Controlled Burn, Alinskyian organizing, and Common Core (Book Review)

Controlled Burn Alinskyian organizing and Common Core: A Book Review of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform By Mark R. Warren, Karen L. Mapp, and the Community Organizing and School Reform Project, Oxford University Press (2011)


The title of this book, A Match on Dry Grass, is a metaphor. The education system is desiccated; parents are frustrated and angry. In such an environment, all it takes is a small push for reform, supplied by professional organizers around the country, and a wild prairie-fire of a movement against the “’savage inequalities’ of American public education” will be ignited. (p. 5) At least, that’s the plan.

Mark Warren, premier author of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform and a long-time academic apologist for Alinskyian community organizing (1), is one of the leaders of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Community Organizing and School Reform Project. The Project produced A Match on Dry Grass and hosted a national conference in 2012 from which it has made available materials, videos, and related publications. (2)

The project studied six locally-situated groups, four of which belong to larger, interconnected Alinskyian networks (the other two, the authors explain, have their roots in the civil rights movement but they, too, have strong Alinskyian connections). Each of these local groups operates within its own community as well as working collectively on a broader platform, through collaborations and partnerships, to promote progressive interests, among them “education reform.”

However, A Match on Dry Grass is clear that what the Alinskyian community organizations understand by “education reform” involves changing many things. “Community organizing groups do not engage in school reform solely for the purpose of improving public education. They work to improve public education as part of a larger process of developing leaders and building power for communities to address the full range of structural imbalances that combine to create poverty and marginalization.”(p. 32)

In other words, progressive education reform is part of a package that has a much larger vision than merely restructuring dysfunctional school systems. Alinskyian community organizing is building a body of people who support something undefined but assuredly different. Not only is it left undefined what the end product of “systemic change” will look like but many terms are used ambiguously. When the reader is reminded of “the importance of involving families in the education of their children,” it’s likely that he will imagine parents who read to their children, who supervise homework, and who examine report cards with genuine interest. He may think of parents who are active in Parent-Teacher Associations or who volunteer in their children’s classrooms.

This is not what Alinskyian community organizations mean when they “involve families” in their children’s education. Alinskyian-trained parents are engaged as “change agents who can transform urban schools and neighborhoods” (quoting educator Dennis Shirley). The Alinskyian community organizations are only superficially about education; they are “primarily political, albeit normally nonpartisan, organizations focused on institutional change.”(p. 7, emphasis added) This means that Alinskyian organizations supplant conventional political and social processes with their own agenda: “Organizing groups become an active agent in this historic and ongoing process, providing a vehicle for people to build the capacity of their community.” (3) (p. 21) This is accomplished by teaching trainees, ironically called “leaders,” (4) to do the political work that has been predetermined by the organization: “All [Alinskyian organizing] groups train emerging leaders in the operation of political systems so people can develop strategies to effect change. Using political education or other means, organizing groups also help leaders place their current struggles in the context of larger historic efforts with their community, whether as people of faith committed to social justice [or] as African-Americans struggling for freedom.” (p. 29)

“Leaders” are also reeducated to understand their problems from a specifically progressive-political worldview: Organizing groups “work with communities to reshape that story [their historical narrative] into a contemporary narrative concerning who they are today, what they are organizing for and why their cause is just.” (pp. 30-31)

With this introduction, the study turns to its six examples of advocacy for education “reform,” four of which are by Alinskyian groups. One, PACT in San Jose, California is affiliated with the national PICO network. Two are part of the international Industrial Areas Foundation network: One LA in Los Angeles and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago. (5) Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in New York City is part of the National People’s Action network. (6)

San Jose, California

Parent-leaders of PACT fought, as they were trained, to advocate for “small-schools” having “site-based autonomy.” In actuality, the “small schools” were mastery learning laboratories based on the work of Deborah Meier, whose The Power of Their Ideas was PACT-parent reading material.(p. 41) Mastery learning – later called outcome based education – is not traditional education, where a student is expected to learn specific information and skills but is transformational, that is, it operates from an array of predetermined outcomes, some of which are attitudinal or affective, that the student must demonstrate he has mastered. When the outcome is “to know the multiplication table,” an outcome-based approach seems reasonable; when the outcome is “to accept diversity” or “to make healthful food choices” the school has overstepped its role…particularly as such outcomes can only be measured in terms of behavior. (7)

To further assure that parents the charter schools these parents were helping to build would be properly oriented, PACT hired a regional Coalition of Essential Schools affiliate to coach the design teams planning its charter schools. The Coalition of Essential Schools has been a prime mover of mastery learning (outcome based education). As California has adopted Common Core standards and all public schools in the Alum Rock, of which LUCHA is a part, will be running Common Core assessments by spring 2014, (8) LUCHA will have a decided advantage in this new system.

