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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Cult-Like Social-Emotional Learning? Questioning Valor Charters and Powered by Compass

How many hours during the school day should students reflect upon how they think and act? Valor Collegiate Charter Schools focus heavily on social-emotional learning (SEL). They aggressively market their program Powered by Compass to schools. Students gather in circles to contemplate their lives and analyze their behavior.

Valor’s philanthropic partners include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, New Schools Venture Fund, The City Fund, Walton Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and more.

It’s essential to review Valor because SEL is trendy in charter and public schools, with behavior and character education seeming to take greater precedence than academics.

According to Powered by Compass, Seventy-seven schools use Powered by Compass, and they claim 30,000 students have been affected.

SEL isn’t about students who legitimately face emotional and behavioral difficulties, including trauma, who need well-prepared professionals, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists to help them climb over their hurdles.

SEL has become a big part of the curriculum for all students and even teachers. There’s a fine line between helping students with stress, and an obsession with shaping student behavior, also linked with words describing social justice and equity, so it’s critical to weed out the meaning of SEL practices.

There’s little indication that all of these individuals have the necessary credentials to be carrying out such sensitive emotional and behavioral programs.

In 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and Charter School Growth Fund provided funding to Valor to codify and share their Compass work.

They say science backs up this approach, but it isn’t clear what that science is.

Valor models its academic programs after Chan/Zuckerberg Summit Public Schools, and also Uncommon Schools, and the Denver Schools of Science and Technology. All are charter schools.

In 2020, the National Education Policy Center raised questions about Summit in Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Platforms.

Our review of Summit partner school contracts suggests that student data collected by the Summit Learning Platform under the terms of those contracts presents a potentially significant risk to student privacy and opens the door to the exploitation of those data by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and possibly by unknown third parties—for purposes that have nothing to do with improving the quality of those students’ educations.

Virtual education and personalized learning are at the top of the education reform agenda in large measure because of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and advocacy by philanthropic organizations (e.g., the Gates Foundation), large digital platforms (e.g., Facebook and Google), and venture capitalists anxious to access the school market. The COVID-19 pandemic has turbo-charged these efforts, as schools across the country are struggling to find safe ways to educate their students.

The rapid spread of the Summit Learning Program—despite a lack of transparency and the absence of convincing evidence that it can deliver on its promises—provides a powerful example of how policymakers are challenged when faced with a well-financed and self-interested push for schools to adopt digital personalized learning programs. There is now an urgent need for policymakers to move quickly to protect the public interest by establishing oversight and accountability mechanisms related to digital platforms and personalized learning programs.

Uncommon schools also faced controversy in 2020 for student strictness described in ‘It was like a horror movie’ – Staff and students criticize charter network’s rigid education model.

At Valor, students work academically online, mostly self-directing their progress using Playlist Data Trackers and need teachers for minor assistance, typical of online and blended learning.

They rely on The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit intent on transforming public education to online instruction. Data collection is supreme.

The Chief Culture Officer at Valor, Daren Dickenson, has degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford and the University of Denver. He lists certifications and experiences involving an MA in Integral Counseling Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, which promises transformational and spiritual awakenings. There are mixed and concerning reviews.

In Valor’s Circle Handbook, Dickenson thanks the Family Life Center Petaluma, California, for inspiration; however, this center closed. It had stark reviews, including one which says, This place is like those movies with horrible orphanages. Dickenson also praises the Seneca Family of Agencies which has mixed reviews, including some extremely negative.

Even if these mental health centers were stellar and communities need mental health facilities for children and youth, Valor Collegiate Academy is a school. It is strange that Circle time, often gender-specific, is such a large part of the curriculum.

Valor is heavily connected to Teach for America. Sarah Giblin, the founding principal, was the Miami TFA Program Director from 2007-2009.

Kevin Huffman from TFA and ex-husband of controversial Michelle Rhee, who became the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, much to the disappointment of Tennessee teachers, sits on the Board of Directors of Valor along with other TFA members and individuals connected to other charter schools and school reform groups.

Valor references Transcend Education, which claims, we must reimagine “schooling” as we know it. Their advisors include Wendy Kopp, Founder, Teach For America; CEO, Teach For All, John B. King Jr. CEO, Education Trust; Former U.S. Sec. of Education, and more.

Valor has a Compass Camp for students and adults. Teachers participate in their own Circle time. They must complete a Faculty Compass Phase System to tell their life story, commitment to the community, levels of privilege, or (un) privilege.

Valor is hyper-focused on community commitment, raising the question, how much time should students focus on the community?

Students and staff earn digital badges through exercises involving personal questions about feelings and online recognition of achievement. Badges are part of a larger credentialing ecosystem.

Introspection is intrusive and seems strict. At one point, a young student seeks forgiveness from his instructor for being funny in class. See 1:00 video.

They focus on their five-point SEL Compass guide True North for a curriculum that encourages intentional teaching of non-academic skills. 

Students do well on state tests, but wouldn’t they do well without strictness and behavioral monitoring so strictly?

Unlike most charter schools, Valor prides itself on diversity, or as the Education Post stated in a glowing write-up, intentional diversity. Edutopia also published a report, SEL as a Foundation for Academics. Diversity is a strength of the school, but can’t the students socialize without analyzing their behavior?

Who is independently evaluating Valor? Why would school districts purchase Powered by Compass without legitimate peer-reviews by educational experts?

Why should schools focus so heavily on character education? Will this be what schools will be about in the future? How much time should students spend reflecting on how they behave?

Is this meant to train students to sit quietly alone to work online without teachers?

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has a...