David and Goliath: An Oklahoma Story
This past week I was invited to Oklahoma City to participate in a photo event marking the historic signing of HB3399, the bill that ended Common Core in Oklahoma. I’m not at all sure I belonged with the group in the photo, but I was pleased to represent my region of Oklahoma by participating. The effort for HB3399 was totally an ongoing grassroots marathon that for some began four to five years ago. I only became aware and took an active part over the last year, but this involvement has given me unique insight as to how the surprising upset was accomplished.
In the beginning, overturning Common Core seemed like an impossible goal. By the time anyone really knew what was happening, the governor, the state superintendent of education, and the legislature had worked together to not just put Common Core “in place,” but to put it into law. By June of 2010, it had become the law of the land and virtually no teachers or parents had even heard of it. As some of us began to question it, as we dug into its history and background, we learned that Common Core was much bigger than Oklahoma; it was a national initiative to ensure that all American children learned exactly the same thing at the same time and were tested on their knowledge based on those standards with exactly the same tests, and the data from those test results would be accessible on a national level to third party vendors. We figured out that the impetus behind it all boiled down to a few individuals or groups with a lot of money who either thought they knew better than educators and parents how to run education, or who saw huge profits to be made in providing curriculum materials, computerized tests, and professional development for the “new, national” standards. It has become a fight of the “one-percenters,” the super-rich “philanthropists” with a business perspective and sometimes (oftentimes?) questionable motives, against disconnected, politically unsophisticated, and normally compliant parents and teachers.
As the battle was playing to what we thought was its end, I happened to be reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). I was intrigued by the correlation I noted between theories in this text and what was happening in Oklahoma. Perhaps it will be useful to review those correlations.
Not Playing by the Rules
At the beginning of the book, Gladwell introduces his premise using the familiar Biblical tale of David and Goliath, but he cautions that David’s victory over the giant warrior was not as straight forward as we usually think of it. It’s important to know, for example, that there were certain conventions of warfare that everyone was expected to follow; one of those conventions involved avoiding devastating and costly battles by agreeing to one-on-one contests. Each side pitted its best hand-to-hand fighter against that of the other side, winner take all. In the David and Goliath story, that’s just what the Philistines were trying to set up, but no Israelite was big enough to stand a chance against Goliath. When David rose to the challenge, everyone, including King Saul, expected him to fight a close, hand-to-hand encounter. David, however, knowing that was effectively suicidal, refused to follow the conventions. He elected to use his highly honed skills as a slinger against Goliath. Slingers comprised one of the three components of every ancient army, along with foot soldiers in heavy armor and archers who stayed behind the lines and did not need armor. Thus, when David approached him with no armor and no visible weapons, Goliath was perplexed, and only too late did he realize that David wasn’t following the “rules.”
I see a clear correlation here to the story of the defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma. To begin with, the movement essentially started with a very small group of parents, some of them also teachers, who realized early on the standards themselves were not well written. Although there were some good parts to them, on the whole, they were not developmentally appropriate, especially at the lower grade levels, and they made assumptions about children and learning, even at higher grade levels, that were inaccurate. These individuals were led to do a great deal of research through which they began to see that the standards were only a part of a much bigger “initiative” promoted by the federal Department of Education to be “national” standards and funded by philanthropists with a decidedly “corporate reform” bent, and that the ultimate goal of these tightly connected “reformers” was data collection on both kids and their parents and the ultimate destruction of public education. They were determined to stop it, but what could such a small group do against such a huge and well-funded business-government coalition?
They became “David” pacing back and forth at the top of the ridge surveying the valley below where the huge giant stood commanding the field of battle. For approximately three years, they researched, wrote, and talked to anyone who would listen–and there weren’t many who would. They were often ignored or dismissed. As they traveled from one corner of the state to the other at their own expense, giving presentations with PowerPoints displaying screenshots with documentation for their claims, a few people began to listen, especially parents whose children were now dealing with some of the disturbing curriculum being introduced as “Common Core-aligned.”
Realizing that, since Common Core had been voted into law, repeal would have to come through the legislature, they began lobbying legislators to submit repeal bills. Although bills were submitted at each session, they never reached the floor, probably because of the influence of the minions of those who had pushed Common Core from outside the state in the first place, and because few legislators saw these new standards as significantly different from any other set of standards, for heaven’s sake! In 2011 and 2013, however, two representatives were given permission to hold a couple of interim studies on Common Core. At each of those studies, educators and parents testified, some angrily, some tearfully, as to numerous problems with Common Core and about the problems with testing that were already being experienced and would intensify as Common Core was fully implemented. I testified at one of these studies; unfortunately, only a handful of legislators actually showed up to hear our testimony.
