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Maine Education Chief: “Academic Learning” Takes Backseat to Social-Emotional, Gender, and Race

Maine News Wire | by Steve Robinson | March 15, 2023

“Academic learning is definitely going to take a backseat to all of these other pieces,” Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin told lawmakers Wednesday.

Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin (left) and Gov. Janet Mills (right)

Traditional academic learning — like reading, writing, and math — should be a lower priority in Maine schools than social-emotional learning and programming on race and gender, Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“Academic learning is definitely going to take a backseat to all of these other pieces,” Makin told lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Makin’s comments came amid a legislative hearing on the federal Department of Education’s recent threat to withhold Title 1A administrative funds due to issues with Maine’s student testing.

Near the end of the hearing, Republican lawmakers asked Makin about the tradeoffs that come when a school decides to focus on equity, diversity, gender theory, and social-emotional programming.

In response, Makin expressed the view that students are physiologically incapable of learning about math, reading, and writing unless teachers first address their social-emotional needs.

“I guess, I would say it really does come down to brain science,” Makin said.

“Every child in the room needs to feel safe. If one person doesn’t feel safe in the room, the children who feel pretty safe and sure about themselves feel less safe,” she said.

“Your child who is in a classroom who observes the marginalization or bullying or diminishing of another human being, that creates fear in the uninvolved child who is in that setting,” she said. “It creates conditions that are averse to the high academic goals that we set for our students.”

Education Commissioner Pender Makin

Makin, a former public school administrator, has served as Gov. Janet Mills’ Education Commissioner since 2019.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a controversial approach to childhood education that has been increasingly adopted by schools across the country.

Under SEL, school personnel become responsible for teaching children self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. That can include the value of shaking hands and making eye contact, conflict resolution, or listening to others and having empathy.

When implementing SEL, many domains previously thought to be the role of parents fall into the purview of educators, administrators, guidance counselors, social workers, and other school personnel.

“SEL Can Be Thought Of As Healthy Humaning,” the Maine DOE website says.

SEL is inextricably bound up in modern progressive theories about equity and gender are brought into public schools.

In Maine, education officials rely on the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS) to inform their approach to SEL, and they believe MIYHS data show bullying on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender is the top obstacle to making sure all students feel safe and succeed academically.

SEL is controversial because it serves as the vehicle for progressive theories about gender and race, sometimes described as “gender ideology” and “Critical Race Theory” (CRT).

On gender, this includes, for example, telling young students that there are dozens of potential gender identities they can choose from, that gender is a social construct unrelated to biological sex. It also includes telling students that sometimes doctors make a “mistake” when observing the gender of a newborn child, as was done through a now-deleted Maine DOE video.

For CRT, this includes, among other things, teaching students that white people have inherent privilege, while non-white students have inherent victimhood. CRT is also the driving force behind the “equity audits,” which more and more Maine schools have hired diversity consultants to perform.

In Makin’s view, adopting this politically charged approach to teaching in public schools is necessary in order to make all students feel safe enough to engage their prefrontal cortexes in academic learning. In the SEL framework, only by teaching these theoretical beliefs about gender and race can bullying be eliminated from the classroom.

For Sampson, the SEL approach is counterproductive and ultimately undermines academic learning.

“They’re turning teachers into psychologist and therapists,” Sampson said. “They’re making children anxious about gender and race when they’re emotionally immature and can’t handle this stuff.”

“You tell a child that they have white privilege, that they can be any gender they want, and the result is a confused, traumatized child who can’t learn the basics,” she said.

Rep. Sheila A. Lyman (R-Livermore Falls), a retired public school teacher, questioned whether the prioritization of social-emotional learning meant teachers would be assuming the role of parents.

“As a practitioner, I know the time restraints,” said Lyman. “I worked with many many children that had some huge social-emotional needs.”

“So I have an abundance of questions and potentially concerns when I hear you say that this may be the priority,” said Lyman.

