The Contribution of Whole Child Mania to the Fog of Education

Families and children want their teachers to treat them well, respect them, and to give them voice within the classroom. They want their teachers to know academic content and to be able to teach it to them well.  In other words, they want schools to prepare them for future success in college and career.  The goals of all schools are to prepare all students for academic success and for future success in college and career. A secondary goal of the education system is to prepare all students to be knowledgeable and active citizens.  Yet many school districts are still not up for this important task yet.  Three years of math data from my home district San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) demonstrate that only 36% of 11th graders meet or exceed math standards in 2017 and a paltry 3% of 11th grade English Learners meet or exceed the math standards.


Figure 1

Only 40% of American 4th graders score proficient or better on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Math test and only 1/3 of 8th graders are proficient or better.  The Program for International Assessment (PISA) results from 2015, placed the U.S. at an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science

Of course, dismal academic achievement results should induce the passion to take action to improve student academic achievement.  Educators should review and improve curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.  However, that is often not what happens within the fog of education.  For the most part school districts redirect their focus from academic achievement to a the softer social-emotional skills such as those defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) such as self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.  While these skills are important, they represent means and not ends toward a school district’s main mission of supporting student academic achievement and civic knowledge.

The over-emphasis on the softer skills in my view represents a trend toward an imbalance in educational aims within American K-12 education away from academic achievement toward a focus on softer social skills improvement for students. The current trend toward whole child and social-emotional well-being draws attention and resources away from the main event for K-12 education: the academic achievement of all students.  Key issues with this whole child misdirection include:

  • Recognition that social-emotional skills are important but they are means to an end and should be incorporated seamlessly into curriculum.
  • Diminution of the importance of competition as a valid skill that can contribute to academic achievement.
  • Diffusion of resources and effort away from the primary mission of schools: student academic achievement
  • Usurpation of the role of parents in supporting the social-emotional development of their own children

I first encountered this new-found enchantment with social-emotional skills as a Senior Associate for Performance Fact, Inc. Our team used an outstanding system for engaging school districts in strategic planning that began with an in-depth inquiry with the students to find out what was important to them in their education.  The students were lucid and insightful in their expectations. They wanted their teachers to treat them with respect and to give them voice in the classroom. They wanted their teachers to know their content and to teach them well. Of course, they also wanted more recess time!

However, we often found different a different focus when we addressed what should be the key goals of the School District strategic plan with district-wide stakeholders.  We would provide them with 18 possible key goals to wrestle with.  Some of these goals included a variety of permutations of the social-emotional theme of whole child that would resonate well with the adults.  The goal of Mastery of Core Subjects often was frequently not selected as a goal.  Imagine that!    Adults would often say that they did not select it as a goal because it was a foregone conclusion that the school district would of course support the academic achievement of all students. And this would occur even after the review of academic achievement data that was color coded and appeared red due to low achievement rates!  Mind-boggling.  In one school district, the students on the Core Planning Team formed an ad-hoc team and drafted their own strategic plan that re-inserted emphasis on academic achievement that was eventually adopted by the whole strategic planning team.

Of course, this wandering about in the fog of education does not afflict all school districts!  I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. John Conyers of Community Consolidated School District 15 in the late 1990s.  The administration and community maintained a focus on academic achievement for of all of its students.  Strategic planning and implementation carefully aligned student academic goals with curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.  Importantly professional practices were clearly identified and implemented and monitored system-wide.

For example, we identified the use of cognitive mapping as a key system-wide professional practice.  All levels of the system routinely used cognitive mapping from individual students, to classrooms, to schools, and the district administration.  Our system-wide efforts to continuously improve our curriculum, professional practices, and assessments bore fruit in outstanding student performance.  Our community was the first school district in the nation to apply for and win a coveted Baldrige Award.  We were not afraid to take a muscular approach to student achievement while also fostering a spirit of joie de vivre! We did not ignore social-emotional skills but rather embedded these skills seamlessly within he curriculum in order not to become sidetracked by an over-emphasis on educational fads like social-emotional learning.

