Why can’t school reformers get it right? Why do we Americans keep demanding reform year after year, decade after decade, without getting some resolution?

Is reform really that complex?

The short answer is yes. We are a diverse, even divided, nation. We want different things from public schools. We disagree over how they’re performing – for 50 million children at $600 billion/year. We fight over differences and dollars.

The long answer is yes, but.... Yes, education is complex, but improving it may be simpler than we think. This interplay, between complexity and simplicity, is loaded with lessons: from wisdom and research, adulthood and democracy.

Part I: The Wisdom of Simplicity

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

This may be puzzling. Yet if a legendary Justice like Oliver Wendell Holmes would give an arm for some kind of simplicity, it’s probably worth figuring out.

As for complexity, well, we all know life is hard. It’s a contact sport, full of bumps and bruises. We’re uncertain about our purpose. We’re troubled by our relationships. We’re looking for answers to our questions.

But, Holmes suggests, the answers “on this side of complexity” are simplistic. They’re naïve, untested. They’ve not paid the price of hard knocks. They’ve not run the gauntlet of complexity… and emerged on the other side.

Take a running back in football. To achieve anything, he has to plow through the line of scrimmage. To stay on his side of the line achieves nothing. That’s simplistic.

But the answers “on the other side of complexity” have been battle-tested and boiled down. Simple enough to understand. Powerful enough to live by. Worth sacrificing something for.

Follow that running back over the years. In time, as a veteran athlete will say, “the game slows down.” It seems to get simpler, he sees the whole field, and the way gets clearer. He becomes more effective.

So life is complex. Some guidelines fall short. They are simplistic, ineffective. Others go further. They are simple, powerful. They offer a big picture worth the hard work of understanding.

Back to education: First, what factors make education reform complex?

Answers: Poverty. Segregation. Languages. Bus schedules, crowd control, classroom management. Testing, standards, accountability. The disconnect between schooling and living. Uniformity vs. personalization.

And teacher recruitment, training, burnout, attrition. Principal turnover. Parent disengagement. Community leadership and taxes. Politicking and policy making. Disagreement over education’s priorities: Academics? Economics? Democracy?

Next: What lies behind reforms that are simplistic, ineffective, and “on this side” of complexity – that is, out of touch with complexity?

Answers: Education policies made by non-educators. Corporate attempts to teacher-proof the teaching profession. One-size-fits-all initiatives in a pluralistic society. Recycled reforms that have failed in the past. Short-term measures that raise test scores in the spring but lower the urge to learn for a lifetime.

And transferring public taxes out of public schools into privately governed schools. Weakening public schools for the majority while underwriting the interests of a minority. Ignoring equity. Ignoring the complexity of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Finally: What lies behind reforms that are simple, powerful, and “on the other side of complexity” – that is, in touch with complexity?

Part II: The Research on Motivation

Since the 1960's, there have been hundreds of studies comparing intrinsic motivation (think internal drive) with extrinsic motivation (carrots and sticks).

Through the decades, these studies have been widely consistent: Glucksberg (1962, 1964), Deci (1971-95), Lepper (1973-92), Kohn (1990-99), Pink (2009). And, sad to say, widely unknown.

One compiler of the research summarizes it all: “What matters is not how motivated you are, but how you are motivated.” From the outside in or the inside out? Extrinsically or intrinsically?

Consider your high school English class. Say the unit is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Your teacher says, “Read Act I for homework tonight.” You ask, “Why do we have to study this stuff?”

Teacher A: “Because it’s on the test, and your grade depends on it.” An extrinsic stick.

Teacher B: “Because at a party you can stand up on a table and recite to be or not to be.” An extrinsic carrot.

Teacher C: “Because if you’ve ever had a really tough decision to make, and action to take, and are worried about the consequences, Hamlet is you. Because the reason Shakespeare still lives is that he had his finger on the pulse of what makes us humans tick. And because that’s as true for you today as it was for theatre goers in England 400 years ago.”

That’s intrinsic motivation. That’s engagement in real stuff. When we say, “It’s just academic,” we admit that some content matters only in schools.

But, more than anything, children want, and need, to understand the world around them and their place in it. Real stuff meets this need, alters the classroom climate, and makes classroom management much easier.

Better yet is what the research tells us: When it comes to achievement, intrinsic beats extrinsic motivation hands down. In the workplace as well as in the classroom. For all ages.

With one exception. If the task is narrow and short-term, extrinsic works fine.

But for long-term stuff, like a career in business or a year in school, extrinsic motivators are ineffective. Indeed, Yale and Princeton researchers (A. Wrzesniewski. B. Schwartz, 2014), concluded that intrinsic motivation alone leads to higher achievement than intrinsic and extrinsic motivation combined.

Yes, carrots and sticks harm long-term achievement. This is what we ignore all the time at our risk. Yet that’s the way so much school reform is structured to “work.”

