Note: This content was originally hosted at nobbs4ccs.com during the 2022 CCS school board election.
The Brake, Brown & Sharp campaign has leaned hard into trying to scare people not currently engaged with the school system. Sometimes, that has involved what I consider to be lies, where they state as fact claims that either can be disproven or cannot be proven nor disproven. Other times, they present data selectively, omit important details or organize it in such a way that supports their claim.
This article deals primarily with information about the school system’s focus on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). The Brake, Brown & Sharp campaign has repeatedly claimed that CCS has lost academic focus due to these topics, and we’ll be looking specifically at that claim. They have also spread misinformation about what those topics entail, but that will be more thoroughly addressed separately down the road.
That CCS has lost its academic focus and is spending too much time on SEL and DEI. This claim usually is made or accompanied by a chart showing the number of initiatives in CCS schools’ state-mandated action plans, organized by category. These charts lump SEL and DEI together. Usually they include data from the entire school system. Other times the campaign uses data from a single school, presumably because it looks more dramatic.
The Short Response
To start, the state has not made 2021 school plans available, so the data on initiatives is somewhat out-of-date, coming from September 2020.
Additionally, reading the actual initiatives reveals that most of the ones categorized as SEL or DEI relate to staff training and/or have no perceivable negative effect on how academics are taught or how much time is spent on them. If anything, based on reviewing the initiatives and my personal experience within the school system, I would say many or most of the SEL initiatives in particular actually increase both the time allotted to academics and the effectiveness of that time.
It should also be noted that some of the initiatives categorized as SEL or DEI describe actions that ensure compliance with state law.
Finally, since SEL and DEI are separate, distinct things, the way the campaign lumps them together on charts is deceptive.
The Long Response
While we’re not going to take a deep dive into how the BBS campaign has represented SEL and DEI in this article, I do think it’s important to have a baseline understanding of how CCS defines them. These are taken directly from the CCS website, which is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the school system.
Social-Emotional Learning is the process through which children and adults understand and regulate emotions, set positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions on a developmentally appropriate continuum.
Social-Emotional Learning is a skill-based method to help students be successful in school and beyond.
We are committed to educating our students to be citizens in a diverse and inclusive global community. Our students will develop empathy, respect for, and an understanding of those with backgrounds and perspectives different from their own while also learning to advocate for themselves and others. Our school community is committed to ongoing dialogue, education, and reflection to develop the understanding and inclusion of every member.
Context is Important
For some reason, the state has not yet made available 2021 plans, so the data the BBS campaign and this article reference is from September 2020. This is vital context.
As most will recall, schools were dealing with a lot in September 2020. The previous school year had abruptly ended in-person learning and the new year had just begun with an unpredictable hybrid mix of online and in-person class. This created a host of significant challenges for teachers and students.
Given the upheaval our children were facing and the fact that SEL imparts skills to help them get through such challenging times, it would be bizarre to see schools with ample resources that weren’t focused on SEL.
Early on in the pandemic, the NEA posted this article where experts stressed the increased importance of SEL during the pandemic. You can Google combinations of ‘social emotional learning’ paired with ‘covid’, ‘pandemic’ or ‘remote learning’ for dozens more such articles from experts and researchers.
Generally speaking, any school board candidate who says CCS had ‘too much’ focus on SEL in September 2020 strikes me as either having an extremely short memory or taking a fairly out-there position.
Furthermore, critical initiatives focus on areas where a school has determined a potential for improvement. It is to be expected that a school system consistently in the top 1% of the state will be able to focus on a higher level of student development. We see this all the time in other areas of life.
A good coach will have an athlete who's mastered the fundamentals of his sport working on different aspects of his performance compared to an athlete who is struggling. That approach improves the overall performance of the top athlete, not harms it.
Similarly, an efficient company with stable profit margins will be able to focus on aspects of its business that would be considered a luxury to a competitor with low efficiency and unpredictable profitability. That does not mean that the better performing company decides to abandon efficiency, merely that it is in the enviable position of being able to focus on other areas, with the goal of increasing its performance to an even higher level.
Our Schools' Focus is Not a Zero-Sum Game
The model of a zero-sum game offers appeal in its simplicity: a gain must be matched by a corresponding loss. For every dollar you win at poker, someone else at the table loses one. For every point of market share one company grows, some combination of its competitors collectively lose a point. It’s quick to grasp, easy to apply and pretty much irrelevant to the topic at hand.
