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Peg Luksik and the Right Want To Back Schools Into the Future

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Whether President Clinton's "goals 2000: educate America act'' passes or not may ultimately be irrelevant. The real challenge to meeting the national education goals is more likely to be met outside the purview of Capitol Hill. This resistance is currently mobilizing in Christian churches and parents' meetings in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, and California and is rapidly moving into other states. It is flamed with talk of global conspiracies, psychological manipulation, and supercomputers concealed in federal buildings. Its inspiration is a politically ambitious housewife named Peg Luksik ("Pennsylvania Parent Becomes Mother of 'Outcomes' Revolt,'' Sept 22, 1993).

To many observers of education reform, the religious right's opposition seems too strange, too fanatical to take seriously. Certainly, it invites ridicule with continued charges that New Age-ists and other brainwashing bogeymen have infiltrated our schools. And in general, people are tired of the disruptive, sometimes vicious campaigns to remove classic literature and evolution from the classroom.

Even so, these religious groups tap into some legitimate fears shared by many American parents who don't trust either government or schools to do what's right for their children. The opposition's leadership recognizes this. As a result, they are becoming more sophisticated at delivering their message publicly, limiting the inflammatory rhetoric to communication with their own supporters.

Without doubt, the most savvy of these critics is Peg Luksik. In public appearances, Ms. Luksik comes across as a diminutive St. George fighting the dragon of educational bureaucracy. She appeals to many parents who have themselves felt frustrated by educators and administrators claiming to know what is best for someone else's child. As Education Week recently reported, "She may say she's just a mother of five children, but to a growing number of admirers, she is also the mother of a counterrevolution.''

Ms. Luksik is most effective with her audiences with her repeated claims that the bureaucrats just wouldn't answer her questions. But what Education Week failed to report is that most of these questions come from way out in left field. Officials who have tangled with Ms. Luksik and her forces in the past have often been blindsided in public settings by assertions of secret federal supercomputers and plans for community behavior modification. Reasonable response is impossible because the charges themselves are so far removed from reason. Yet, their silence is precisely what Ms. Luksik exploits so well.

Ms. Luksik's parent-activist group, the Pennsylvania Parent Commission, distributes a videotape of Ms. Luksik entitled "Who Controls the Children?'' which reveals her adeptness at manipulating facts. For one, she misrepresents the Pennsylvania outcomes. On the tape, she strongly suggests that geography, history, and reading were not among the outcomes. Not true. Not even in the early drafts. As William Spady observed in Education Week, she is a master at misrepresenting research. For example, again on the tape, Ms. Luksik cites studies showing that portfolio assessments are unreliable, when in fact these same studies are inconclusive yet indicate promising directions.

She condemns the New American Schools Development Corporation, the private-sector arm of the Bush Administration's America 2000, for fostering the maintenance of computer files of individual students in federal databanks. Not only does she misrepresent the particular grant request, which she cites for evidence and which did not call for such data collection, but she also fails to mention that the grant was turned down by NASDC. She consistently sets up straw men.

The fear of computers and assessments that Ms. Luksik perpetuates is a familiar obstacle to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is frequently accused by Ms. Luksik's supporters of administering a behavioral exam, the results of which are allegedly stored in the federal supercomputer. This information, so it is further charged, can be used by some unspecified entity to modify the behavior of whole communities. This belief is, in the words of an exasperated NAEP official, "a giant leap of faith.''

But it is a leap being made by a number of parents. A book currently circulating through the religious-right networks, notably the National Association of Christian Educators and Citizens for Excellence in Education, delineates an elaborate conspiracy theory which involves the federal government, the Carnegie foundations, and many others who work with educational policy. Educating for the "New World Order'' is written by a Washington writer named Beverly K. Eakman (see Commentary on page 40) and is about another Pennsylvania mother, Anita Hoge, who with Ms. Luksik shares the pulpit denouncing education goals and outcomes. The book tells the story of how Ms. Hoge allegedly uncovered federal interference in local schools. The 1991 book is published by Halcyon House, a self-described nonprofit publisher of instructional and reference materials located in Portland, Ore.

(A spokesman for Halcyon House would not divulge sales figures. However, when pressed, he reported that sales were "in the multiple tens of thousands,'' although not yet to 100,000.)

