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Opposition to systems thinking propels appointment to school board

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com

David Regnery, the Forsyth County GOP’s recommended nominee for appointment to the Winston- Salem/Forysth County School Board withdrew his name less than 24 hours before a scheduled vote by the county commission to fill the unexpired term of Donny Lambeth. The field was thrown wide open.

Few outside of the party would have predicted the appointment of Irene May, a PTA volunteer with three children in the school system.

Forsyth County voters are likely more familiar with Lori Goins Clark, who finished about 300 votes short of winning an at-large seat on the school board in 2010. As president of Forsyth County Republican Women, Clark has gone through the paces for her party. A marketing team member for Chick-fil-A, she also works as a substitute teacher for the school district. Her mother, Jane Goins, chairs the school board.

The party’s executive committee passed over Clark in favor of David Regnery on Dec. 18. Regnery withdrew his name from consideration on Jan. 2 in the midst of an inquiry by the Winston- Salem Journal into whether he falsified his residency to obtain Class 3 weapons, a category that includes machine guns.

In addition to Clark and May, David Singletary, a life-insurance sales representative, had been vetted by the county GOP. In the wake of Regnery’s withdrawal, a handful of additional candidates surfaced. Among the names floated for consideration were Robert Barr, who also came within striking distance of winning a seat in the 2010 election; Mark R. Johnson, a lawyer with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and former teacher; and Louis Newton, a retired teacher at West Forsyth High School and retired CEO of an educational software company.

The four members who comprise the conservative Republican majority on the board signaled that they wanted to go ahead and make the appointment. The board’s two Democrats and one Republican moderate called for a delay to allow consideration of the new candidates.

“This is something I’ve never heardof in America — voting without even having a list of candidates,” Democrat Walter Marshall said. “How can you do that? You swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, and that means you follow the process…. Just because the majority of you all have made up your minds doesn’t make it ethical, doesn’t make it right. And it’s not right.”

The conservatives placated Marshall by drawing up a list of candidates and by giving each one present two minutes to address the commissioners. But the conservatives had already made up their minds: When the votes were tallied, Chairman Richard Linville, Commissioner Bill Whiteheart, Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt and Commissioner Mark Baker — himself appointed to fill the unexpired term of Debra Conrad only moments earlier — cast in favor of May. Commissioners Walter Marshall and Everett Witherspoon voted for Newton. And Clark received her only vote from Commissioner Dave Plyler.

The choice of May and Regnery over Clark represents a clear pattern by the party leadership of selecting relatively unknown conservative candidates over a moderate who is familiar to voters across party lines.

The rightward drift of the party in the selection of leadership for the county comes down to a litmus issues with which most people outside of the conservative movement are probably unfamiliar.

“The biggest question for all the candidates was systems thinking; it was the main issue,” said Pam Lofland, a member of the Forsyth County GOP Executive Committee who backed Regnery. “Everyone was against it except for one candidate. With David [Regnery] withdrawing… Irene was a very good choice. She’s active in the PTA. She’s very concerned about what goes on in the schools.”

When asked what motivated her to seek the appointment following the county commission’s vote, May didn’t hesitate to name her main issue.

“My children are in the system at this point,” she said. “I basically was made aware of the systems thinking that’s been implemented recently, and I am against it for many reasons, the main reason being that it’s really not a vetted methodology.”

Clark was the only candidate during the public candidate forum hosted by the Forsyth County GOP on Dec. 18 that didn’t express opposition to systems thinking.

Opposition to systems thinking as a point of consensus among Forsyth County Republicans is a recent phenomenon. In October, the Republicancontrolled school board voted to move forward with systems-thinking training for school personnel by a vote of 7 to 2, with Clark’s mother making the motion for approval. With five Republicans on the school board supporting the program, it could have passed without support from the board’s two Democrats.

Whisenhunt and Whiteheart are sometimes subjected to disparagement as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, on conservative blogs, but Lofland said she believes the four conservative Republican commissioners genuinely preferred May.

“The core of the Republican Party is very conservative,” she said. “The worker bees are all very conservative. Had they not made the conservative choice, they would have heard about it.”

A set of principles initially developed to help businesses operate more effectively, systems thinking has prompted conservative fears because of its real or imagined associations with sustainability, collectivism, socialism and Buddhism.

