UPDATE: On Sept. 9, 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools signed “Amendment 2,” a new agreement to pay $2,445,300 to Panorama Education to collect confidential data on “all” 180,000+ K-12 Fairfax County Public School children, a $599,640 increase over the already outrageous $1,845,660 contract inked on June 8, 2021. Read the update here.
Fairfax County Public Schools signed a $1.8 million contract with a company called Panorama Education to conduct a “social and emotional learning screener” on all the school district’s children.
Fairfax County has quietly detailed the “SEL Screener” on its website and provided an opt-out letter that parents and guardians can send the school district at this link. Several parents have reported to Parents Defending Education that they are getting confusing instructions, however, about where to submit the opt-out letter.
The new Fairfax County contract says Panorama Education will have access to 190,000 students including the identities of students and how they answer questions about what they “think and feel.” In its Sept. 14, 2020, Request for Proposal, the school district says “schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S.” (page 4, section 5.6)
According to a sample of questions provided by the school district, the questions cover a range of intimate topics, asking, for example:
- “How confident are you that students at your school can have honest conversations with each other about race?”
- “How often do you think about what someone of a different race, ethnicity, or culture experiences?”
- “During the past week, how often did you feel sad?”
According to the five-year “acceptance agreement,” contract No. 44000010525, dated June 8, 2021, the pricing schedule includes five annual payments with three optional one-year extensions:
- Year 1: $89,300 for “screening” and “interventions,” reaching 38,000 students
- Year 2: $278,540 for “screening,” “diagnostic,” “problem management” and “interventions” reaching 38,000 and “screening” and “interventions” for another 76,000 students
- Year 3: $478,420 — a battery of activity for 190,000 students
- Year 4: $499,700 — the full battery of activity for 190,000 students
- Year 5: $499,700 — the full battery of activity again for 190,000 students
The request for proposal for a “Social Emotional Learning Universal Screener” included “social and emotional learning” and “all related services.” The school district cast the request as a competitive bidding process but it isn’t clear if other proposals were submitted. The school district has the documents from this contract uploaded at this link.
According to the request for proposal:
“Research shows that when schools embed SEL into the school day with fidelity, it improves children’s lives, the culture of the school, and teacher well-being. Schools report increased academic success, enriched relationships between teachers and students, and decreases in aggression. Students’ mental health improves, and they are more likely to become caring family members, innovative workers, ethical leaders, and engaged citizens. A universal screener for social and emotional learning enables school staff to proactively identify and address the social and emotional needs of their students, which can help to promote these positive outcomes.” (Page 4, 5.7)
In Addendum No. 1, dated Oct. 2, 2020, to the request for proposals, Fairfax County Public Schools received a question, asking: “Does FCPS have a specific set of SEL Competency Standards that guide instruction?”
The school district responded: “Not at this time. There [sic] work is in progress.”
“Key Skills” required in the contract include aligning the survey work with the standards set by a Chicago-based consulting company, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, that has built a big business selling “social and emotional learning” services to school districts.
The contract says:
“Describe how the screener and diagnostic assessments measure the indicated CASEL-aligned SEL competencies at each grade level and tier assessed.”
According to CASEL, “SEL is implemented with an explicit goal of promoting educational equity.” To most education activists, “equity” translates into equal outcomes.
The Social Emotional Learning Screener will also collect “psychometrics” for students in grades K-12. Parents are particularly concerned how children in grade K-3 will answer complex mental wellness questions that they are unlikely to understand.
According to an email that a concerned parent received from an administrator’s office within Fairfax County Public Schools:
“FCPS is committed to supporting the well-being of all students, building caring school cultures that foster mental wellness. In support of this commitment, FCPS students in all grades will have the opportunity to participate in an SEL Screener beginning in Fall 2021. The SEL screener allows staff to gather information regarding student strengths and needs, thereby enhancing programming for schools, classrooms, and individual students.
“Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to 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 (CASEL, 2020).”
“SEL skills include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These skills are important for collaboration and perspective taking. They help students manage their feelings, address challenges, and reach their goals.”
“The screener collects valuable information regarding students’ SEL skills, their supports and school environment, and well-being. Screener results are used with other information to support students academically and personally. Results will be shared with parents and guardians following each assessment window. These assessments results are treated with regards to confidentiality in the same manner as academic assessments.”
“Schools will be reaching out to their communities with additional information in the coming weeks. For more, please see https://www.fcps.edu/node/43892.”
‘Half and half’ about ‘making business’
The “Screener” raises concerns among parents, particularly in light of comments that cofounder Aaron Feuer gave in 2013, as the company launched. To a question about whether investors were focused on “making money” or “improving schools,” Feuer stated that companies are “roughly half and half” about seeing schools as a “strong market to invest in” and “a really great place to make a difference.”
In some cases, we do link individual students with responses as a way of doing the analytics on the backend but we never report back to a school how any particular person responds.
Could you make a guess about the people that gave you money? Were they, interested in, you know, making money? Or are they interested in improving schools? What’s the motivation of a venture fund?
They’re just crazy about it.
It was a mix. So to answer, our lead investors, so one was Mark Zuckerberg who wanted to make a difference in schools and one was SoftTechVC. One was SoftTechTV, which is a traditional, like, micro VC in silicon valley.
Like, Google Ventures was involved. I don’t know if that was a social mission. So roughly half and half. I would say half who see this as a strong market to invest in and half who see this as a really great place to make a difference.
Additional questions that Panorama Education asks in its “Universal Screener” include:
- “If you fail at an important goal, how likely are you to try again?”
- “When things go wrong for you, how calm are you able to stay?”
- “During the past 30 days, how much did you care about other people’s feelings?”
- “How often are you able to pull yourself out of a bad mood?”
- “How often are you able to control your emotions when you need to?”
- “During the past 30 days, how carefully did you listen to other people’s points of view?”
- “During the past 30 days, to what extent were you able to disagree with others without starting an argument?”
- “How useful do you think school will be to you in the future?”
- “Do you have a friend from school who you can count on to help you, no matter what?”
- “How connected do you feel to the adults at your school?”
- “Overall, how much do you feel like you belong at your school?”
- “Do you have a teacher or other adult from school who you can count on to help you, no matter what?”
- “During the past week, how often did you feel worried?”
- “During the past week, how often did you feel hopeful?”
- “During the past week, how often did you feel sad?”
- “During the past week, how often did you feel happy?”
The school district raised controversy this spring when it surprised parents with a “Anti-Racism Anti-Racism, Anti-Bias Curriculum Policy Survey” co-written by another out-of-state consulting firm, Leadership Academy, that was paid $49,600 to do the survey, which Parents Defending Education chronicled at this link. Before the results were even collected, the school district had signed a four-year contract in March 2021 for Leadership Academy to host “professional development” that could cost the school district $702,700.00 if it just commissioned basic services.
Parents and community members sent letters to the school district through Parents Defending Education, expressing their concerns. The school district has not publicly addressed the concerns of the parents. Also, the school district has yet to offer an opportunity for community engagement regarding the “SEL Screener” before inking the $1.8 million contract with Panorama Education.