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School Committees

    "I never realized what it was at the time. At most I had a vague sensation that something was not quite right, but I could not figure out what it was."
    -- a typical Delphi participant

    "Viewers of the great 1973 movie The Sting, which introduced the concept of the Big Con, will recall that the secret of this ultimate confidence game is that the mark must never come to know that he was played. He must continue to believe the game was the real thing."
    -- John Podhoretz

    Have you been on your school's "Math Committee"? Or the "Character Committee"? Or the "Literature Enrichment Committee"?

    Disappointed, or even puzzled, by its outcome? Then, read on! This page is for you!

    The Blandness of Consensus?

    At best, many "consensus" committees whittle away personal goals in favor of lukewarm conclusions that make no one happy. Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    Winston Churchill wrote of the problem of consensus at the British Admiralty office in 1912:

    "There is one epicycle of action which is important to avoid, viz ...
    recognition of an evil;
    resolve to deal with it;
    appointment of a committee to examine it and discover the remedy;
    formulation of the remedy;
    decision to adopt the remedy;
    consultation with various persons who raise objections;
    decision to defer to their objections; decision to delay application of the remedy;
    decision to forget all about the remedy and put up with the evil."

    One of his successors as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had much to say about "consensus":

    "To me consensus seems to be: the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner 'I stand for consensus'?"

    "The Old Testament prophets did not go out and ask for consensus"
    "There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority."
    -- Margaret Thatcher, October 11, 1968

    Even Consensus Is Too Risky for Bureaucrats

    Consensus presents an even great problem for bureaucrats: What if a consensus is developed, and it is not what they wanted?

    "Have you ever heard anyone say that we need to 'move beyond ideology' for the sake of bipartisan unity and then abandon his own position? Of course not. When someone says that we need to get past labels and move beyond ideology, what he means is that you need to drop your principled objections and get with the program."
    -- Jonah Goldberg
    Consequently, many school and business committees are not really intended to find consensus, but rather to construct support for a pre-existing plan.

    Many schools make heavy use of social engineering techniques in carefully constructing and nurturing a variety of "committees" whose purpose is to rubber-stamp pre-established conclusions. Of course, there is nothing intentionally nefarious or conspiratorial about all this; this is simply the set of techniques that are taught in ed school as means for being "agents of change" and "developing a consensus" of support for proposed changes.

    These techniques (sometimes labelled as "Delphi" methods), were developed early in the 20th century, where they were heavily used by trade unionists and by progressive social organizers such as Saul Alinsky. These techniques are heavily in use today by corporations, churches, human resource organizations, trade organizations and social groups in forming a "consensus" supporting pre-constructed goals. It use of the "committee" along these lines has been a powerful tool used by schools in building support for changes in school policies or curriculum.

The Real Purpose of Committees

    The key to such committees using these techniques is that the desired outcome is planned in advance. The purpose of the committee is not to design or plan or come up with a new course of action. Rather, the purpose is to "achieve consensus" on a desired course of action that is already known (by the organizers).

Use in Business

    Many people are well-familiar with these techniques from their use in business, though they don't usually recognize them as such unless it is pointed out. Corporations might use such committees to enlist employee support for a new program or reorganization.

    The same techniques are also often used by trade organizations and professional associations to solidify support for the most commonly-held agenda items, and to winnow out more marginal concerns.

Use in Schools

    In schools, these committees are used to get teachers, parents and others to "buy into" a proposed initiative. There is nothing resembling Robert's Rules of Order or any informal procedure even vaguely related. There is no open debate, no discussion of what the goals of the committee should be, and certainly no voting. It goes without saying that there is no process to select a leader for the group -- the leader is already a given, typically a school administrator who has been trained in the techniques of being a group "facilitator".

    Often, a reading list or reading packet is provided by that leader. This consists of a set of articles mostly stating opinions about some proposed course of action, usually with great unanimity in views.

    A major effort of the group will be "research" consisting of developing outlines and conclusions from that carefully pre-chosen set of readings. Great amounts of time are spent on discussion and in the creation of various kinds of "lists," often with participants working in smaller workgroups. Outside sources are usually disallowed and denigrated as being unprofessional works of political extremists, inexperienced naive amateurs, or religious zealots.

    If a committee member persists in pursuing a contrary line of inquiry, he or she will be told that they are not showing a good attitude about working with the group, or that they are not a "team player", or that their continued presence is disruptive and it would be best if they didn't come to future meetings. If the facilitator still hasn't managed to quell dissent, there are still a variety of avenues for regaining control. For example, further specific action may be assigned to a new special subcommittee of careful chosen members, or another more easily controlled subset such as only teachers and excluding parents.