“We all probably spend too much time thinking about smart individuals,” said Peter Senge, an advocate for systems thinking who has become a lightning rod in the conservative movement, in a talk about systems thinking that was filmed in 2011. “It’s one of the problems with school. It’s very individualistic, very much about the smart kids and the dumb kids. That’s not the kind of smartness we need. The smartness we need is collective. We need cities that work differently. We need industrial sectors that work differently. We need values chains and supply chains that are managed from beginning to end to purely produce social, ecological and economic wellbeing. That’s the concept of intelligence we need. And it will never be achieved by a handful of smart individuals. It’s not about the smartest guys in the room; it’s about what we can do collectively.”

One definition put forward by the Waters Foundation, an organization that helps schools implement systems thinking, describes the approach as “a perspective that sharpens our awareness of whole and how the parts within those wholes interrelate.”

Singletary, who put his name forward for appointment and who plans to run for school board next year, said he supports the concept of teaching critical thinking skills to students, but is concerned that some aspects of systems thinking encourage children to question traditional beliefs.

“The UN made a decision that they should try to reorient education in a way to improve education while introducing sustainability,” Singletary said.

“The problem with sustainability is that — capitalism may not be the greatest system in the world, democracy as a system may have its fallacies, but they have served us well. Capitalism says when you have a need you produce more to meet it. Sustainability says we have limited resources; therefore we’re only going to be able to serve a limited number.”

A laudatory article published by the school district’s communications department in August describes systems thinking’s application to schools as “helping students learn to think clearly and to see the big picture” and enhancing “educators’ ability to reach one of the prime goals of the common core curriculum — learning the skills necessary to be successful in an increasingly complex world.”

The article states that 20 employees, along with school-board member Elisabeth Motsinger, had recently returned from a conference in Arizona called “Camp Snowball,” where they learned about systems thinking. The 2013 Camp Snowball conference is scheduled for this summer in Winston- Salem on the campus of Wake Forest University.

Singletary said he visited a reading class in Lewisville to observe a teacher using systems-thinking tools. He said the students appeared to be engaged with the teacher as they discussed the motivations of the various characters in a story, and that he came away impressed with the learning environment. But he said he believes systems thinking is merely a placebo, and what teachers really need is the freedom to teach without undue administrative interference.

The school board’s vote in October to move forward with plans to train additional teachers in systems thinking showcased the seeds of the backlash.

One of the two members who opposed the decision was Jeannie Metcalf, who led balloting in the at-large race for school board in 2010. Minutes for the meeting reflect that Metcalf “stated she will never support systems thinking or any of Peter Senge’s beliefs, and she does not want his values in our education system. She is concerned that Peter Senge is trying to turn our schools into Buddhist institutions and that our children will not be taught to be individuals but be a part of a collective society.”

Buddy Collins, who represents District 2, said he was “concerned about the relationships between Peter Senge and Jay Forrester, colleagues at MIT, who seem to serve as the basis of systems thinking and in particular that it might be patterned after a socialist model.”

Superintendent Don Martin reportedly “countered this point and said there is no worldview plan or socialist plan to undermine education. He was concerned about the articles that were being circulated that indicated this view, and he asked Mr. Collins to show him what he has been reading.”

Nine teachers and principals told school board members that systemsthinking tools were getting students excited about learning, prodding them to think more deeply and develop problem-solving skills, and generally improving student achievement.

But Metcalf and Collins had some allies from the community to back their position.

Scott Cumbie, chairman of the Forsyth County GOP, said he was “concerned about the philosophy of systems thinking” and was “afraid that the program leads to globalization and is focused on the collective rather than the individual. In reference to sustainability, he questioned where this would take us. He stated Peter Senge is not for the individual but for the collective.”

Joyce Krawiec, who was appointed by the party to fill the late NC Rep. Larry Brown’s unexpired term in the NC House, said “systems thinking sounds convoluted and confusing and believes it is a process for a planned community.”

Irene May was first in line to speak among the opponents.

She was “concerned that the program may undermine a child’s ability to think on his own,” the minutes reflect. “She is also afraid that systems thinking is taking children to a new and different level, possibly to new-age thinking. She said she believes it is an affront to a particular religious belief and undermines American pride.”

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