A great guide to making change

By Joe Nathan on June 13, 2013 at 9:34 am

Joe Nathan Column – “What book would be most helpful if I want to help change schools?” That’s a question people often ask. Whether helping to successfully challenge the National Collegiate Athletic Association (aka NCAA), expand public school choice or help convince several companies to reduce pollution in a community, Saul Alinsky’s organizing principles have aided school reform efforts for many years. So I recommend his book, “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.”

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Alinsky strongly supported American democratic principles. He helped show people across the political spectrum without power or wealth how to make those ideals work.

For example, there’s the successful 1996-2000 effort that convinced the NCAA to stop telling every high U.S. school which English, social studies, math and science courses were acceptable for college preparation.

Despite the fact that they earned ACT test scores in the nation’s top 5 percent or did well in college courses, some Minnesota high school students were told they could not participate in university sports as freshmen or accept athletic scholarships because of misguided NCAA policies. Why? Because the NCAA had standards (which initially they wouldn’t share) about what high school courses were acceptable for college preparation.

As a New York Times reporter wrote in 1996, “When the Minnesota Governor’s Office called to request the N.C.A.A. publication that spells out the academic requirements, the N.C.A.A. said it did not exist.”

Subsequently the NCAA revealed that their standards rejected, for example, any current events-related social studies course or courses that included a certain percentage of time on community service. The NCAA also rejected some college-prep courses that appeared to have a vocational focus in their title.

Despite the NCAA’s power and wealth, Minnesota parents, school counselors, the Minnesota Department of Education, State Board officials, our organization and then community members around the country convinced the NCAA to change. Ultimately the NCAA agreed that if a high school regarded a course as college prep, the NCAA would accept it – so long as students earned acceptable grades and college entrance test scores. We used Alinsky’s suggestions such as:

– Publicizing some of the NCAA’s most questionable educational decisions (such as rejecting students who scored in the top 5 percent of the nation or who earned good grades in college courses while in high school).

– Developing a broad coalition of people.

– Understanding the real, as well as rhetorical goals of individuals and organizations that you might work with.

– Personalizing the problem (in this case, the NCAA president also led a prestigious university that sought the kind of students that NCAA sometimes frustrated).

Years ago I read Alinsky’s book and attended a workshop with him. Then, as a public school teacher, I worked with students who convinced three large companies in the school’s neighborhood to end their pollution. Faced initially with government indifference and corporate opposition, students broadened support by talking with community members, researched applicable laws, testified at a legislative hearing, and met a newspaper reporter. After an article appeared, government officials became more helpful. One company even discovered a new anti-pollution process it sold to others.

For more than 20 years, I used Alinsky’s book in university courses I taught. His ideas are still relevant for those trying to improve schools. While Alinsky’s examples are many years old, “Rules for Radicals” is as useful today as when published.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, please comment below.