Using a NAEP sample reading-comprehension problem, Ms. Eakman explains how questions like it will be used by the government, as alleged by Ms. Hoge. The question is based on a folk tale about an old woman tricking the devil. Here is what Ms. Eakman says about it:

"What the question will do ... is to indicate which values local parents are transmitting to their youngsters, and therefore, what attitudes the community holds as a whole. Combined with other attitudinal passages and responses, which are interspersed among valid reading-comprehension items, this question will help analysts to do a profile of the community. Such a profile, in turn, will help behaviorists craft an approach to 'planned change,' discussed in earlier chapters, that will be suited to this community.''

"Planned change,'' as described by Ms. Eakman, is a complex process through which the community can be manipulated into accepting an unspecified "change.''

Conspiracy theories depend on elements of truth for credibility, and anyone who has been involved with education policy over the last couple of decades will recognize some of the book's references. But this book strings together bits of facts and half-truths as one might randomly pick up different colored beads, indifferent to sequence or design, and string a necklace. Any coherence seen in the result is purely arbitrary.

The perpetrators of "change'' are even more ambiguous than what the change might be itself, although the Carnegie foundations are heavily implicated. In later chapters, the agents of change are called "behaviorist extremists'' and "futurist fanatics'' who "believe that democracy ... is not a viable model for the future.''

And where do the schools fit into the futurists' plans? According to Ms. Eakman's book: "To help eradicate the trend toward what they see as blind amibition, planned change is steered very deliberately away from the concept of excellence and toward 'functional literacy' (or 'minimum competency')'' [emphasis and parentheses are Ms. Eakman's].

The irony of this statement is that the religious right is blocking the path to educational excellence. Their relentless attacks on education goals and outcomes and states' efforts to achieve them will do nothing but insure that schools will continue to pump out graduates who know little more than their parents or grandparents did decades before. This education may have been sufficient to maintain a vibrant economy in the 1950's. But it is cause for catastrophe at the turn of the new century--an eventuality that industry, reformers, and policymakers are well aware of and are trying to prevent. Despite this, the conservative groups continue to insist that the job of schools is basic literacy and numeracy, which they strictly define as the 3 R's.

One of Ms. Luksik's primary objections to outcomes, which resonates with many parents, is that high-achieving students will be held back waiting for the slower children to catch up. Education Week quotes her as asking: "How many times do you make that [slow] child walk the circle again? How many times does the whole class wait for that child?'' Once again, Ms. Luksik misrepresents the truth about outcomes. Every child will be expected to achieve the outcomes, true. But nowhere is it decreed or even suggested that all children will achieve them at the same time. That claim is of her own invention.

However, the charge gets at the central core of the right's objections: the refusal to accept that all American children can and should achieve high academic standards. Pictured with Ms. Luksik in Education Week is Pennsylvania State Rep. Ron Gamble, who has been among her strongest allies. He is far less circumspect when criticizing outcomes. Speaking to a recent gathering of the Education Writers Association, Mr. Gamble said, "If you think kids in the inner cities of Philadelphia, where guns and gangs and drugs are the center of activity, can compete on an equal basis with the kids in the Fox Chapels [an affluent Pittsburgh neighborhood] and the white neighborhoods and the middle-class neighborhoods we were talking about--I think you think that an elephant will fly.''

Reformers, for their part, refuse to accept lower expectations for the neediest American children. Policymakers and industry have agreed with reformers, both for economic and democratic reasons. Consequently, insuring that all American children can compete with each other as well as with their international counterparts is a primary motivation for the move toward high standards and outcomes.

Yet who in the general public understands the rationale and objectives for educational goals and outcomes? Very few, judging by the backlash suffered in Pennsylvania and in other districts attempting to effect these reforms. The failure of policymakers and advocates thus far to recognize and assuage parents' anxieties about educational change leaves a wide middle ground of support open to the religious right for exploitation.

Ms. Luksik and her supporters should be taken quite seriously, despite the outrageousness of many of their claims. The scope of the national education goals, what they mean to students, and what they will look like in practice are still mysteries to most parents. Until the public has a better picture of what reform means and why it is needed, the opposition is likely to gain some less radical sympathizers. If they succeed, the American education system and economy will not be able to compete in the new century, and Peg Luksik and the religious right will have backed this traditionally forward-moving country into the future.

Patte Barth is the editor of the Council for Basic Education and is a mother of three children, two of whom attend public schools.

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