Small Workgroups

    A key element of these committees is the "small workgroup". Members of the whole committee are assigned into smaller groups to "work" on some subset of the "task" assigned. This has a number of effects.

    1. First and foremost, it breaks up cohorts so that like-minded people each find themselves as the odd man out in their small workgroups.

      One strategy that is extremely common in school presentations and committee meetings is "random assignment": As participants enter the meeting room, they are handed a card with a number, which is the number of the groups that have been assigned to. This technique is extremely effective in breaking up sets of people that arrive together. If three people feel strongly about an issue and arrange to go to the meeting together, they could exert influence if they were allowed to be in the same group. This technique prevents that.

    2. Beyond that, these small workgroups keep people from challenging the big picture, from questioning the limitations of overall structure or the material provided, and from limiting concerns to one's own group and not disturbing or questioning the progress of another workgroup.

Have You Been Delphi'd?

    You can read much more about the use of "committees" by schools in these links:

  • Delphi Technique: The Art of Pretending to Achieve Consensus by Laurie H. Rogers, February 1, 2010. "I had heard of the 'Delphi Technique' being used to bring a committee to 'consensus,' but before my experience on Spokane Public Schools' most recent high school math curriculum adoption committee, I hadn�t seen it in action. ... Here is an example of how any committee can achieve 'consensus' without actually achieving it. ..."

  • Delphi Method Report by Dave Ziffer, September 4, 1996. In this 1996 paper, Dave Ziffer, one of the original founders of the Illinois Loop, described his first encounter with a "Delphi" facilitated school meeting. He discusses the structure of the meeting, and tells how this led him to try to research the history of the technique. He also raises questions about the appropriateness of referring to the technique as "Delphi."

  • Update on Alinsky Method / Delphi Technique by Dave Ziffer, November 27, 2000. In this subsequent message, sent to the Illinois Loop list in 2000, Dave Ziffer updates his discoveries about this method, cites original and subsequent references to it, and asks the group for further information.

  • "The Facilitator: Are You A Delphi Target?" by Bill Carlson

  • The Delphi Technique, and How it Robs Parents, from the American Policy Center

  • The Delphi Technique: This website (from the "Informed Residents of Reading") provides a good list of sources are references for understanding how this technique can be used to "manage" parents. Here are some of the documents from this excellent resource:

  • "But I didn't give my consent" by Joyce Morrison, February 18, 2003. This is a fascinating and well-written first person article on attending both "facilitated" sessions, and a session on teaching facilitators. The author makes these manipulation techniques both clear and vivid.

  • Let's Stop Being Manipulated: The Delphi Technique by Albert V. Burns. The author gives some simple tips to open up a Delphi situation to real dialog and discussion.

  • We're So Easily Delphied Because We Ignore Its Techiniques by Joan E. Battey

  • About Consensus and Facilitation: This website offers a series of articles by Lynn Stuter on the nature of consensus and "facilitated" public meetings.

  • So, Have You Been Delphi'd? This is a fascinating discussion thread containing numerous posts from a variety of people describing their own experiences with "Delphi" groups in schools, business, churches, community organizations, the military, and more. The thread was hosted by a politically conservative organization, and that shows up in a few of the comments. But overall, these first-person narratives serve well to alert us to the ubiquitousness of the technique, and the subtle but coercive power they have in forming the illusion of a "consensus." Several of the opinions make note of this disturbing subtlety. As one says, "I have encountered the 'Delphi Technique' several times, but in corporate America. I never realized what it was at the time. At most I had a vague sensation that something was not quite right, but I could not figure out what it was." A number of the comments offer suggestions for upsetting the Delphi, or exposing its mechanisms to the group at large.

  • The Community of Sixty: Here is another parent report, this time on the use of a Delphi faciliated committee in a school district in Oregon.

  • Alinsky for Teacher Organizers: this webpage presents a paper written in 1972 on the use of techniques developed by labor organizer Saul Alinski for use in teacher training. In one sense, it is a powerful statement of extremely effective techniques in promoting one's position. In another light, it is a chilling view of how to manipulate and manage opinions.

  • Dialectical Education by Susan O'Donnell

  • "Cloning of the American Mind", by B.K. Eakman. While principally about education in general, an entire section of this book is devoted to the use of these "committees" by schools to build the illusion of support for proposed changes.

  • The Official Robert's Rules of Order Website: read this for the most commonly accepted way for how meetings should be run in a democratic community.

    "The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility."
    -- John Stuart Mill

Legal Issues About School Committees

Schools, Teachers, Parents and the Community

    For more information on the role, perspectives and involvement of teachers, parents and the community with schools, see these other pages on our website:

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