Traditional political wisdom would say that the cause was hopeless; there were too many people with too much money and power arrayed against us to achieve our goal. But those with the power didn’t count on the Mama Bears. By late fall 2013 into winter 2014, parent legislative action committees began to spring up all over Oklahoma. These groups were concerned and they were angry. Not only did they feel that Common Core was not appropriate for their children, they felt they were totally left out of the educational and political process. This was the point where “David” stopped following the conventions of how things get done in politics. The various parent groups set up Facebook pages and posted the research that they were doing that revealed the corrupt underbelly of the Common Core Initiative. These posts were shared and re-shared and re-re-shared. There were blogs and Twitter conversations to develop strategies and to keep one another informed. Connections were made with similar groups across the country; we learned we were not alone.
It was determined that the only way to get the attention of the legislature was to bombard individual legislators with emails, letters, and phone calls, and the Mama Bears did it by the thousands, using social media to coordinate their efforts. In fact I read that, after the bill was passed and the governor was contemplating whether or not to sign it, she received over 20,000 emails and calls requesting her to sign. On at least two occasions, the call went out for parents and teachers to report to the Capitol en masse for a systematic lobbying effort, and hundreds showed up. That is the kind of grassroots demonstration that “Goliath” never expected. And Oklahoma is not the only place this kind of political activism among parents and teachers is being exercised. This is happening in many states across the country, and one by one, the dominos are falling.
Giants Are Not Always What They Seem
The second correlation with Gladwell’s rendition of the David and Goliath story has to do with the idea that Goliath’s greatest strength was actually his greatest weakness. According to Gladwell, researchers now believe that Goliath suffered from a malady known as acromegaly. This condition is brought about by a tumor that grows on the pituitary gland, which as you may recall, is the tiny gland in your head that controls growth. Acromegaly causes growth in height to continue well past the time it ceases in normal individuals, resulting in extreme height, sometimes eight feet or more. This certainly could explain Goliath’s reputation as a giant. However, most people with acromegaly also have very poor vision, including double vision, and the evidence in the Biblical text suggests this was true for Goliath. Thus, Goliath was unable to determine that David was not planning to follow the rules of hand-to-hand combat until he was well within range of his slingshot. As Gladwell says, “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (p. 15). I think this is certainly true of the groups and individuals who developed and successfully (to a degree) promoted Common Core. For whatever reason, they believe that they and only they know exactly how to “fix” American education. This deep-seated hubris leads them to believe that the rest of the nation should be grateful for what they are doing and not question it. They believed they could pave the way for acceptance by the people by paying for it with their largess. They did not expect any significant opposition and did not plan for it. Thus, by the time it had developed, they had no response other than to continue to spout the unsupported and undocumented talking points they provided initially. In my opinion, the strength of their self-confidence in themselves and their money was their undoing, at least in Oklahoma.
Gladwell points out that “underdog strategies are hard” (p. 32). When you are the underdog, the temptation is to use the expected familiar tactics. To develop new ones and to put your trust in them takes guts and determination and plain old consistent hard work. That certainly describes the work of the Mama Bears in Oklahoma in the years leading up to HB3399.
The Theory of Desirable Difficulty
Gladwell also discusses the theory of desirable difficulty. This theory proposes that, although discouraging difficulties in life, such as being born dyslexic or losing a parent at an early age, may result in some people accomplishing less than their potential, for others the very difficulties they experience have the effect of being the catalyst they require to succeed. One aspect of this is based on the Five Factor Personality Assessment; this measurement looks at where individuals fall on a continuum of five factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One psychologist believes that innovators, people who think and act outside the box, tend to have a great deal of openness and conscientiousness; however, they surprisingly tend to be somewhat disagreeable, in the sense of being “willing to take social risks–to do things that others might disapprove of” (p. 117). In other words, the difficulties they have faced and survived may actually lead them to take the risks necessary to challenge the status quo.
In relation to this theory, Gladwell also talks about the fear of fear being a major factor in not overcoming in desperate situations. When a person has been through “hell,” so to speak, and survived, he or she tends to lose the sense of fear. He or she is ready and willing to be “disagreeable,” if that’s what it takes to accomplish an important task.
How does this theory explain the Oklahoma fight against Common Core? I can only speculate, since I do not have knowledge of the stories of thousands of teachers and parents who took an active role in this campaign; however, I have heard the stories of parents watching their children struggle with developmentally inappropriate school tasks and tests, and I have heard from teachers who are demoralized by the pinball machine of constant reforms and incessant testing and test prep, who are cheated of the opportunity to use their professional knowledge and decision making art and skill. I strongly suspect that many of these folks have moved beyond their fear of the consequences of speaking out and taking a public role in an attempt to regain their voices in the education of the children of this state. It may have been, like the snake in the beaker of water that doesn’t realize the temperature is being raised to the killing point, these folks might have consented uncomplaining, had the “reform” of Common Core been introduced in a way that gave them the appearance of having a voice in its adoption. As it was, the top-down, “we know best” attitude of the promoters and the immediate and devastating impact it had on children and teachers resulted in a level of “discouraging difficulty” like nothing they had yet experienced. At some point that “difficulty” reached a tipping point; there was no fear left; action was required no matter the risk. I do know that many of the anti-Common Core “operatives” became decidedly “disagreeable” in the view of a number of legislators and state officers; they simply would not go away.