Like a Mandelbrot set, one can find the self-similar artifacts of this over-emphasis on whole child at multiple levels within school districts.  As part of a federal grant called NASA Liftoff, I had the opportunity to coach high school science teachers in Santa Clara County.  One of the high school science teacher was unfortunately boring students with a review of test items from the State Science Practice Test during one of my visits. I pulled the teacher aside and asked her if there was some actual science content that she wanted her students to know.  She told me that they were focused on a math standard of Ratio and Proportion. (A seventh-grade standard).

I told the teacher that mindlessly reviewing state test items was a useless exercise. In order to model good professional teaching practice for the teacher, I provided each of the students with a square of window screening material and a ruler. I challenged the class to plan for the production of a larger screen that would have 1 million openings.  The students took on this proportional reasoning challenge. One student began to shed a tear as she looked forlornly at the small square.  The teacher wanted to immediately go to the student and give her some solace and the solution in order to protect her from any possible stress. I told the teacher to hold off for a few moments before we went over to support the student.

A little stress can enhance learning.  After a few moments, I asked the student about her plan. She looked up at me and told me that she was going to fail this assignment. I told her that in reality, she was actually failing the assignment in the moment!  But I told her that a little failure was good and that we could work together to find a solution.  It turns out that most students in the class were not able to apply the seventh-grade math standard to solve the problem so I initiated a lesson using the powerful instructional technique of Explicit Instruction.

This story highlights how an over-emphasis on social skills and the protection of students from all forms of stress are evident within classrooms. Teachers sometimes want to protect students from any and all stress, when in reality some moderate stress is required for all learning.  Additionally, the focus on academic achievement does not mean that teachers have to become drill sergeants imposing harsh instructional techniques on students. Curriculum, teaching practices, and assessments can be engaging and interesting and yet still focus on the ultimate achievement of learning targets that will advance student academic achievement.

I really experienced the extreme of feel good social emotional skills at the classroom level when I read an article in Education Week entitled Why we need Hygge Classrooms in America by Nancy Flanagan.  The article promoted the Icelandic inspired idea called Hygge or working extra hard to make children feel very comfortable in classrooms with endless supplies of hot chocolate and a multiplicity of bean bag chairs to relax on!  While advocating for the idea of Hygge in American schools, we will need to face the inconvenient truth that American students are being shortchanged on what really counts – a rigorous academic-focused education that prepares them for college and career. We rage against the thermometers of standardized tests which validly and reliably point to an undeniable truth that for example based upon the NAEP Math test only about 1/3 of our 8th grade students are proficient in math. While students of color, students in poverty, and students with disabilities are being shortchanged even more with the soft racism of low expectations.

Never mind all of this focus on the expectation for academic achievement for all students though. Let’s continue to promote Hygge and encourage our students to sit on bean bag chairs, sipping hot cocoa, and listening to stories as their academic preparation deteriorates and they comfortably coast to a life of service work at Walmart while living in an RV in the Walmart parking lot.

The over-emphasis on whole child also afflicts the work at the District Level.  Districts like to craft strategic plans that focus on the soft goals of whole child and social emotional well-being while ignoring their main mission of supporting academic achievement for all students.  Additionally, district administrators move away from resources and tools that would provide them with a big picture of student academic achievement and implementation of professional practices.

There is currently a strong rage against the thermometers of academic achievement such as State tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  One district administrator at Santa Clara Unified School district once had the temerity to tell me that we were really not a State Test kind of school district!  During a strategic planning meeting in a suburb of Seattle, the union representative called me over to inform met that the Core Planning Team’s idea to engage parents in two meetings annually to review student academic achievement would never fly as the Union contract guaranteed only one parent meeting per year.  When I brought this challenge of the will of the team to the Superintendent, she told me that she would take care of it.  I will let you guess how many parent academic achievement meetings were incorporated into the strategic plan. Hint: it is less than two.

School districts are also reluctant to publish and use data visualizations that would illuminate student academic achievement or in the case of English Learners, English Language acquisition.  Of course, there is no publication of professional practices data. The state is often complicit in this obfuscation by communicating data in ways that are not easy to interpret. Within California, the State Board has built a color-coded Academic Achievement Dashboard that uses a convoluted methodology to inaccurately represent student achievement and fails to include high school student achievement.  This system provides excellent cover for school districts who want more focus on the whole child.

