College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

NCAA Challenge Was a “Big Tent” Triumph

By Joe Nathan — April 02, 2015 9 min read
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This week Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss how to build a broader movement for better schools. Joe Nathan begins.

In 1996, the NCAA attempted to overrule local and state decisions on college preparation, infuriating educators across the United States.

“Thank you for your fax...the decision remains unchange for student named above.” (sic)

“The self-paced, performance based approach are (sic) not acceptable for the purposes of NCAA Initial Eligibility.”

Those are just two examples of official, questionable communications from the N.C.A.A. defending an attempt to tell every US high school which English, Social Studies, Math and Science courses were acceptable for college preparation. This enraged educators across the United States, and led to an epic, ultimately successful challenge.

Deb, earlier this week we discussed a “big tent” to advocate for young people and public schools. You, Mary Beth Blegen, Arne Carlson, Asa Hilliard, Herb Kohl, Jeanne Allen, Howard Fuller, Jonathan Kozol, Vito Perrone, Ted Sizer, Bob Rodrigues, and Paul Wellstone are among the people I remember when coalitions are proposed. This effort also comes to mind whenever I watch N.C.A.A. basketball tournament games, as many of us are doing this week.

You, folks mentioned above, our Center and hundreds of others came together in a four-year, ultimately successful battle with the N.C.A.A. It was a wonderful example of people across political, ideological and philosophical lines successfully challenging something that made no sense.

The N.C.A.A. tried to tell every high school in the country, district, charter, private, parochial, which English, Math, Social Studies and Science high school courses were acceptable for college preparation. Among other things, the NCAA rejected many interdisciplinary courses, any course on current issues, or a course with more than 25% of its time devoted to community service.

Regardless of students’ grades or college entrance test scores, if students did not take enough courses acceptable to the N.C.A.A., they couldn’t accept an athletic scholarship or play on a university team while a freshman. This was a huge blow to many youngsters who had done “the right thing.” The N.C.A.A. rejected National Merit Scholars, class valedictorians, even youngsters who already excelled in college courses. The rigid N.C.A.A. requirements about “acceptable classes” frustrated many strong students, families and educators.

The N.C.A.A. made classic mistakes such as faxing a brief note with spelling and grammatical mistakes to a Minnesota superintendent rejecting an interdisciplinary class. Part of the text is provided above. David Flannery, Elk River, Minnesota district superintendent who received this fax, told me, ""The NCAA is the most arrogant, frustrating, obstinate organization I’ve ever dealt with.” Then there was the note, a portion of which appears above, from the director of the N.C.A.A’s Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse that had a problem with subject - verb agreement.

Fundamentally, the N.C.A.A. set itself up as a group dictating acceptable educational policies to every U.S. high school. For example the N.C.A.A. insisted that “the self-paced, performance based approach are not acceptable” ways to design a school so students are well-prepared for college, career and citizenship. The Minnesota Department of Education was fine with this approach, which was emulated by a number of other schools. The high school student in question, by the way, had an ACT score placing her in the top 10 percent of the country, and had already earned good grades taking courses on a college campus. This and other communications with mistakes, from an organization insisting it should tell high schools how to operate, brought additional support to the challenge.

The New York Times wrote: “N.C.A.A’s Effort to raise academic standards leaves many top students on the sidelines.” A New York Times editorial insisted, ""The N.C.A.A. should be promoting education innovation, not obstructing it.”

The N.C.A.A. challenge was a great example of a “Big Tent” at work.

  • Minnesota high school counselors and their organization, as well as the Minnesota State Board of Education constantly wrote legislators and political leaders. They helped convince the late Paul Wellstone, a liberal Democrat, and Governor Arne Carlson, a moderate Republican, to collaborate (as they rarely did) in the N.C.A.A. challenge.
  • Frustrated by similar experiences to those in Minnesota, the National Association of State Boards of Education and American School Counselors Association joined the battle.
  • You and a number of others across the political and educational spectrum signed a letter challenging the N.C.A.A . This appeared in USA Today on the first day of their national convention. USA Today also published an editorial urging the N.C.A.A. to change.
  • Members of urban and rural Annenberg Challenges were deeply involved.
  • Herb Kohl, a pioneering writer/ educator, arranged for the Open Society Foundation to convene educators, parents and students to discuss strategy.
  • Many educational publications, including Ed Week carried stories about this effort.

Ultimately, we succeeded. The N.C.A.A. was and is an immensely powerful organization. But the “big tent” triumphed.

