Parents in S.C. Attack Alleged ‘New Age’ Program

By Debra Viadero — January 30, 1991 7 min read

School officials in South Carolina are expanding the range of critical-thinking programs they recommend to schools as a result of complaints from parents who say that some of the programs already being promoted predispose their children to “New Age” religious practices.

The South Carolina controversy is the most recent in a number of recent conflicts over school programs designed to teach children to solve problems and think critically. Similar complaints surfaced two years ago in the Battle Ground, Wash., school district and have since been raised in at least one other Washington community and two Indiana towns.

Much of the criticism has centered on a program called “Tactics for Thinking,” which was developed by the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally funded education-research group. With more than 70,000 of its teacher guides sold, the program is among the more widely used of a growing number of nationally available thinking-skills programs.

Essentially designed to train teachers, the Tactics program offers 22 separate strategies from which teachers can pick and choose and then infuse throughout all the subjects they teach as a way of sharpening their students’ thinking skills.

Critics contend that some of these strategies can lead to Eastern religious practices, such as meditation or hypnosis, and chip away at the value system parents have worked to instill in their children.

Parents who oppose the program see those strategies as part of a wider effort being promoted by educators--often unwittingly--to indoctrinate students in the so-called New Age movement. They describe that movement as a political and religious effort aimed at establishing a one-world government and religion.

“These parents are saying, ‘Hey, you’ve taken Bible readings and prayer out of schools so let’s keep Eastern religious practices out of schools, too,”’ said Loreen Itterman, associate dean of teacher education at Columbia Bible College in South Carolina and a critic of the Tactics program. “A lot of educators are not aware of how we’re slowly beginning to adopt some of these practices and teach them.”

The controversy in Ms. Itterman’s state grew out of a 1990 school-reform law. Under the statute, the state department of education was directed to form a task force to come up with a working definition for “higher-order thinking skills” and recommend programs to help schools impart such techniques to students.

Critical-thinking skills are widely viewed as lacking in U.S. students, and most states have launched programs to encourage teachers to teach these skills (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1990.)

According to Susan Smith White, a reading consultant to the South Carolina Department of Education, the department recommended three models: “Patterns,” “Project Impact,” and Tactics. Tactics became the most visible of the three, however, because the state had already tested the program in 10 school districts and made available free training materials for the program.

According to Ms. White, educators in 88 South Carolina districts have been trained in Tactics and 77 districts are using all or part of the program.

“We saw it as a cognitive-skills program,” she said. “If we thought it promoted a ‘New Age’ religion, we wouldn’t have recommended it.”

But parents in a handful of communities in Richland and Lexington counties began to raise concerns about two of the programs--Tactics and Patterns--early last fall. The parents took issue, for example, with a Tactics technique that instructs teachers to ask students to focus on a black dot on the wall for a minute and ask them to be aware of “what it is like when they are really trying to attend to something.”

The complained that that technique could put students in a “trancelike state” and lead to hypnosis.

Another section of the training manual suggests a way to develop students’ “visualization” skills by having them imagine they are a snowflake and describe how they feel as they float to the ground. Students are also asked to remember facts about George Washington, for example, by imagining the president riding a beautiful horse, by thinking about the smell of the leather saddle, and by hearing an imaginary band play “Yankee Doodle.”

Ms. White said some parents testifying at hearings held last month by the state board of education said such activities could lead to “altered states of consciousness” and that they smack of some Buddhist practices.

And, as in other communities where such concerns have been raised, the South Carolina parents noted that Robert Marzano, the author of the Tactics program, has in some of his other writings cited researchers and writers linked to the New Age movement.

“It’s not that Tactics itself is so bad,” said Ms. Itterman. “It’s just like a warm-up exercise. You get a little in and you open up the door.”

The controversy came to a head on Nov. 31 when the state board of education met to consider the parents’ complaints.

Noting that the Tactics program was being used without complaint in many South Carolina school districts, the board voted to keep the program on the state’s list of recommendations. But it directed the department of education to form a committee of parents, teachers, and department staff members to come up with alternatives to the three thinking-skills programs recommended by the state.

The board also directed the state to set aside some unused funds from the state’s program in higher-order thinking skills to subsidize training in the alternative models.

The board also voted to bar the department from recomending any alternatives “that could reasonably be construed as employing guided imagery, ‘mind experiments,’ meditation, progressive relaxation, or moral relativism.”’

Stuart Andrews Jr., the chairman of the state board, said the members’ action was prompted by a need to protect the higher-order thinking-skills program from any impending budget cuts.

“I have two children and I would not be concerned about their exposure to the techniques in question,” he said.

But, he conceded, “it’s an extremely tight fiscal year, and the board felt this program might be vulnerable.”

But Mr. Marzano, the author of the Tactics program, said the claims being leveled against the program--which have been almost identical in every community in which controversy has arisen--are patently “ridiculous.”

He and promoters of the program said the parents’ concerns are based on serious misunderstandings. The “attention control” technique, for example, is meant to be used by teachers only once as a means of demonstrating to students that they “can pay attention to something even if it’s not very interesting,” said Ronald S. Brandt, executive editor of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which markets the program.

Mr. Brandt said some of the visualization exercises, such as the one described in the George Washington example, are based on research suggesting that memories seem to be stored in the brain by being associated with sights, smells, emotions, and other “hooks.”

“We teach people that one good way to remember [something] is to connect it with all the senses,” he said.

Edward B. Jenkinson, a University of Indiana English-education professor who has followed these controversies closely, said contentions that school curricula reflect New Age religious principles are increasingly cropping up in districts across the country. In addition to critical-thinking programs, complaints have been leveled against some drug-prevention education programs and reading textbooks, such as the Impressions series. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

“It’s a continuation of the secular-humanism argument with some new names and new people,” he said. “I think what we are seeing here with these religion charges is that there are people who, for various reasons, became upset with schools as they moved away from the so-called basics to deal with the affective domain.”

Attempts to ban the Tactics program in Battle Ground, Wash., were rebuffed by the school district’s instructional-materials committee. But the program was put on hold after opponents threatened to vote down a school-bond issue and a mill levy there.

In Indiana, Tactics was removed from schools in East Gibson in 1988, but retained in West Gibson. And at least one South Carolina school district has also rescinded its decision to use the program because of parents’ concerns.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Parents in S.C. Attack Alleged ‘New Age’ Program