Rebel Mom

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Every day for a month, it was her ritual. The 2nd grade teacher at a small Catholic school in a Pennsylvania steel town would find time during a break or at lunch to slip out of the building and visit the sanctuary next door, where she would pray silently.

Every day for a month, it was the same prayer. The slight 26-year-old, married three years, badly wanted a child. Instead, she had been plagued by miscarriages. To make things worse, her doctor said it was unlikely that she would ever carry a child to term.

So she prayed for a child every day of October, the traditional month of the rosary, a Catholic devotional to the Virgin Mary. But in her prayers, she included a promise. Every day for a month, she whispered to God that she would use her life to help children.

On July 31, she gave birth to a son. Nine months to the day after the end of rosary month, her prayers were answered. She quit teaching and became a full-time mother. She settled into a new life that was all she'd ever wanted.

Over the past dozen years, Peg Luksik has had four more children, but, much as they have filled her life, she has made the time and found the energy to keep her rosary month pledge. She started by building a nonprofit center for single mothers, which since has branched out to communities throughout the state. Then she launched a statewide parents' group to contest Pennsylvania's sex education curriculum. Most recently, she led a bruising charge against a new reform plan hatched within the education bureaucracy of Pennsylvania.

If Luksik and other opponents of that outcome-based education plan have not exactly beaten the state, they have walloped it pretty good. And the thud of the blow they've dealt has been heard by nervous school policymakers across the country. Education officials everywhere have been served notice: School reforms aimed at guaranteeing that every child will master each subject and in the process learn an appreciation of certain state-defined values will face a fight.

And most likely, Peg Luksik will be in the thick of it.

Behind big sunglasses on a bright summer day, Luksik blends in with the dozen or so mothers who sit on metal bleachers beside a dusty ball field in Johnstown, Pa.

Luksik has her eye on her son Peter, who is playing a shallow left field and was none too happy before the game when he couldn't find the green cap that goes with his uniform. His mother found a replacement with a green back and brim that, at the time, was totally unacceptable. Now, somehow, it seems to be doing the trick.

On her way home--a short drive that passes under grand old shade trees and by classic brick houses with huge porches--she has bad news to break to Peter and his little brother Jeff, who are buckled into their seats. The promised trip to the fast-food stop must be postponed. The teller machine at the bank refused to cough up any cash.

Luksik is 38 now. And from the Buick and Chevrolet parked in front of the converted old duplex to the laundry basket that sits beside the kitchen table, there is not much to suggest that she is anything but the all-American mother who will never find enough refrigerator magnets to display the work of her creative brood.

"I'm just a mommy who makes sandwiches for five little kids,'' Luksik says. She is petite and fair-skinned with an abundance of energy that lets you know her short hair has turned gray prematurely. She listens and speaks as much with facial expressions as with her voice. She is fond of proclaiming that she is simply a mother--"a nosy mother.''

But the reality is otherwise. And there is no need to leave the kitchen of her house to find that out. The phone rings as if to mark the quarter hour, often with calls from out-of-state, people wanting a quote or an answer or an appearance. From across the room, the calendar looks like the month is shaded in gray. A closer examination shows the scribbles of a hectic schedule--faraway meetings wrapped around family events and baseball games.

In the same calm voice she uses to inform her oldest son, Mark, that he should finish at least 20 more pages in the book he is reading, she told a television audience earlier in the week: "Politics is a game of pressure and perseverance, and you have to not buy into the rhetoric that it's a done deal.''

"You have to not believe that you can't stand up against people like the NEA,'' she told a caller to Focus on the Family, a monthly television program beamed to pro-family subscribers nationwide. "And then you go in and do it, and, if you continue to talk and continue to build your grass-roots constituency, you can beat them.''

At one point during the show, 14 callers were waiting to ask her about outcome-based education. The host of the show announced that an upcoming segment would be shortened to allow a few more questions. For people from Oklahoma and Florida and Connecticut, Luksik quoted research, explained concepts, and displayed her political savvy.

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 counter- revolution.