The Theories of the Limits of Power and the Inverted U Curve
Another theory that Gladwell deals with in relation to battling giants is the theory of the limits of power. He explains the perspective developed by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf of the RAND Corporation that became popular after World War II for dealing with insurrections. According to Leites and Wolf, people operate rationally on a cost/benefit basis; that is, if the cost is too great, behavior of an individual will change. They believed then that “influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy or mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with, and how they are calculated” (p. 202). In other words, if the rebels’ behavior doesn’t change, the cost to them is not severe enough. According to Gladwell, the IRA Insurrection in Northern Ireland and Viet Nam were both fought on exactly this premise. It didn’t work in both cases, or in many others. This theory has as its basis the idea that “the power of the state was without limits” (p. 217).
Gladwell maintains that Leites and Wolf had it all wrong. Whereas Leites and Wolf said authority doesn’t need to worry about how those in their power felt and thought, Gladwell says it is absolutely imperative that authority figures care about the feelings of their “subjects” and communicate that to them.
Gladwell also talks about something called the inverted U curve. The theory of this statistical curve is that making a change of any sort often follows a kind of upside down “U” trajectory. Initially there appears to be a quick and beneficial benefit or “rise” due to the change. At some point, however, the benefit from the “rise” flattens out; applying more of the change doesn’t get the same dramatic effect. Eventually, the benefit actually begins to fall; no matter how much more of the change you apply, the benefit becomes less and less. Gladwell applies this idea to the exercise of power, and comes to the conclusion that there are definite limits to power. He goes on to explain that when those in power do not take the feelings of the people into account, their power loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people. They no longer see any need to be loyal to that power. “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission” (p.273).
Let’s see how this theory applies to the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma. Research has shown rather conclusively that there was a concerted effort on the part of several corporate reform entities aided and abetted by personnel in the U.S. Department of Education to bypass the democratic process to install the Common Core State Standards in every state before the public was aware of it, at which point, they believed it would be too late for the states to back out. As the realization of that slowly dawned on parents and teachers in Oklahoma, they began to feel that they had had no voice in what was happening to their schools and to their children. And as they realized the result of corporate reform, including Common Core, would lead to more and more standardized testing, and the data from their students would be shared inappropriately–all excessive uses of force–those pushing for Common Core began to lose legitimacy in their eyes. A strong opt-out movement sprang up in Oklahoma; many parents, including some 800 in the suburban community of Jenks, requested that their students not participate in field testing for the new tests. There was a marked rise in parents who began to homeschool their children in an attempt to avoid the impact of Common Core and other reforms. The development of the parent legislative action committees was in itself an act of defiance.
To make matters worse, the state superintendent of education essentially turned a deaf ear to all requests by parents and schools to mute the impact of the reforms, including Common Core. Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was her rigid insistence on the Reading Sufficiency Act (a major part of the corporate reform agenda) which required all third-graders unable to pass the third-grade Language Arts test (of which less than half was a true reading test) at the prescribed level, would be retained. The superintendent’s lack of compassion and understanding absolutely contributed to the decline in the sense of legitimacy of the state education agency. Not only were parents complaining loudly on social media and in other venues, many teachers and administrators across the state took to writing blogs, some anonymously, some not, and writing news releases to draw attention to their plight.
I feel confident that this loss of legitimacy facilitated the “insurrection” against Common Core in Oklahoma. As I write this, the story is not done. After the governor signed the bill overwhelmingly passed by the legislature, a small group of teachers and parents and members of the governor-appointed school board filed suit in the Oklahoma Supreme Court to have portions of the bill declared unconstitutional. This appears to be a political game organized to deflect the heat from the governor and still keep Common Core. I don’t think the Mama Bears and the teachers are going to be fooled this time. They have lost all faith in the legitimacy of those currently in power in Oklahoma. If the Supreme Court tows the power line and declares the bill unconstitutional, I have no doubt there will be political repercussions in the months to come.
I don’t propose that the theories that Gladwell spells out in David and Goliath explain everything about how Common Core was/is being defeated in Oklahoma, but I do believe much of what happened and is happening can be interpreted in light of these theories, and I believe we can benefit from understanding how these theories apply. Those who have fought this battle, however, should also consider them a warning. The inverted U curve can exert its power in unexpected ways; the strategies utilized against the pro-Common Core factors can simply lose their effect if they are overused. The inverted U suggests there is a limit to their effectiveness. It remains to be watchful and vigilant, something we haven’t been particularly good at in the past. I hope we are not destined to repeat this history. With knowledge and determination, we don’t have to be.
Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.