Deborah responds:

Dear Joe,

A good story with a happy ending. Thanks for sharing it, Joe. We need to collect such stories as reminders of what could be if...

So if we want to prevent the privatization of the public system via charters, vouchers, with strong financial interests invested in making a profit via tax-paid education...who might be in our corner? And what compromises might we have to make? And how would we define ourselves?

What kind of charter/governance legislation might serve the kinds of schools we both like and some we might like less but that are “self-governing"--and open to unionization. And that don’t rest on finding a way to find cheap labor (less-credentialed, more inexperienced, more short-termers and part-timers, etc.) and depend on size and quantity to lower costs, And that are willing to follow common transparency rules, external auditing and external quality reviews/ Plus, of course, the rights of special ed, immigrant, and 2nd language students

Like you, I am not for selectivity--schools choosing--but I might not go as far as you do only because it would make our tent far too small. I think we could work out language limiting specialized schools, requiring evidence of meeting equity standards, or at least a moratorium on any new ones!! It goes without saying that all such schools would have to follow existing civil rights and safety/health regs. I’d like the right to use income quotas for such schools in order to guarantee more fairness.

I also think we’d have to agree on some less than ideal form of accountability. But I think there should be escape clauses for schools and networks that develop alternate approaches such as the NY State Consortium’s. Plus fewer state mandates re governance and more flexibility re course requirements, time spent, etc. Ideally I’d like statewide salary schedules and easy transferability between schools.

And... no public funding of private or religious education beyond what already exists in terms of special ed services, bussing in many states, etc.

Who would obviously not be interested in belonging under such a “tent”? Most of the ALEC crowd. Which of the larger chains might well want to join--especially if they are more network-like rather than Walmart-like. Expeditionary Learning, the MET...

We might need to clarify what happens with schools, communities, parents, teachers who don’t want to do anything other than what they already have?? I’d say, let them be, with regular opportunities for changing their minds, or for creating break-offs that leave some “as they are” and offer alternatives without suffering fiscal losses. Size? Maybe, maybe not. We’d need to keep exploring who’d we lose if.....

Joe responds:

Deb, there are several additional, relevant lessons that I think the NCAA challenge offers before turning to your suggestions for future collaboration.

1.We tried as a coalition to be very clear about what we wanted. We believed that high school educators should define a college preparation class. We did not want the NCAA and its subcontractor, the ACT, deciding this. Ultimately the NCAA agreed to accept the judgment of high school educators.

You suggested above that we become more specific about “who might be in our corner,” and “how we define ourselves.” I’d recommend we try to be clearer about what we want to achieve for students. Then we should talk about how to achieve those goals.

2. We did not demonize people who agreed to work together in this effort, though we disagreed passionately about other things. There is a fair amount of name-calling among some active in school improvement/reform discussions. For example, the term “chain”, when applied to a group of schools, seems intended to discredit them without looking at details of what they accomplish, and how they operate. I appreciate your comments about “networks” of schools. What are the characteristics of networks that are working well for students?

In my 45-year experience with schools, I’ve found the vast majority of educators working in or with district and chartered public schools are trying very hard to help more students succeed. One of my favorite poems, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, begins, “Truth is not a secret of the few.”

There are many terrific district and chartered public schools. We should be learning from them.

I’d also like to discuss the label “privatization.” Most schools constantly buy things from private companies. They also recognize some products are not reliable or reputable. Let’s talk about this.

3. No matter how hard we try, some people we think should be allies won’t join. For example, many of the teachers tried to enlist their unions in this effort. Teacher unions at local, state and national levels, passed. This was disappointing but real. I attended a training program with Saul Alinsky, a remarkable community organizer and author of the classic book, Rules for Radicals. Alinsky noted that you can’t always predict who will join a coalition. His workshop and the book taught me more about improving schools that all the graduate courses I took.

4. We used many strategies. Some worked. Some did not. We wrote articles for educational and mass publications. We broadened the coalition. Some people filed lawsuits. Many prominent newspapers decided this was a good story, but we were not able to interest TV networks. We tried unsuccessful for Congressional hearings. As mentioned earlier, Herb Kohl convinced the Open Society Institute to convene people who identified strategies that ultimately helped produce victory.

5. Finally, persistence pays off. This was a four-year battle.

There were many times that we were disappointed, frustrated, and even furious. Victory came about, it part, because we stayed at it. Easy to say, often hard to do.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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