Except it doesn’t. Since No Child Left Behind in 2002, we’ve spent about $25 billion/year for high stakes testing. No matter, scores remain flat-lined. Sometimes, in some places, they go up or down a bit. But nationwide we‘ve been flat-lining. The most recent (2015) NAEP scores, the nation’s “report card,” slipped – especially in math, especially for low achievers.

These facts beg questions: Why this longstanding stagnation? Should we keep driving schools with testing accountability? Keep trying to fatten that pig by weighing it over and again?

Why forsake NCLB years before its target date? Why is Race to the Top all spent without model results? Why has Common Core become much less common? Why do reforms come and go despite the billions expended?

Because they invest in simplistic, extrinsic motivators. Carrots and sticks are like the air we breathe. We take them for granted. And, yes, they can provide measures, like long-term graphs and short-term private profits.

But, no, extrinsic motivators do not enhance long-term learning and whole child development. This can be true even in schools – including charter and voucher schools – that boast high test scores. Indeed, this was true in many classrooms before the high stakes standardized testing era.

It’s true wherever and whenever carrots and sticks prevail.

Why? Because the practices of these places are simplistic. They all stop well shy of the complexity of a child’s humanity. They’re not worth a fig.

A whole child – your son or daughter, yourself years ago – needs to be connected to the world, not yoked to obsessive test prep. He needs to emerge as one-of-a-kind, not submerged beneath Big Data. She needs to learn from someone she loves, not something she fears.

A whole child needs to be moved, not coerced.

Moved by not only the qualities of language and the precision of math, but also the mysteries of science, heritage of history, diversity of society, beauty of the arts, lessons of play, strength of the body, relationships of community, rewards of leadership and service.

This is the real stuff that motivates the inner drives of childhood. This is the stuff that prepares young lives for adulthood.

Want to advance learning achievement? Apply the power of intrinsic motivation. Most of us already know this stuff in our bones – if we know ourselves. We should. After all, we’re adults.

Part III: The Essence of Adulthood

Research can help us get to “the simplicity on the other side,” in this case, to the simple power of intrinsic motivation. We can also get there just by reflecting on our own experience. When we do, we may find another power. Namely, self-directed learning.

Most of us remember favorite teachers who made a difference in our lives. They gave us tests, but that is not the memory that matters. What matters is that they respected and trusted and cared for us as growing individuals. So they chose for us:

Engagement over boredom. Learning-by-doing over sitting-and-receiving. Challenging projects over forgettable worksheets. Student-centered deeper learning over test-centered drill-and-kill. Real stuff over make-work. Memorable teachers chose something like these, in their own way.

In sum, they provided a strong model for living in a complex world. They found ways to get us to believe in ourselves, to motivate ourselves, to own our own learning – and so to become self-directed learners as adults.

Self-directed learning is a vital power required by adulthood. As children, we rely a lot on adults. As adults, we rely mostly on ourselves. The very essence of adulthood is self-direction.

Moreover, being an adult in the 21st century means living amidst rapid changes. To adapt to change requires a lifetime of self-directed learning – a long time to be motivated from within.

Too long for extrinsic motivators. These ask for short-term compliance, not long-term self-direction. Coercion can yield a distaste for learning, not a passion to learn. So we sell our young learners short – for a long time.

We delude ourselves that test scores can somehow make us more competitive in the global economy. Compliance and tests quickly forgotten do nothing of the sort. What is required is innovation, creativity, self-directed learning – sustained.

Of course, testing, done with proper purpose, in proportion, can provide useful feedback for teachers and learners. Teachers have known forever that testing has its place. But the current version of high stakes testing should not take first place. Nothing extrinsic and simplistic should take first place.

When something is simplistic, said Justice Holmes, it is not worth a fig. Nothing extrinsic and simplistic is worth a fig.

Intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning should place first in our public schools. They are worth an arm. Happily, they are related. The one sustains the other.

But there’s yet another complexity to understand.

Part IV: The Foundation of Democracy

Public schools and school reforms that choose extrinsic over intrinsic motivation, and high test scores over self-directed learning, undercut both student and adult achievement.

Vouchers undercut both public education and the traditions of our democracy.

Vouchers transfer public funds from public schools to parents who choose to send their children to private (including religious) schools. It is not surprising that 7 of 10 Americans oppose this use of their tax dollars. But that has not stopped billionaire Betsy DeVos in her financial support of vouchers.

"[M]y family,” DeVos has written, “is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party…. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point.”

“[Trump’s] Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos,” writes long-time education reporter John Merrow, “has called public education a disgrace and a disaster.” This is perplexing, insofar as "a majority of Americans, 77%, continue to trust and have confidence in their public school teachers.” (46th Annual PDK/Gallup survey on education, 2014.)

Vouchers privatize public education. They convert a public responsibility for the public good to a private commodity in the marketplace. They have more faith in economic competition than in community cooperation. They buy private choice with public dollars.

As with charter schools, those dollars follow students and get drained from public education. This weakens public schools given their fixed costs. Whether this is the strategy of “school choice” reformers is another matter. What matters here is that vouchers are simplistic.