One component of these small, mastery learning schools is community organizing. Not only was PACT a primary factor in creating these charter schools but it assures a continued presence by “provided” an organizer at each school site to oversee “parent engagement.” (p. 59) There is daily indoctrination of the students in PACT schools: “The principal blows a whistle, and the children organize themselves into lines of about twenty. ‘Good morning, L.U.C.H.A. leaders!’” L.U.C.H.A. is the name of one of the PACT charter schools, an acronym standing for “Learning in an Urban Community with High Achievement” that means “fight” in Spanish. “Teachers and students, loudly and enthusiastically declare together, ‘I am a leader in my home, in my school, and’ – pointing at the neighborhood all around them in a large circle – ‘in my community.’ Together they recite a promise to each other to be responsible, respectful, and compassionate and –pounding their small fists into their hands enthusiastically – ‘to work hard every day!’” (p. 47)

As an aside, but related to the understanding that the change sought by Alinskyian organizing efforts is far broader than merely “education,” in tangent with its work to create small, mastery learning charter schools in San Jose, PACT also has expended a good deal of time and energy promoting Healthy Kids, a program to provide comprehensive medical, dental and vision insurance to children whose families don’t qualify for other public programs. Comprehensive means, among many other things, that eligible women who are pregnant can receive all sorts of “family planning” services. (9)

Lest one be tempted to dismiss PACTs activities as limited to a few small schools, the authors of A Match on Dry Grass assure us that “PACT is not satisfied with creating strong cultures of academic success at individual schools; they aim to create high-quality educational options for all San Jose’s children.” (p. 64)

Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois

Two of the organizations A Match on Dry Grass studies are affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation – the Alinskyian organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky himself and on which PICO and the National People’s Action (among others) are modeled.

The IAF’s efforts for educational “reform” began in Texas with, among other things, the creation of Alliance public schools. Like PICO’s model small schools in San Jose, Alliance schools are designed to be part of a larger organizational structure – themselves institutional members of their local IAF groups.(p. 70) Like PICO, IAF teaches its “leaders” to think “more broadly” about educational issues – including environment and health, for example. (p. 81) Like PICO, IAF organizers work internally within each Alliance school, training teachers, principals, and parents in organizational (“relational”) culture.(p. 70) Most significantly, Alliance schools are also patterned on mastery learning pedagogy.

Spreading to California, One LA organizers in Los Angeles had parents study the “Alliance strategy that worked so well in Texas,” (p. 72) namely by growing “a new political constituency” (p. 73) Interested principals attended IAF training and brought organizers into their schools to work among parents and teachers. (p. 84) They were taught how to handpick “leadership” (p. 86) among teachers and parents and then test these “leaders” in small actions that serve several purposes. One is, of course, to make some small, immediate improvement in the school environment. The more important purpose, however, is to build the organization’s base of support: “Through community meetings and planning sessions, Harmony parents like Benitez step forward and demonstrate the kind of desire and temperament One LA looks for in leaders. Harmony staff and organizer Fujimoto identify these parents and focus their energy on developing them as leaders.”(p. 92)

The ultimate goal is “influencing educational change and civic life” (p. 96) and while A Match on Dry Grass contrasts the IAF’s relation-building “to more mainstream education reform that seeks to implement single-focus reform strategies,” (p. 97) the end is the same: a comprehensive system of education, womb-to-tomb health care, and workforce development. The Chicago public school district was among the first to experiment with mastery learning – and the result was disastrous. (10) Blaming disunity among implementing parties rather than the pedagogy itself, groups such as the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) in Chicago – who are committed to the progressive restructuring of education – worked at building trust with parents, students, teachers, and administrators. (p. 172) This gave them a base from which to launch a “Holistic Plan” that resolved, among other things, to “develop schools as community centers” and “support community controlled education.” (p. 173)To these ends, LSNA worked to transform area schools into “community learning centers,” which in addition to educating children, provides childcare for adults who study English and earn their GEDs, as well as offering an array of after-school enrichment programs for their students.

LSNA also has parent mentor program, training some to become full-time, paid organizers. Special week-long sessions for parents showing particular aptitude, teach them the “praxis of community organizing as well as an understanding of power and accountability within the community context. Participants analyze community power dynamics, examine forms of accountability, explore the nature of publicly accountable and private relationships, and analyze their own strengths and weaknesses in the public sphere. For a culminating training project, leaders design an action plan that would push an elected official toward a vote change.” (p. 184)

By placing the school at the center of community life, LSNA introduces parents to a wide-range of issues – “immigration reform, health, safety, and housing. It does this through weekly training sessions at each school, neighborhood-wide parent mentor workshops across the schools, and one-on-one conversations between organizers and parents.” (p. 191) While A Match on Dry Grass doesn’t believe that LSNA is in a position to “directly address teaching and learning,” it believes “success stories” are needed to “drive school reform and practice,” which they do by breaking down traditional educational approaches and by developing a supportive population.

The interesting thing in all this is that while the rhetoric from LSNA about school reform supports “community controlled” schools, the five school-based Community Learning Centers it has developed – like every other public school in the Chicago system – are plugged into Common Core (11) – a nationally-controlled system of education.