The revolution itself began in March 1992, when the Pennsylvania state board of education became the first in the nation to mandate an outcome-based education framework as state policy. The bold plan was supposed to transform the substance and governance of schools. It would increase power for local districts, remove bureaucrats from the business of regulation, and set higher standards for students who must prepare for a more sophisticated world.

Amid alarm from business leaders and opinion polls about the woeful performance of public schools, outcome-based education seemed an attractive alternative. Whether part of a plan for systemwide reform or an attempt to overhaul classroom instruction, education theorists argue that outcome-based education can invigorate the nation's schools by shifting attention and incentives to the product--student achievement--rather than ingredients such as class hours and strict curriculum regulations.

Specifying outcomes and setting high performance targets, the thinking goes, would free teachers and administrators to take charge of their schools, envision new strategies for meeting the higher standards, and find innovative ways to guide more children to knowledge and success. And while local experiments in outcome-based education have notched both successes and failures over the past three decades, many reformers see great promise in the concept, and longtime admirers are positioned to press for the new system.

Twenty years ago in Pennsylvania, a 45-person commission appointed by the governor issued a report urging mammoth curriculum changes. It recommended learning outcomes and called for defined cognitive, perceptual, physical, artistic, aesthetic, and humanistic skills. The 1973 commission's staff director was Donald Carroll Jr., now Pennsylvania's secretary of education. A top staff member was Joseph Bard, now the state's commissioner for elementary and secondary education.

In November 1991, the brass of the state education department rolled out the idea anew. Frustrated with the meager results of school reforms initiated in 1984, the department argued that instead of policing minimum standards that might somehow push local schools forward, it should set high expectations and help schools strive toward them.

The state's wish list of desired outcomes was long. The initial announcement specified 127 basic outcomes and 448 more that flow from them. The list called for students to learn mathematical formulas, measure angles, master reading, use scientific reasoning, and understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence. But many of the state's proposed standards focused on less concrete skills.

The first outcome in a section dealing with "self-worth,'' for example, called on students to understand their personal strengths and weaknesses and learn to maximize their strengths and compensate for weaknesses. Thirteen pages later, outcome number 127, in the area of personal, family, and community living, required all students to recognize sources of stress that influence individual and family life and to select appropriate coping strategies or support services. Within that outcome, students in grades K-3 were expected to identify what creates anger and hurt for individuals and families, to learn coping strategies, and to identify people who can help.

The list addressed higher-order thinking, independent and collaborative learning, adaptation to change, ethics, communications, mathematics, science and technology, ecology, citizenship, appreciating others, arts and humanities, career education, and health. Backers of the plan said it pushed Pennsylvania to the forefront of the education reform movement.

"This is the way education is going to be done, and we will not go back to where we have been for the last 100 years,'' says Bard, who envisions a system in which "children are able to take more responsibility for their own learning, able to conduct themselves independently, and able to intellectually feed themselves.''

In such a system, Bard says, "are the answers to our economic problems and our continued health as a society. The critical thing is that this kind of metamorphosis take place for every kid and not only the ones we're successful with anyway.''

But not everyone was so sanguine about the new plan. Between the lines of its recipe for a happy, smart, and productive student, critics spotted a state bureaucracy overreaching its mission, out of touch with real people, and embarrassingly lost on some wild journey into pie-in-the-sky school reform and lock-step political correctness.

"This is a big, giant-leap change,'' says Nancy Staible, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a national group led by evangelical Christians. "The state is now saying it will mandate to individual children what they must know, do, and be like.''

"Whoever is in control of the outcomes controls the whole system and really controls people,'' adds Anita Hoge, who along with Staible and Luksik constitutes the core leadership of the opposition. "One of our questions has been, What if parents disagree with the outcomes? There's a lot they can't answer, and we've said that until then, we'll hammer on you, and we are going to continue until you show us exactly what you mean.''

In the prescribed outcomes, opponents saw a state interested in dictating not only the facets of a child's education but also intervening to mold their attitudes and personality. Hoge and Staible, both veteran critics of the state, have been lead voices in the opposition chorus. But observers from both sides agree that the most effective political and rhetorical barrages have come from a single source--Peg Luksik. As the state took its first step down a new road to school improvement, Luksik arrived on the scene to announce that school leaders and reform proponents were sadly lost.