Here’s how: Vouchers stop far short of the complexity of our 324 million people and our 240-year-old democracy. Vouchers stop far short of what holds us together as a pluralistic nation – as a nation made wholly of immigrants and their descendants. What is the preeminent institution that has held us together, despite the odds, for 175 years?

Our public schools.

Here is where the diversity of our present gathers to forge the commonality of our future. Where diverse children, who share experiences, become Americans who share values.

But, with public dollars, vouchers pave the way out of this public commons into silos of private schools, religious schools, home schools, online charter schools. This movement is more worrisome than the “dismal results” of vouchers.*

For the movement represents forces that “unglue” us – that undercut the balance between individual gain and community cohesion.

Vouchers undercut our tradition of the greatest good for the greatest number. To each his own way is fine… up to a certain point. But when you go your own way at the expense of others, the social contract becomes unglued. Are we not divided enough as a nation already?

Our nation’s motto is e pluribus unum – out of many, one. There must be something at the center of a pluralistic population to make it one people. Something intrinsically moving to the whole body politic. Or there is no people at all.

There is intrinsic motivation for the individual, and there is intrinsic motivation for the body politic. When we get that motivation wrong, too simplistic, the center cannot hold.

American public schools are a center that take us all in. They are a sacred place where community diversity and community responsibility are meant to be practiced every day. They are the foundation of democracy.

Is public education a private commodity to be divvied up? Do we want vouchers here and for-profit charters there – and weakened public schools left dangling by a string too short to be saved?

Shall we level the charge of “government-run monopoly schools?” No. This is simplistic sloganeering. In the main, our public schools are run by local school committees who manage local (and state) taxes to educate local children.

Did the twelve Chicago parents and residents go on a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 to protest the closure of Dyett High School because it was a government-run monopoly? Or because they did not have access to enough vouchers or charters? No. They were protesting the closure of their community school.

They were advocating for the revitalization of their center for community cohesion, for democracy in action. They were encouraging the rest of us to think of public education as public good to be strengthened equitably.

They were striking for a principle: to get the motivation right for the greater good.

Part V: A Course of Action

Why do we struggle with public education? It is not because we don’t have enough tests or privately managed charters or vouchers on the reform menu.

No. We struggle because any reform that gets motivation wrong cannot get achievement right. Because a bad diagnosis cannot promise a good prognosis. That’s the story of school reform for decades. It is past time to move on, high time to get it right.

Intrinsic motivation is a means that works. Self-directed learning is an end that’s worthy. Democracy is a social contract, a context for public education, worth strengthening.

Together, as means and end and context, these comprise a new paradigm – a big-picture way of simplifying complexity. A paradigm for public schooling, for preparing children for adulthood, for renewing a democracy that embraces all learners.

It is a paradigm simple enough to understand, powerful enough to live by.

This paradigm demands more of teachers than test prep. But thousands of teachers already accept this challenge with passion. They do so because it’s meaningful work that makes a difference. Because it’s immeasurably more important than scores, vouchers, or politicians for learning achievement.

Why? Because intrinsic motivation and self-direction are how and why we become and stay engaged – without which achievement is fleeting. And without which democracy is imperiled.

What shall we the people do? Resist top-down reform. It’s extrinsic, simplistic. Its long record is costly, unproductive.

Indeed, end top-down reform altogether. It has become a cliché. “Reform” is not reform; it is the unending status quo. We are weary of it, paying for it, talking about it. Drop the term.

Instead, renew your local schools locally. That is our American tradition, our enduring community responsibility. Do so with motivators from the inside out. That is old wisdom, clarified by new research, confirmed by our own experience, fit for the 21st century.

Local parents and educators: Join forces to apply the powers and pedagogies of intrinsic motivation. State legislators: Empower those closest to the lives of children – not billionaires and corporate interests, but parents and educators. Attract and keep great teachers. To do so, make teaching a true profession; legislate its increasing autonomy and self-regulation.

Certainly, public education has deep-seated problems. Especially poverty. This lies at the heart of complexity. 51% of American students qualify for free or reduced lunches in schools. The only consistent correlation with low test scores for students is the low socioeconomic status of their families.

But we zero in on scores and check out on poverty. We go ahead with private charters and vouchers but stop well shy of grappling with poverty’s complexity. We pursue extrinsic reforms but ignore the intrinsic realities of real children. We settle for the simplistic, flinch from the complex, and miss the simplicity that makes people tick.

Let us renew our public schools where they need renewal. That renewal lies on the other side of complexity. A lot of us would give anything to get there. No need to lose your right arm. Just lend a hand in your community. Reach to the hearts of children.



Bartley B. Nourse, Jr., Ph.D. and Sandria R. Parsons are career educators turned filmmakers. Their current education documentary is called Passion to Teach (

#motivation #educationpolicy #schoolreform #complexityvssimplicity #achievementresearch #publicschools #democracy #intrinsicvsextrinsicmotivation

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