The way BBS presents data on school initiatives, a reasonable person could easily come away thinking that every SEL or DEI initiative represents classroom time that’s being taken from another topic. More specifically, as I believe they want people to assume, an academic topic. That’s simply not the case.
Most of the SEL and DEI initiatives pertain to staff training. In other words, they have little to nothing to do with what’s being taught, but merely seek to make teachers more effective in their methods of teaching.
I’m not asking you take my word for this. I like transparency and would prefer everyone read the initiatives for themselves. I’ve compiled them by school and category into an Excel spreadsheet that you can download here.
Also, if you’d like more detail on specific school or initiative, the full plans can be downloaded here. Just search for the name of the specific school you want to view. From the page for that school, select ‘Plans’ from the ‘About the school’ dropdown menu.
While we’ll save more extensive detail for other articles, it’s relevant to mention that research has shown that both SEL and DEI positively impact academic outcomes. To offer an analogy derived from observing my kids’ experience with SEL, think about when you’re putting in a full day of work. You’re not going at the same pace the whole time. You recognize when your mind or body need a break and you take one, whether that’s a cup of coffee, chatting with a colleague or whatever recharges you. When you come back, you’re more productive than you would’ve been without it. Much of what CCS does with SEL, certainly at the elementary school level, involves teachers being cognizant of where individual kids and the class as a whole are at, so that they can pace the day to help maximize learning and minimize disruptions.
Lastly, if you do take the time to download and review the full list of initiatives, you’ll see that some of them either directly or indirectly ensure compliance with Indiana state law. For more info on the aspects of SEL that are required by Indiana law, the state has a succinct FAQ available here.
There's More Than One Way to Chart Data
Let’s take a look at some factually accurate charts derived from the plan initiatives.
Here’s one for DEI vs Non-DEI initiatives. It doesn’t look like DEI is quite the dominating force BBS portrays it as, does it?
Here’s another DEI one, showing how many schools in the system have more than one, one or zero DEI initiatives.
Weird, right? Half the schools have no DEI initiative and only three of them have more than one? That’s not what we’d expect based on BBS messaging.
The point is, data can often be presented to make a specific point. If you’ve followed the BBS campaign, you’ve likely seen their versions of these charts. The most common one has one big column that combines SEL and DEI initiatives, followed by smaller columns for the other categories.
Before the campaign of transparency and parents’ rights blocked me from their page and declared that I wasn’t a real person and parent, I asked Greg Brown why they chose to combine SEL and DEI. I’m paraphrasing from memory since their campaign later deleted the conversation, but his reply was along the lines of them considering SEL and DEI to be non-academic topics, while the rest were academic.
I pointed out that I felt SEL and DEI were more closely entwined with academics than he was claiming, but if the campaign believed they truly were separate, there were two more honest, less biased ways to chart the data.
First, they could keep all of the categories separate.
Or, they could lump what they defined as ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ together for what would be, under their logic, a more apples-to-apples comparison.
Note, Mr. Brown didn’t reply to that suggestion and the campaign seems not to have taken it. I’m not surprised, as it seems to me that the campaign’s position on transparency is a mere talking point rather than a commitment to any sort of discernable action.
Finally, I’m including below a series of charts that I personally find to be the most transparent. They break down initiatives by school level.
To me, these reflect what I would generally expect to see, given my research, experiences as a parent and layman’s knowledge of SEL, DEI, education in general and CCS. That is, they indicate a very high focus on academics in elementary school, followed by increasingly larger focuses on softer skills as our kids get into the upper grades. Of course, this is coupled with high focus on SEL across the board, both due to these plans being developed during the pandemic, and the fact that SEL improves learning at younger ages and prepares teenagers for life beyond high school. Also, keep in mind that these initiatives are building on what's already a top-performing school district, not outlining where the focus would be for a district starting from scratch.
Some Closing Thoughts
I think the above speaks for itself, but would like to add this: If you’re a Carmel citizen who doesn’t currently have kids in the school system and wants to evaluate BBS’s claims or what I’ve written here, please talk to some parents around you. I’m positive not all families’ experiences are identical, but I think the vast majority of parents would disagree with how the BBS campaign is portraying our schools and these topics.