Over the decade between the end of her teaching career and the start of the outcome-based education debate, Luksik's long-ago promise had carried her on a path that steeled her for such a battle. It began with Mom's House, the nonprofit center for single mothers that she dreamed up as an alternative to abortion and welfare dependency.

She designed the program, organized support and financing, and managed the operation. As the center branched out to other Pennsylvania communities, she built a network of pro-family activists. In 1987, she launched a nonprofit group called the Pennsylvania Parents Commission, a grass-roots organization with a membership of about 1,000 that took on as its first target the state's sex education curriculum. The criticism led Gov. Robert Casey to order the state's guides removed.

By 1990, the group had grown to 15,000, and the grass-roots leader had developed strong ties to the state's established conservative interest groups. That network and her fervent idealism led her to file as a last-minute candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1990. Shocking nearly everybody, her shoestring campaign took 46 percent of the vote in its losing effort.

When the dust settled from the primary election, Pennsylvania had two candidates for governor and one political phenomenon. Luksik was suddenly sought after to run for local office or front someone's cause. Mostly, though, she disappeared from the political scene.

About a year and a half after the primary, she received several phone calls from members of her network, alerting her to the state's proposed educational outcomes and asking what she thought of the new reform plan. One caller in particular, Hoge, suggested the need for some organized opposition. More than anything, Luksik says, it was the grab bag of new standards that caught her attention.

She says she was shocked by the multitude of outcomes and by how few of them focused on academics. She gathered news stories and reports on the topic, read the theories of its main proponents, and reviewed the state's background materials. Convinced that the state had gone too far, "mom'' was off to do battle.

"You always get the sense with her that there is a cultural war at stake,'' observes G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University outside Lancaster. "It's not that she wants to run or control anything, but she is deeply concerned about the relationship between government and the individual.''

"The government bureaucracy at every level is trying to expand its authority, and, as taxpayers and parents, we are saying, 'Excuse me?' '' Luksik says, arranging her mouth and cheeks and eyebrows into an expression of true indignation. "I think that's healthy.''

Beginning in March 1992, the battle over the future of Pennsylvania's schools was fought over and over in a hundred town meetings across the state and eventually in the chambers of the legislature. Sometimes Luksik occupied the podium alone; other times she dueled with someone from the state. To ordinary parents and citizens left to decide the issue based on those forums, observers say it was an easy call. Recalling a community forum his office sponsored, one legislative aide quipped, "If it had been a prize fight, we would have stopped it in the first round.''

The focus of the opposition was the expanded concept of schooling stated in the outcomes, particularly those involving values.

William Spady, director of the Colorado-based High Success Network and a leading national expert on outcome-based education, is impatient with critics on this score. "They say outcomes are values and values are moral and therefore religious,'' he says. "But there is no way we are going to keep values out of the education process. Choosing a curriculum is a value choice. Compulsory attendance is a value choice. They've confused civic values with religious values.''

But Luksik and her allies insist that the state was intruding into students' private lives. They zoomed in on the new assessment system, which they criticized for gathering too much personal information. These tests, in conjunction with the outcomes, were presented as the most oppressive form of state control ever imagined.

"Bureaucrats really do believe that schools are the ones that should raise children,'' Luksik says. "Our questions are really kind of fundamental. What is the mission of public education, and who has control?''

Proponents, however, are quick to counter that they have not overstepped any existing boundaries. Theorists and administrators argue that the expanded categories within the outcomes are all important elements for children to become productive citizens and workers. Furthermore, Pennsylvania officials say, information gathered about students' personal circumstances is a helpful management tool.

"We measure where kids are, not just in cognitive knowledge but in their environment,'' Bard says. "The thinking had been for many years that it was important to know if a child spent 25 hours a week watching television or if there were no books in the home, so that folks in education could make whatever adjustments were necessary to have more of an impact.

"We are not, however, blind to the Big Brother kinds of implications of that information, and, as criticisms have come, we've modified it. But that kind of contextual information, when looked at over time, is very helpful in planning. They are assuming we want to control lives and futures in a way not in accordance with the Constitution of the United States.''

"They were doing what they thought they needed to do,'' Luksik says. But the plain-talking mother with a photographic memory argues that it is not necessary for school administrators to be all-knowing or all-encompassing. "Parents are tired of schools becoming the problem solver of every social ill,'' she says, bringing up the state's proposed mandate for aerobic fitness to punctuate her point. "They say there would be more local control,'' Luksik adds, but their interpretation of local control is "to do what the state tells you to do.''

Before crowds that ranged from a few dozen to a few thousand, Luksik held up the state's own paperwork and outside research to throw doubts on the program. At the same time, she quarterbacked a strategy aimed at identifying key legislators and gaining their support in overturning the new system. Along the way, she kept the state on the defensive, questioning the effects of the new system.

Unlike traditional education programs, which are focused on group learning paced by a teacher, the outcome-based program, Luksik says, would turn that system on its head as pace would be dictated by individual children. She is leery of eliminating ability grouping, which outcome-based education would do, and argues that advanced students would be the big losers.

"It sounds terrific, but it is a redefinition of education, away from equal opportunity to equal results,'' she says, adding that the system comes with too many unanswered questions. "Traditional education had differential achievement built into it, and we knew who needed extra time. But the challenges of excellence were built in for everybody.''

Mastery levels, she argues, will require less of top students and leave too many children waiting while slower students are helped along. While the system might make sense on paper, she worries about what will happen if an entire class is held up by a slow child.

"How many times do you make that child walk the circle again?'' Luksik asks. "How many times does the whole class wait for that child?'' She also complains that accomplishing mastery levels will mean little to parents or students. "There's no red flag to a mother because there's no grade, so the child just sits in never-never land,'' she says. "Somebody from the state said the only thing we've ever done is counted students, but my report card never just said 'sitting.' ''

As Luksik pointed to specific aspects of the program, opponents in other forums drilled away at the proposed outcomes and the values issue. The strategy against the state was simple and straightforward: ask pointedly how it planned to measure its own outcomes and how it would remediate unsatisfactory performance.

State officials say the barrage of detailed questions and citations from reports on mastery learning and other reform concepts that preceded outcome-based education painted a program that they hardly recognized. "It was clear from the beginning that what we thought we were doing was not what they thought we were doing,'' says Bard, a veteran state administrator who worked as a combat medic during his stint in the Army.

"They have fundamentally misrepresented what outcomebased education is,'' Spady claims, decrying in particular Luksik's tactics in citing research. "They are the masters of quoting completely out of context. They have scrutinized every document they can find to locate the word or phrase they might find objectionable, and then they use that to characterize the whole program.

"This program is realistic and outcome-oriented,'' he adds. "I just find it as surprising as can be that all of a sudden, this is the target. There are a lot of conservatives who find it to be common sense.''

But the criticism went on. Luksik questioned the state's assertion that the costs of the program would be negligible. She argued that new assessment systems, including portfolios of students' work--which many opponents criticized for being too subjective-- would be expensive, as would a massive retraining program for classroom teachers. She also pointed to research showing that in several school districts where outcome-based programs have succeeded, pupil-teacher ratios are significantly lower than in Pennsylvania.

"Where is the valid research base to support outcome-based education, and where is the budget for this going to come from?'' she asked. "What programs are they going to cut? How are they going to manage all these different children at different levels without extra staff?'' Finally, receiving few answers to her questions, Luksik asked why officials had rushed to implement the program statewide instead of expanding pilot efforts already under way in some communities.

"We are continually faced with the fact that education is an art and not a science,'' Bard says. "We had only our certainty and the certainty of other folks that we needed to move toward a system weighted toward achievement rather than time. She comes across as a little person throwing stones at Goliath, and they keep banging off his forehead.''

With meager results in defending its program and flagging support in the legislature, state education officials went on the attack. They identified the primary opposition as a group of right-wing radicals spearheaded by CEE, which has a national agenda of harshly attacking public school reforms meant to shake schools out of their traditional regimen of drill and practice. Name-calling erupted from both sides. As the issue went before the legislature, tensions reached their peak.

