Why can’t school reformers get it right?

The record. In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” warned of global competition. But our economy boomed in the 1990’s while our competitor Japan suffered a “lost decade.”

“No Child Left Behind” got left behind before its term expired. “Race to the Top” stopped with no top models. “Common Core” has lost its commonality.

Too many charter schools drain public funds from public schools, yet have no public oversight, no better performance. Research on vouchers reveals “dismal results.” Scores for high-stakes tests remain flat-lined nationwide.

The cost has been enormous: lost time, taxes, teachers. Is reform really that complex?

Short answer: Yes. A diverse, divided nation wants different outputs from public schools. But the inputs are already complex:

Poverty. Segregation. Language barriers. Classroom management. Standards. One-size-fits-all accountability. Student boredom. Teacher burnout. Principal turnover. Parent disengagement. Politicking and testing companies.

Despite these difficulties, thousands of skillful teachers are highly effective with their students. We all know, or knew, some. After all, 77% of Americans trust their local teachers (46th annual PDK/Gallup survey, 2014).

Education is complex. But skillful teachers prove that improving it may be simpler than we think. Indeed, there’s an interaction between complexity and simplicity – loaded with lessons that explain why reform hasn’t worked.

Simplistic futility, wise simplicity. Here’s a puzzler: “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.” Yet if Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would give an arm for something, it’s worth figuring out.

We all know life is complex. It’s hard. We’re uncertain about our purpose. We’re troubled by relationships. We’re looking for answers to questions.

But, Holmes suggests, answers “on this side of complexity” are simplistic. They’ve not run the gauntlet of complexity… and emerged on the other side. For a running back in football to gain anything, he must plow through the line of scrimmage. To stay on his side achieves nothing. Simplistic.

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. For a running back with years of experience, the game “slows down.” The veteran gets past the complex and sees the whole field. The way becomes clearer. Simpler, but not simplistic.

Simplistic answers don’t work in life – or in education. To wit:

Education policies made by non-educators. Corporate attempts to teacher-proof teaching. One-size-fits-all schemes in a pluralistic society. Recycled reforms that have failed in the past. Short-term measures that raise scores on tests in the spring but lower the urge to learn for a lifetime. Universal education that ignores equity. All simplistic… on this side of complexity.

Motivation. Simplistic reforms vary. Skillful teachers vary, too. But what does each group have in common? The answer is critical. The answer determines whether policies and practices fail or succeed. The answer is that simplistic reforms choose one kind of motivation, while skillful teachers choose another.

Since 1949 there have been hundreds of studies comparing “extrinsic motivation” (think carrots and sticks) with “intrinsic motivation” (think internal drive). Through the decades, these studies have been widely consistent. 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 be a hit reciting to be or not to be.” An extrinsic carrot.

Teacher C: “Because if you have a tough decision to make and worry 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 – including you.” That teacher knows that children are wired to understand the world around them and their place in it. That’s intrinsic motivation.

The research has been clear for decades: Harlow (1949, 1953), Glucksberg (1962, 1964), Deci (1971-95), Lepper (1973-92), Kohn (1990-99), Pink (2009), etc. If the task is narrow and short-term, extrinsic works fine. But for long-term achievement, like an academic year, intrinsic beats extrinsic motivation hands down.

Engaging outdoes bribing or coercing. Which works for you?

Yale and Princeton researchers (Wrzesniewski, Schwartz, 2014) even concluded that intrinsic motivation alone leads to higher achievement than intrinsic and extrinsic motivation combined. That is, carrots and sticks harm long-term achievement. Yet that’s the way school reform is structured to “work.”

Except it doesn’t work. Because it’s simplistic. It’s extrinsic. It’s standards, testing, accountability, Value Added Models, test prep charters and vouchers, politicians, philanthropists, testing companies, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and longstanding, ineffective teaching regardless of reforms.

None of these build on what holds up. Intrinsic motivation.

Simplistic reformers don’t know this or don’t care. Excellent teachers do. So what do they practice?

Learning-by-doing over sitting-and-receiving. Challenging projects over forgettable worksheets. Student-centered deeper learning over test-centered drill-and-kill.

They prepare children for what adulthood requires: self-directed learning. Learning how to learn. Having a fire in the belly to know. Intrinsic motivation.

What to do? Replace extrinsic motivators. Reject simplistic reforms.

Indeed, end top-down reform altogether. It has become a cliché. “Reform” has become the unending status quo. We are weary of paying for its failures.

Instead, enact local renewal. The kind that empowers loving parents and caring teachers who know what makes students tick. The kind that 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, and 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

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