is now deeply objectionable if you are a right-wing activist like Chris Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who believes that the real agenda of SEL is “to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.”

In the wake of widespread incredulity and confusion among teachers and administrators, Florida’s education department released four images from some of the rejected math textbooks — images they said were illustrative references to critical race theory or other "prohibited" topics.

Many of the 21 rejected text books analyzed by the New York Times contained imagery of Black and brown children offering creative problem-solving advice. Women and people of color are prominently featured among the mini-biographies of notable mathematicians — a smart idea of your goal is to make STEM education more accessible, and STEM careers more imaginable to kids who have historically had few role models to emulate.

These pictures don’t indoctrinate children into left-wing ideology. But repressing them is a poorly disguised attempt to propagate the opposite. One picture that was clearly intended to be most damning showed two bar charts containing data from the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that measures racial prejudice, along with the formulae used to analyze the data.

In use since 1998, the IAT was designed to measure the stereotypes that we associate, not just with people of different races and ethnicities, but of different ages, genders, sexual orientations and body size. Specifically, it’s intended to identify the beliefs we have that we are either unwilling to acknowledge for fear of being judged, or more often, unable to report because they are automatic and unconscious.

As Project Implicit explains it:

The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.

What greater evidence can there be of implicit bias than the refusal to examine it?

While there is academic debate about the predictive validity of this approach the IAT, few intellectually honest people would deny that they harbor at least some stereotypes and biases, even as they try to unlearn and reject them. But intellectual honesty is the last thing on the mind of the Florida Board of Education.

No, what they are trying to combat – consciously or not – is insight, empathy, and a more complete knowledge of history.

In most European countries, Holocaust education is compulsory in the public schools. Children typically between the ages of 12 and 16 are taught not just about the Nazi genocide of Jews, Roma people and gay people during World War II, but about the complicity of previous generations and governments in enabling it. What educators fear is not that knowledge of history will traumatize or induce guilt in the children they’re teaching, but rather, that ignorance will lead to a repetition of it.

Two weeks before Holocaust Remembrance Day in the United States, Ron DeSantis signed a bill mandating that students or employees cannot be told that they "must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin."

If there is danger in the action of educators, this is where it’s lurking.

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Headshot of Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”



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