Some legislators were wary of speaking out on behalf of the new system because the opposition was so "vicious and personal'' in its attacks. "We questioned their sincerity,'' says one former legislative aide, "but it is hard to put that issue in the media when it's about motherhood and apple pie to some people.''

"The hyperbole from the right wing is just as evident from the left wing,'' argues Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a nonprofit grass-roots organization that was an early participant in the outcome-based education opposition. "The reality is that there is a broad base of support for these concerns. It is not fair to say it was driven or controlled or led by the religious right.''

"The state wanted to imply that this was all part of some far-right conspiracy, but folks didn't have the facts,'' explains Sean Duffy, president of the Pennsylvania Leadership Council, a conservative political think tank. "All Peg was doing was raising some good questions that unmasked the department of education.''

"This was a question of people bringing change about who didn't know what the change meant,'' says Madonna, the Millersville political science professor. "It became an issue of local versus state control, and she was able to convince moderate voters this was a diffusion of education.''

After many weeks of raucous wrangling, the Pennsylvania House voted 139 to 61 last February to nullify the state's regulations on outcome-based education. Since then, however, some legislative leaders have worked with state administrators to salvage a modified version of the program; they've pared the final list of outcomes to 53. Opponents, still on the offensive, will push lawmakers to make the program voluntary when the state senate convenes in November.

The fight, meanwhile, has had visible effects, chasing some veteran state officials to other jobs, tarnishing the image of outcome-based education, and leaving school administrators nationwide skittish about new reform campaigns.

Even now, the effects of the fallout are not clear. State officials stand by the modified outcome plan, saying it still contains what they wanted. Other observers say it is a watered-down version that may not survive. Some suggest that it is a more reasonable document thanks to the opposition. In the end, both the state and its chief opponents are trying to win back some of their lost credibility.

Top Pennsylvania officials defend their strategy of branding their opponents as zealots solely interested in clubbing the public schools, not improving them, saying it was the only way to put the debate in its proper perspective. They also believe they were able to recoup some support by forcing the opposition to defend itself. "That kept Peg in her trenches a lot longer,'' a state administrator notes.

"From where I sit, the issues that they raise cannot be responded to logically, unless you accept their framework of some conspiracy,'' Bard says. "But we learned that we were still talking bureaucratese, and they were communicating.

"We never have said outcome-based education was an allencompassing panacea,'' the commissioner adds. "It is part of a package that needs to be in place. And combined with changes in certification and funding and staff development, we can make substantial changes.''

Opponents, meanwhile, still smarting from being characterized as insincere, defend their tactics. "It upsets me when they start attacking my faith and imply that because we are Christians, we have a hidden agenda and no right to speak,'' says Staible of CEE. "They said we want to overthrow public education, and that is just not so. If we could go back and do this differently, I think everyone of us would. We'd sit down and be taken seriously. That's just fair government and equal debate.''

As the fight shifts from Pennsylvania into states across the country, however, it does not show signs of becoming more civilized. State officials and their critics continue to view each other more as evil forces than concerned servants and citizens. Luksik says it is not a holy war or some crusade to gut the public schools. Instead, she supposes it is parents finally speaking up and saying that not only do they no longer trust government but also that they are wary of school reformers. "John Q. Lunchbox,'' she explains, "thinks government is not doing such a good job and is saying, 'Maybe I need to get involved.' ''

As much as they are skeptics of the new system, the opponents are also diehards who have not given up on the old ways. They are frustrated by education policymakers who try on new reform schemes every couple of years and seem mystified that schools are unfocused and faring poorly.

In Pennsylvania, they fought the expanded expectations of the state because many believe the state should be bolstering the foundations of education, not asking for a permit to build another deck.

Luksik says when she taught 2nd grade, she resisted the temptation to teach too much. She's asking educators now to do the same. "I didn't get into the touchy-feely programs because there were so many facts,'' she says. "I used to think that we had such a short opportunity with these kids that we had to cram in as much as we could. I really felt my focus was to fill their minds and give them the tools to live their lives. I listened to all of the stuff about self-esteem and counseling, but I wanted to make sure they could read. What good is it to make them feel good about not reading?''