In response, to a paucity of data visualizations that would help the community better understand and react to student academic achievement, I built a web site called the School Improvement Big Picture, where I created 3 years’ worth of data visualizations for all for all of the school districts in Silicon Valley for all key subgroups by grade and by year as well as by year and by grade in Math and English Language Arts. In conjunction with the Summer Olympics, I also created an Academic Olympics for Santa Clara County where everyone could celebrate the academic performance and improvement of our school districts.  You can see the fruits of this work at

I thought that it would be a good idea to create large laminated posters of this work to share with the School Board and Community at a recent Board meeting. Prior to the meeting, community members viewed and discussed both the Academic Olympic Awards as the overall and subgroup performance of the district in Math on State Tests.  One of the district administrators entered the room and immediately banished me to the outside using abusive language. District Administrators in my home district of San Jose do not practice the soft skills that they expect their students to learn and use.  I was not surprised.

English Learners and their families fall victim to the new infatuation with the soft whole child educational goals and processes.  In SJUSD, the administration places students in Dual Immersion programs where English Learners and White students can learn both English and Spanish together at the same time.  Unfortunately, during the first year of the program, teachers spend over 80% of their time speaking Spanish to the students.  This deference to EL students’ first language can result in 6-8 years of participation in the dual language English Language programs where their access to grade level academic content is severely restricted. Rather than promoting a more muscular and intensive system to immerse English Learners in English, SJUSD pursues a gentle but ultimately harmful approach to the intensive need for our English Learners to acquire English.

The over-protective orientation of school districts also affects Early Learning especially in the academic area of reading.  Only about one-half of third grade students in SJUSD meet or exceed reading standards as measured by the 2017 State Test.  The National Reading Panel in 2000 reported that there are five essential components that are required for early reading success and these include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  Many are now trying to discredit this report by saying that it is “old.”    Yet the finding of the National Reading Panel continues to hold up and have strong validity and value.

There are a variety of diagnostic reading assessments that school districts can and should use to continuously monitor student progress in the five key areas of early reading but in their approach to protecting young students at any cost, educators are reticent to use the assessments that would give them the diagnostic information that they could use to monitor and intervene to improve young students (grades K-3) in the understanding and performance in these key areas.  Additionally, it would be important for the community to see summary reports of student performance in the five key areas of early reading as a strong accountability measure.  But of course, our “Eyes on Print” educators are more likely to hide behind reading platitudes rather than address and use the science of Early Reading.

School governance plays a key role in the over-emphasis on social-emotional skills within our school districts and they contribute to deepening the fog of education.  School Boards must demand that the superintendents that they hire provide them with plans for systemic approaches to the development of rigorous academic achievement-oriented goals, high quality curriculum that includes the incorporation of social-emotional skills, research-based professional practices, and effective formative and summative assessments. School boards often do not make these expectations clear to their superintendents and then fail to adequately monitor and evaluate both student achievement or the implementation of professional practices. They succumb to special case presentations made by district administrators. These presentations inflate Scnool Board member egos rather than demand the ongoing presentation of systemic data about the effectiveness of the implementation of curriculum, professional practices, and assessments in conjunction with a careful review of systemic student outcomes.

The current zeitgeist of over-emphasis on soft social skills in K-12 Education is a strong contributor to the smothering fog of education.  We need a more muscular approach to a renewed focus on the academic achievement for all of our students. That focus in no way means that we should become drill sergeants of student education or become places where the joy of learning ends for our students. We can do both. We can ensure that our students are safe and that their social and emotional needs are taken care of by embedding social-emotional and whole child skills within the curriculum used to advance our students’ academic achievement.

There are many other factors that contribute to the fog of education besides over the top emphasis on social-emotional skills. I look forward to sharing these elements in future articles.


California School Dashboard.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Community Consolidated School District 15.

Data Visualizations for Santa Clara County School Districts. School Improvement Big Picture Web site.

Flanagan, Nancy. Why We Need Hygge Classroom in America. Education Week. December, 2017.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Program for International Student Assessment. (PISA)

Report of the National Reading Panel.

Sanders, Robert. Researchers find out why some stress is good for you. Berkeley News. 2013.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Smarter Balanced Assessment


Dr. Bill Conrad

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