Farce as reality at the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board

by Jordan Green

The Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board has moved decisively to halt the march of “systems thinking” through the public schools with a split vote in February to terminate its relationship with the Society for Organizational Learning Educational Partnership and disassociate the district from the training hosted by the organization after one final round this summer at Wake Forest University.

Championed by school board member Elisabeth Motsinger, systems thinking teaches children critical thinking skills. In an era when the old manufacturing jobs that guaranteed high school graduates a livelihood have all but disappeared due to automation and off-shoring and even the information sector is hollowing out as everyone becomes empowered to be a content provider, it would seem that the school board would be clamoring for new models that deliver results.

Never mind that Peter Senge, the avatar of systems thinking, is one of the most respected business consultants in the country. The trouble seems to be that Senge might be a practicing Buddhist. If so, he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve or proselytize, but still, his possible exercise of freedom to worship as he chooses flies in the face of the rage for sanctimonious theocratic Christianity that is sweeping the Republican circles holding a grip on Forsyth County government. Some school board members are also uneasy about the promotion of sustainability — thought to be anti-capitalist — by Senge and his cohorts. The idea that people should work cooperatively to solve shared challenges strikes these esteemed elected representatives of the people as “collectivist,” maybe even socialist. Wait, didn’t Senge originally develop this model to help businesses succeed? Best not to go there. Expecting intellectual coherency from this board gives them too much credit.

Teachers have told the Winston-Salem Journal that their students have become more engaged and thoughtful since they have implemented systems thinking as a teaching method. School board members who have observed classrooms where the method is used have also come away impressed.

“I was able to hear how it’s taught, able to learn about how it’s being used in other school systems,” Jill Tackabery told the Journal. “I came away with a very favorable opinion of how this methodology can be used in our school system to help our children become 21st century students, since that’s the world they’re going to be living in.”

Superintendent Don Martin, who retires on June 30, has ardently defended systems thinking. Beverly Emory, who replaces him, tells the Journal she’s not familiar with the method.

Recall that when board member Donny Lambeth resigned to take a seat in the NC General Assembly in December, opposition to systems thinking was the single most important issue on which the candidates for replacement were evaluated by the county Republican executive committee. The committee first passed over a tested candidate and substitute teacher, Lori Goins Clark, who had earned votes in a previous school board election — and has her socialconservatism creds in line as a marketing agent for Chick-fil-A, by the way — for David Regnery, who abruptly withdrew his name from consideration when the media started asking questions about his firearms permits. The county commission then passed over Clark again, voting to install Irene May, whose signature issue was her opposition to systems thinking.

Only six months ago, the school board supported the use of federal Race to the Top funds to pay for systems thinking training by a vote of 7 to 2, with board members Buddy Collins and Jeannie Metcalf dissenting. With May’s appointment to the board in January, the opponents added one more member to their ranks to put into effect their masterstroke in self-satire.

The hysteria surrounding systems thinking reads like a bad parody of The Crucible, playwright Arthur Miller’s 1950s treatment of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the McCarthyist anticommunism crusade.

Collins — who is, incidentally, being elevated to the NC Board of Education by Gov. Pat McCrory — expressed concern last fall that systems thinking “might be patterned after a socialist model,” according to board minutes.

How the fearmongers persuaded two more members to come over to their side to flip the vote is perplexing.

Victor Johnson, the lone Democrat who represents majority-black District 1, said, according to the Journal, that he didn’t support Race to the Top money being used for systems thinking training because it wasn’t being targeted to low-income schools.

“The money coming from Race to the Top was designed for the kids not doing well,” Johnson reportedly said. “I don’t have a problem with [systems thinking], but if it’s so good let’s take it [to low-income] schools.”

Logic would dictate that the district redirect the training to low-income schools, where critical thinking to prepare for the global economy is most needed, rather than slam the door on the program altogether. But apparently that’s not the way Johnson saw it because he voted to cut ties with the Society for Organizational Learning.

John Davenport, a black Republican who was appointed by the Republican majority to fill a vacancy to represent an overwhelming Democratic electorate in District 1, had his own rationale.

“The public expects us to conduct the business of this community,” he said. “The only way I see we can work together is to stop discussing SOL Ed. There are a lot of other partnerships we can enter into.

“I’d like to put this behind us.”