“There’s a lot of concerned folks right now, with dealing with the academic piece, the social-emotional piece, what’s going to be the priority, where do parents get to weigh in, and how is it heard and listened to,” she said.

In response, Makin clarified her remarks about “academic learning” taking a “backseat” and provided lawmakers with a lesson in brain chemistry.

“I’m not saying we take over the parenting. I’m saying the brain will prioritize for us, and the learning won’t happen until those other pieces are in place, and we know that,” said Makin.

“When I said the priority: Our absolute goal, as a school system, a public let’s say Pre-K through 12 school education system, is to get kids academically and you know ready in all those different ways to enter the world and to be successful for their next step,” said Makin.

“The priorities, what I was trying to describe is, in the brain. The brain prioritizes for us. The brain will not learn the math or the reading or any of the other content areas when in dysregulated, coursing with cortisol and norepinephrine, it will — like the little editor in their head is going to get pushed out of its seat, and the dysregulation takes over,” she said.

“Learning won’t happen for the children until they are regulated,” she said. “So that’s the prioritization for us.”

Lawmakers also asked questions about the falling Maine student test scores — a measure of the quality of Maine’s schools.

Makin at first seemed to deny that Maine’s test scores have slipped in recent years.

“Why are we continuing to see this decline? Do you have any explanations for it?” asked Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred).https://rumble.com/embed/v2aoyc2/?pub=1hfsqm

“I don’t know that we in Maine are seeing a specific decline,” said Makin.

Last October, the release of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, showed sharp decreases in math and reading from 2019 to 2022, including reading scores at the lowest level in three decades.

[RELATED: Secret audio reveals Maine teacher ranting about politics, mocking Trump-supporting parents]

Makin said missing a year and a half of school during the government lockdowns, homelessness, substance use disorders, and generally heightened levels of anxiety have all contributed to the challenges Maine’s students and schools are confronting.

“What we are seeing is a huge increase in mental health,” she said. “We have a crisis of disengagement.”

Rep. Barbara Bagshaw (R-Windham) later pressed Makin on her claim that student test scores haven’t fallen in recent years.

“You don’t think our test scores are slipping?” asked Bagshaw.

“It depends which test scores,” said Makin.

She said Maine has seen lower test scores on the NAEP than in previous years, but she questioned whether high test scores should really be the goal anyways.

“At the end of the day, do we value high test scores above all else? And if we do, there is a guaranteed way that I could get our test scores moving forward. What we do is we teach to the test,” she said, adding that doing so could come at the expense of student creativity.

In response to the federal Department of Education’s threat to withhold money from MDOE over changes to student assessments, Makin assured the committee that her agency had responded appropriately and that the $117,000 in administrative funding under Title 1A funding was not at risk.

Makin’s view that traditional academic instruction must take a backseat to progressive ideas about social-emotional learning, race, and gender is diametrically opposed to what most Maine residents want from their public schools.

In a Maine Wire / Co/Efficient poll, bipartisan majorities said they wanted Maine’s public schools to get away from DEI and gender-based programing and focus more on the basics, like reading, math, writing, and science.

[RELATED: MAINE WIRE POLL: Most Maine Voters Say Schools Should Get “Back to Basics,” Ditch DEI and Gender Programming…]

77 percent of Maine voters said schools should be focused on the basics rather than spending time on how gender, sexuality, and race impact the lives of everyday Americans, including 91 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats in the poll.

Sampson, who has previously served on the Maine State Board of Education, said in a phone interview that giving traditional academic instruction a backseat in Maine schools would a recipe for disaster.

“Children are unable to learn in this type of environment,” she said. “That’s why test scores are down.”

“Commissioner Makin revealed her priorities, and they’re not the priorities Maine parents wants.”

Source: Maine Education Chief: “Academic Learning” Takes Backseat to Social-Emotional, Gender, and Race – The Maine Wire

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