In her travels across the country, Luksik has found many like-minded parents. She says she has also discovered that education leaders are often at a loss to answer basic questions about their reform intentions, that many local teachers and principals are far from being on the bandwagon for change, and that skeptical parents are greeted like a thundershower at a reunion picnic. "Sally Average,'' she explains, "who was baking cookies for the PTA, all of a sudden finds herself a radical in her community.''

Last winter and spring, she carried her frustration and her views to 10 states, speaking primarily to parent and pro-family groups, taxpayer coalitions, conservative religious groups, and people fearful of what the government plans to do. Now that summer is over and her children's activities have dwindled, she is on the road again.

Luksik is quick to remind her audiences that it was education reformers who dreamed up the idea of large, comprehensive high schools, open classrooms, and a host of other ideas that have since been reconsidered and in some cases shelved. She wants assurances that the same will not happen with outcome-based education. Once they are asked to think about it, she says, parents are not willing to give their public leaders too many more chances to build programs that won't last.

"For 10 years, we've seen education bureaucrats experiment, and it hasn't worked,'' she says. "We started asking questions and didn't get reasonable answers or consistent answers, and sometimes we didn't get any answers. We need to quit guessing. It is important for the ivory tower people to hear that we want something practical and know we will talk back. It is important that this debate happen. Our children need not to be experimented on.''

Spady, who works with districts to build outcome-based programs, argues: "Thirty years of hard endeavor is being characterized as a lowering of standards, but we've worked harder than anybody to get standards. I think the idea will outlast the opponents, but I am trusting the good common sense and openmindedness of the American public and its leaders to get us through this. We will prevail in this political battle only to the extent that local educators understand what real outcome-based education is.''

But for all the talk about change bubbling up from localities and front-line parents and teachers, Luksik argues that education does not take its cues from grass-roots mandates. "Teachers know little or nothing about this, and, to the rank-and-file people, this is just another state mandate and another experiment,'' she says. "They don't realize they are the ones who are going to be caught in a vice when this doesn't work.

"Thinking about what we want from schools would be a good starting point for this discussion because everybody is coming at this from a different world view,'' Luksik adds. "Business is saying it wants schools to produce the work force, some people are saying they want the schools to raise the child, parents want their children to learn academics, and bureaucrats are saying they want to define and produce a good citizen.

"You hear all about parental involvement, and here you have it. State officials are puzzled because they've been trained to believe that everybody that opposes them is some right-wing zealot and part of some conspiracy. But all parents want is to start with something that is basically reasonable.''

Many observers are not certain that Luksik and her band of critics are as willing to compromise as she claims. State education officials across the country have sought advice on how to position themselves to withstand fights like the one that scarred Pennsylvania. Groups such as the Education Commission of the States have issued guides on the subject and said officials are right to be concerned that a minority of vocal objectors can wreak havoc on a well-intentioned plan that could win general support.

People for the American Way, a civil liberties watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., monitors what it terms "religiousright state activities.'' Its most recent 28-page report details widespread action against outcome-based education and is filled with sightings of Peg Luksik. Leaders of the group say it is a stretch to describe the growing resistance as a parents' rebellion.

Organized conservative groups beyond CEE are at the forefront of the national movement. The Free Congress Foundation and Eagle Forum are active opponents who stand alongside prominent religious opponents such as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

"I wouldn't describe everyone opposing outcome-based education as part of the religious right, but the national organizations taking it on are almost exclusively religious-right organizations,'' says Matthew Freeman, research director for People for the American Way. "So it is a distinction without a difference. It is every bit as much of an overreach for these people to claim to speak for parents as it is for the religious right to say it speaks for Christians.''

Amid all the finger pointing and political calculations, Luksik, still the most notorious basher of outcome-based education, says she is puzzled by all the fuss.

"People keep looking for an agenda, but there is no agenda here,'' she says. "I'm just a person who believes in what she says she believes in. It's not that I took it a few extra steps. Those extra steps were handed to me. I never called another state, never called the media, never called to ask for bookings.

"Why would people be scared of me?'' she laughs. "I don't even weigh 100 pounds.''

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Page 1-24

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