New York City

Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in New York City is part of the National People’s Action network. The Coalition began in the 1970s as a response to tenant-landlord problems, operating from an Alinskyian community organizing tradition. (p. 202) Two decades later, its focus shifted to education – more than understandable in an area with massive high school dropout rates and tremendous school overcrowding. Besides the obvious physical improvements their schools needed, which became the media “frame” for their actions (p. 208) the Coalition worked with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (p. 209), one of the key backers of mastery learning in the country. To draw more government money into the schools, the Coalition became a founding member of the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide education movement that supports Common Core, (12) discourages traditional standardized tests in favor of Common Core assessments, (13) and encourages embedding community organizations within schools “in order to sustain school change.” (14) It is also important that these reformed schools include “wraparound supports for students” (15) The Coalition is obviously an important component in this: “Organizing groups have been successful at breaking down many barriers to strong school-community relationships.” (16) Besides its work for universal reform, the Coalition has also focused on creating a model high school, The Leadership Institute, which is an “organizing and social justice themed small school.”(p. 212) Students are given hands-on training in organizing, learning how to mobilize, how to identify allies, and how to work with the media. (p. 213) Annenberg researchers found that “the school stands as a testament to young people’s desire for quality education in the Bronx and provides evidence that when students are given support and respect, they can and will get engaged in a deep and sustained way in the work of education reform.” (17)

It’s notable that there’s no mention of academic achievement in this reform effort. New schools have been built, curriculum has been redesigned, and parents are deeply engaged but…to what end? “The Coalition uses ongoing campaigns and individual actions as vehicles by which to identify and test new leaders and also to engage in purposeful, ongoing mentorship and training with their current core leaders.” (p 217) There are “robust” leadership trainings and much relationship-building but the “frame” through which all this energy is expended – namely, overcrowded schools and therefore a system “designed to fail” – misses the more salient problem of undereducated students.

In Summary

While there are differences among the studied community organization, A Match on Dry Grass, the common transformational aspirations of the organizers are much deeper than their “leadership” understands. Each of the four Alinskyian organizations – though part of different networks and proposing programs with different names – are working toward exactly the same end: a national education system that ties schooling to work within a comprehensive package of welfare and healthcare.

The authors of this work appreciate that “[c]ommunity organizing groups also operate in larger systems of policy discourse where resourceful networks are advocating specific reform plans. Indeed, we stressed above that organizing is not an entirely grassroots phenomenon and that organizing groups receive input from multiple levels as they respond to opportunities in the institutional or policy context. Some readers may be concerned about the alignment of certain initiatives with neoliberal reform agendas.” (pp. 260-261)

But, despite the common “outcome” realized by each of the four Alinskyian groups, A Match on Dry Grass misses what each has actually accomplished.

Perhaps no word is as telling as “partnership.” Parents, in each of the examples studied, are redefined as “partners” with teachers and students and politicians. They are brought to understand themselves as part of a “collaborative process” in which they “participate.” Community organizers artfully leverage social pressure to unify all players around widely- accepted goals (e.g., more school buildings, smaller classrooms) while taking attention away from more controversial aspects of their desired “reform” (e.g., Common Core).

The organizers have put a match to the dry grass of parental frustration and are monitoring a controlled burn. The underbrush of tradition – of autonomous parents, of subsidiary local schooling, of self-governing communities – is swept away and planted, in its stead, is a cooperative, managed citizenry.

And the fat is in the fire.

John Paul II obviously agrees that Alinsky's means were wrong.

Alinsky’s methods don’t add up to anything God wants


  1. Mark Warren’s earlier writings include: Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice (2010); Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (2001); and Social Capital and Poor Communities (2005).
  2. The website is:
  3. It is difficult to read this and not think of Marxism’s insistence that the radical is an agent of history – making history rather than reacting to it or being subject to it.
  4. “Any participant in the organizing effort is called a leader, in recognition of their potential.” (p. 30)
  5. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is a member of the Lakeview Action Coalition which is, in turn, a member of the city-wide United Power for Action and Justice…which is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation network.
  6. The remaining two, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos in Denver and Southern Echo in the Mississippi Delta, have connections to Alinskyian organizing but are not part of the major Alinskyian organizing networks.
  7. Mastery learning (or outcome based education) is the foundation of today’s Common Core movement. According to the authors of this book, “powerful forces like the Gates Foundation were pushing for small schools and small learning communities across the country.” (p. 42) The Gates Foundation has been a key funder of the Common Core initiative.
  8. Joseph DiSalvo, “County Has Tough Call on New Charter Middle School in Alum Rock District,” San Jose Inside, 9-12-13.
  9. The Santa Clara (which includes San Jose) Healthy Kids website enumerates its services: (see drop menu).
  10. For one account, see: Anthony S. Bryk, “Social Trust: A Moral Resource for School Improvement,” The University of Chicago Center for School Improvement and Barbara Schneider NORC and The University of Chicago, June, 1996. Bryk writes: “Many of the major reform initiatives advanced in urban school districts during the 1980s failed. For example, a systemwide mastery learning curriculum in Chicago was ill conceived and poorly implemented.”
  12. Alliance for Quality Education website, “quality curriculum”:
  13. Alliance for Quality Education website, position on testing:
  14. Alliance for Quality Education website, parent-family engagement:
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.

This article, Controlled Burn, Alinskyian organizing, and Common Core (Book Review) is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Stephanie Block

Get VIP Notice

Have new blog posts delivered right to your inbox!
Enter your email: