Religious Groups, Educators Seek Common Ground

By Lonnie Harp — November 23, 1994 6 min read

The leaders of several national education associations and conservative religious and citizens’ groups have been meeting behind the scenes in efforts to find common ground on school reform and end their increasingly hostile debate.

The sides gathered for the second time last week in Washington in an unannounced meeting and have made plans for more as they try to hammer out a truce in their conflict over school policy--a cold war whose battles have divided residents in communities across the country.

Seeing ‘What Is Important’

Though ending that war will not be easy, some education observers believe the meetings offer hope.

“What this says to us is that people are finally coming to terms with what is important, which is the education of kids, instead of adults who want to see winners and losers,” said Arleen Arnsparger, the communications director for the Education Commission of the States, who has studied local school-reform controversies.

Officials at the E.C.S. are closely watching for hints of progress in the meetings, which the American Association of School Administrators has convened.

Leaders of groups including the A.A.S.A., the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the National School Boards Association have met with the National Association of Evangelicals, Concerned Women for America, and Citizens for Excellence in Education--a Christian group that has coached thousands of school board candidates over the last five years--among others.

The A.S.C.D. has also quietly organized a handful of groups to discuss the same issues.

“A lot of people are concerned about any language like ‘common ground,”’ said Ron Brandt, the executive editor of publications at the A.S.C.D. “I can see a feeling of untrustworthiness from both sides, but I think there is reason for hope.”

The A.A.S.A.'s first meeting in late August included officials from the U.S. Education Department, People for the American Way, the American Jewish Congress, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Participants said that while the theme of the meeting was developing respect for the varying points of view, participants also discussed the boundaries for teaching critical thinking, what values should be taught and what services ought to be offered by public schools, and how schools can create a forum for community input on their goals and methods.

Officials at the A.A.S.A. were reluctant to discuss the meetings. Gary Marx, a senior associate executive director of the administrators’ association, called them off-the-record “exploratory discussions.”

“Right now, we are just talking about where there are agreements and disagreements,” Mr. Marx said. “Our position is that communication generally leads to a mutual understanding which may be helpful.”

Participants, however, said the association has described the working group as a task force with the aim of producing concrete agreements.

August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel for the N.S.B.A., said the sides remain far apart.

“The jury is still out on this,” he said. “And if we do reach any agreement, it won’t be on substance, it will be on a process for airing complaints and gaining access to decisionmaking.”

Mr. Steinhilber said he is concerned about bowing to pressure from groups that represent only a sector of parents. “Some parents are unhappy, but we can’t forget that some parents are happy, too.”

An Accidental Friendship

An encouraging sign--and surprising turnabout--in the debate between school-reform leaders and their conservative opponents has been the recent partnership of William G. Spady, a leading advocate of outcomes-based education, and Robert L. Simonds, the president of the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, which says it has about 250,000 members nationwide.

In many ways, the two men represent polar opposites in the debate over the direction of schools.

Yet in recent months, they have made plans to sponsor jointly a nonprofit National Center for Reconciliation and Educational Reform at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

The center is designed to provide mediation in districts where educators and parents are fighting over reform. It will also develop materials to help the warring sides understand each other’s viewpoints.

“We want to do this nationally because we see school districts wracked by problems,” said Arnold Burron, a co-director of the center and a professor at the university who has worked as a consultant for Citizens for Excellence in Education.

Beyond the creation of the center, many observers are impressed by the collaboration of Mr. Simonds and Mr. Spady.

“People aren’t sure what to make of this because they’ve heard me talk about working in a siege mentality and people being in foxholes, and I still think they are,” said Mr. Spady, who is the director of the High Success Network Inc., a school-restructuring organization based in Eagle, Colo.

He has often assailed conservative critics of his reform ideas, which emphasize the material and skills all children should acquire rather than the resources and content that should go into teaching.

“My initial reaction to Bob Simonds was the same as that of many educators: that the information he used was grossly inaccurate and that he took deliberate potshots,” Mr. Spady said. “But he has come a long way, and I have learned a lot about their perspective on things.”

The two met at a conference in March and talked for about half an hour. A week later, they began exchanging phone calls, and in recent months have met more often.

“We come from opposite ends of the spectrum,” Mr. Simonds said. His organization’s push for representation on local school boards in recent years has helped more than 7,000 people win seats, according to the group. After this month’s elections, C.E.E. officials believe they have passed 10,000.

In many areas, C.E.E.-affiliated activists support a back-to-basics agenda, opposing whole-language instruction, open-ended assessments, and teaching strategies that stray from the drill-and-practice routine. But after building a constituency that has seen its job as fighting against the tide, Mr. Simonds said, it is time to work with educators on better choices.

“We are not opposed to Bill Spady’s theory of outcomes-based education. There are a lot of good ideas in it,” Mr. Simonds said. “But we also see that we’ve gotten so far from the basics that some people don’t know how to get back.”

Mr. Simonds is devising his own effort at compromise, a strategy known as “enhanced basics education.” It would combine some instructional practices of outcomes-based education with the hard-core mathematics, science, history, and literature facts that he argues children should know.

“We cannot focus on the process of education without the content of education, and people need to have choices about how to do that,” Mr. Simonds said. “And in the meantime, we need peace instead of political warfare.”

Some Criticize Moves

Yet not everyone is rushing to jump on the unity bandwagon.

Some conservative Christian groups that have been among Mr. Simonds’ stalwart allies have become critics of his peacemaking. The hushed diplomacy of the school administrators’ association also suggests how leading education groups see opening the discussion as a delicate issue.

Mr. Simonds has been accused of “selling out” by some of his closest associates, said Mr. Burron of the University of Northern Colorado.

Indeed, officials for a leading conservative group, the Eagle Forum, have declined to participate with Mr. Simonds and are not working with the A.A.S.A. or A.S.C.D. panels, saying that the resistance to new standards and outcomes is gaining momentum and that the forum is not interested in a truce.

“We are not compromising,” said Jayne Schindler, the president of the Colorado chapter of the Eagle Forum.

She said many religious activists have become suspicious of Mr. Simonds after his recent efforts.

Mr. Spady as well says education reformers have wondered whether they can still trust him.

Mr. Simonds likened the efforts at compromise to the Biblical account of Nehemiah leading the Jewish people as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under threat of attack.

“We are working with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other,” he said. “And we just hope we never have to use the sword.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Religious Groups, Educators Seek Common Ground