Controversial Florida math textbook ignites social-emotional learning debate

A McGraw Hill fourth grade math textbook in Florida was criticized for including emotionally based questions

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Critics sounded off on a math textbook in Collier County, Florida, approved by the school board that appeared to include emotionally based questions that appeared to have nothing to do with numbers or equations.

Included in a McGraw Hill fourth grade-math textbook are questions such as, "What are some ways you can connect with your classmates?" and "What behaviors show that you respect your classmates?" Gayle Repetto from Collier County in southwest Florida argued the inquiries were out of place. 

"They have different areas of respect and community culture and working together in a safe environment," Repetto said. "And that really doesn’t have anything to do with math." 

A December report from McKinsey & Company estimated that students fell behind an average of three months on math and one and a half months on reading after prolonged school closings.

A December report from McKinsey & Company estimated that students fell behind an average of three months on math and one and a half months on reading after prolonged school closings. (iStock)

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Fox News contributor Karol Markowicz knocked the book materials as "woke nonsense." 

"Parents need to understand that woke nonsense is creeping into their kids' education in a variety of ways," she told Fox News Digital. "It won't always be obvious. Social Emotional Learning sounds good but is just another way of taking academics out of the classroom and replacing it with something else."

The school board unanimously approved the textbook, with one school board member, Erick Carter, arguing that having students talk about their emotions in the classroom can help them better understand one another or look for warning signs, especially in light of recent school shootings.

"We have to find a place to start asking these questions! And, if we don’t, we are not going to solve the violent problems we have going on and our emotional issues that we’re having with our children. These questions have to be asked," Carter said. 

Students work out math problems during a class for Hispanic adults, Wednesday, March 16, 2005, at Cary High School in Cary, N.C. (AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker)

Students work out math problems during a class for Hispanic adults, Wednesday, March 16, 2005, at Cary High School in Cary, N.C. (AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker) ((AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker))

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The Florida Freedom to Read Project also approved the books, saying the office of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other groups were using "false assertions" against textbooks "to help push their narrative of ‘woke liberal indoctrination’ happening in the schools without ever being asked to provide actual proof." The group also credited SEL as being an important tool for students, particularly in the wake of two years of disrupted learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As for SEL, most parents understand that the application of mathematics has a social component to it: problem solving, statistics, and budgeting all require an individual to utilize effective communication skills," Stephana Ferrell of the Florida Freedom to Read Project told Fox News Digital. "Additionally, the last two years have set our children back in terms of social-emotional learning, and utilizing every opportunity to grow those skills while also learning a necessary subject is an effective use of student time."

Classroom with empty wooden desks. (iStock)

Classroom with empty wooden desks. (iStock) (iStock)

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Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a nationwide debate in recent months. SEL is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success, according to a description from the Committee for Children. The group argues that "people with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially."

And the debate is hardly limited to a math textbook in Florida. Critics hit the Virginia Department of Education for releasing draft social and emotional learning standards that include statements that students could presumably make about themselves at certain grade levels. Many of them cover things like "bias" or identities in ways that reflect rhetoric in controversial diversity trainings.

One read: "I can understand that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and influence my decisions."

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane defended the proposals in a statement.    

"By incorporating social emotional learning into Virginia public education, we are providing students practices ... to ensure readiness for college and workforce," he said. "This entails providing every student with the knowledge and skills he or she needs to succeed after graduation. We seek to extend the vision of social emotional learning in early childhood to PK-12, so that all students benefit from a positive, interactive and engaging environment." 

President Biden proclaimed an "International Social Emotional Learning Day" in March, dividing parents and education activists. 

"Schools should be focused on teaching children core curriculum and not on asking intrusive questions that have nothing to do with core subjects," Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neilly told Fox News Digital. "Injecting Social Emotional Learning into math class not only distracts from teaching students the basics, but it also undermines the program's purpose - because higher self-esteem is a direct result of subject mastery."

The Collier County school district denied that the approved math textbook material was related to social-emotional learning in a statement to Fox News Digital.  

"The K-5 mathematics instructional materials selected by the CCPS K-5 Mathematics Instructional Materials Review Committee were approved by the Florida Department of Education and are on the official state adopted list," the statement read. "Several community members that objected to the K-5 math instructional materials alleged that questions included in the textbooks were related to social emotional learning. However, evidence presented during the hearing refuted that allegation and demonstrated how the questions align to Florida’s B.E.S.T. Standards for Mathematics."