I do a talk sometimes in which I tell people I can manipulate them into making the choice I want.
I start by setting up a fictitious situation. A decision has been made in our school district, let’s say, that the children will wear hats to class as an identity booster. The public has been asked to decide what kind of hat this will be.
The audience is told that that they represent the public and that I’ve already determined the outcome.
Various styles of hat are introduced and I explain that, if we had the time – say a couple of years – I would encourage as much controversy about the various styles as possible, getting different factions (the Fedora Fanatics, the Beret Brigade, and the Stetson Sartorialists) to organize Town Hall meetings, conduct letter writing campaigns and whatever else I could think of to generate as much discussion as possible.
Time being short, however, I have to fabricate the controversy myself so I simply tell the audience about the virtues of each consideration…and then, we vote.
It works, every time. Sometimes the vote is close and we need to recount, but in the end, the audience comes to a majority decision and always votes exactly as I hoped they would…for a hat.
“That’s all I wanted from you,” I tell them. “It didn’t matter to me which hat. Everything I said was a strategy to take your attention away from whether or not it is the school’s place to mandate such things.”
The above is a simple illustration of a common and complicated occurrence. The fact that there is an interesting street fight occurring under our noses doesn’t mean we are looking in the right direction. The stampede of bulls coming fast behind us probably needs more attention.
Take, for example, the recent National Education Association statement that there needs to be a “course correction.” “NEA members overwhelmingly supported the goals of the [Common Core] standards,” writes the president of the country’s largest public education union. However, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.” [i] That’s quite an admission. NEA hasn’t reversed its position, of course, but it does suggest correctives.
One could take these remarks at face value but at least one columnist sees this as part of a progressive “civil war” over education that “encompasses debates over testing and charter schools. On one side are technocratic progressives backed by Silicon Valley; a small army of successful men and women turned amateur experimenters trying to tinker with schools in their free time through wealthy foundations determined to centralize and nationalize the educational system. On the other side is the traditional inertia of teachers unions still fighting for a school system that gives teachers everything and asks for nothing in return.”[ii]
That’s awfully harsh on teachers who are on the front lines of a thankless situation but the point is that there are multiple progressive voices out there “fighting” one another over aspects of Common Core.
Another example can be seen in the positions of the Alinskyian community organizations, which are deeply committed to progressive education reform. They want to establish and train parent organizations in their schools, and they certainly support mastery learning and nationalized standards. What they don’t want is to lose control of these elements.
So two of Gamaliel’s local affiliates in Missouri recently opposed a proposal to disband unaccredited school districts and replace them with another arrangement. Their reason for the opposition was that the proposal “did not involve the community sufficiently in the process….We recognize that our schools are in need of transformation, but this must be done in a sustainable and strategic way to guarantee equal access with the input of parents, educators and students.”[iii] Gamaliel organizations consider themselves to be the representatives of these three constituents.
As if this is not complicated enough, there’s yet another hat in the ring. Moderate Republicans have been pushing nationalized control over education for decades….remember GOALS 2000 and No Child Left Behind? Among this group there have been “conservative” voices supportive of mastery learning – Bill Bennett, for example, was a force behind one of the “traditional” outcome-based education (OBE) designs. [iv]
Initially a supporter of Common Core, he now thinks it’s gone awry. “Forty-five states have signed up saying they want to do it. However, there has been some contamination of the process. The federal government has got its big foot into it. Um, there’s been big money made available to people in the states, something called “race to the top” if they subscribe to the Common Core, and some of the work that’s been done particularly in the science standards and the history standards does not look so good. So, there is now a very popular rebellion.”[v]
Trouble is, this controversy over Common Core doesn’t address the really salient concern. Even if Common Core collapses, there are other hats in the ring. We'll still have a national education system that’s mastery-based and maintains a massive databank of info on our children. These arguments over what kind of testing should be administered, what classroom size is optimal, and so forth, are of no more relevance than which hat goes on your kid’s head.
What we really need to be discussing, of course, is why we’re giving schools the authority to make such determinations.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing in Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.
[i] Dennis Van Roekel, “NEA President: We Need a Course Correction on Common Core,” NEA website, NEA Today, 2-19-14:
[ii] Daniel Greenfield, “Common Core is the Left's Latest Educational Civil War: It's a war that conservatives should take advantage of,” Truth Revolt
[iii] Elisa Crouch, “Metropolitan Congregations United critical of CEE-Trust plan for troubled schools,” St Louis Post-Dispatch,
[iv] Bennett was secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and was chair of the Modern Red Schoolhouse, one of the experimental OBE designs funded in 1992 by the New American Schools Development Corporation. The Modern Red Schoolhouse design was one of the most academically-grounded of the designs but still used the intrusive mastery learning – OBE – pedagogy. Because of its focus on academic content, the Modern Red Schoolhouse is an example of “traditional OBE.”