Parents, Policies, and Power

Should tax-paying, child-rearing parents have the power to make education policy?

Who does make public education policies? Who established No Child Left Behind? Or Race to the Top, Common Core, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act)? Politicians, of course. But also influential power brokers.

Who is closest to children and their learning? Parents and teachers.

Which groups seem more trustworthy?

Re politicians: Most have little to no teaching experience. Most are moved by political ideology. Most depend on special interests for reelection.

Re power brokers: Some buy public influence with private wealth. Bill Gates funded much of the Common Core launch. Betsy DeVos has long backed the privatization of public education. She wants to expand for-profit charters. And vouchers… to transfer taxes from public schools to private families who wish to send their children to private or religious schools.

[M]y family, wrote DeVos in 1997, 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. Now, in 2017, another point is that she has gained political power as Secretary of Education.

Others buy political influence with corporate wealth. Like Pearson, the British multi-national whose business is testing and publishing. In 2012 The Guardian reported:

Hundreds of parents protested outside the firm's New York offices, unhappy at the company's $35m contract to provide controversial high-stakes tests for the city's schools. A statement from the group ParentVoicesNY said the protest was about “the excessive power and influence the billion-dollar, for-profit company, Pearson, has over [New York City's] education department."

Re parents and teachers: How might they be trustworthy? Let’s hold that question and first ask why the policies of politicians and power brokers have failed.

And they have. No Child Left Behind was scuttled years before its term was up. Race to the Top is spent and produced no top models for states to emulate. Common Core is losing its commonality and followers.

ESSA returns some power to the states but continues with high stakes standardized testing. It has yet to be implemented, so the jury is still out. But testing has cost the nation about $25 billion extra a year since 2002, while our test scores nationwide remain flat-lined.

So we see little to no progress in learning achievement – at the cost of too many years, too many taxes, too many children. Why?

Research for over six decades makes the answer clear: These policies are based on extrinsic motivators. On carrots and sticks. Carrots like test day pep rallies. Sticks like high stakes tests themselves. But researchers (Harlow, 1949, 1953; Glucksberg, 1962, 1964; Deci, 1971-95; Lepper, 1973-92; Kohn, 1990-99; Pink, 2009) agree that carrots and sticks work only for narrow, short-term tasks.

For long-term achievement – over an academic year, over a lifetime of learning – extrinsic motivators backfire. They turn learners off from learning. They block the inborn urge children have to learn about the world around them and their place in it. Learning becomes schooling: an onerous task someone else makes you do. Attention wanders. Behavior worsens.

In 2014 Yale and Princeton researchers reinforced the earlier findings: intrinsic motivation, the internal drive to learn, is by far more powerful than extrinsic. The researchers also showed that intrinsic alone leads to higher achievement than intrinsic and extrinsic combined. In effect, extrinsic motivators do long-term harm.

We adults take carrots and sticks for granted. We assume they work, but we ignore the research. We do so at our risk. More accurately, we risk our children.

For over 50 years we have prepared our kids for international tests by using carrots and sticks. For over 50 years American students, on average, have tested without distinction… despite our doubling down on test prep and test taking.

We’ve learned what farmers have long known: You cannot fatten a pig by weighing it more.

Take a moment to reflect back on your personal experience… and trust yourself. When do you achieve best?

When someone compels you to do something? “Study Hamlet because it’s on the test on Friday.” Or when you’re intrinsically motivated to do that thing? “Consider Hamlet as a time-tested case of what happens when you are indecisive about something big you should do.”

When intrinsic motivation replaces testing as the engine of schooling, that’s when our schools will maximize learning. All else has been, and will be, futile.

Policy makers, you’ve been spitting in the wind for far too long.

Parents, let’s put the horse before the cart. Teachers, let’s focus on upstream engagement rather than downstream achievement. Together, at long last, and for the sake of the whole lives of our children, let’s get our priorities straight.

In some classrooms they are already straight. Already intrinsic motivation is the engine. Look at Amy Lake in “Passion to Teach” (, for example. Check out her use of intrinsic motivation – in the questions she asks and the “stuff” she brings in, the small groups she coordinates and the simulations she guides.

Or just recall your own favorite teacher. The one who engaged you. Who knew you. Who connected you to your world. She understood the power of intrinsic motivation.

What if those who hold this understanding also held the power to do something about it? What if effective motivation were the preamble to policy? What if we put first things first? Motivation does indeed precede achievement. This is true in any endeavor. At any age.

So what about parents… and teachers? Should they hold the power to enact policy?

Yes. Without a doubt. We need parent and teacher leaders.

What kind of power? The power to draft and advocate legislation. The power to organize referendums and ballot initiatives. The power to serve as well-represented, even majority stakeholders on state boards of education. In Massachusetts, on our 12-member Board of Education, there is only one parent. And not one active K-12 teacher.

Why this power? Because parents and teachers work most closely with children. Mostly they love children. They make the difference in their lives. They understand what motivates them. And parents pay local and state taxes. They serve on local school committees.

Yes, I guess, there are parents and teachers who can’t be trusted. But as a percentage of their respective population, surely there are many more untrustworthy politicians. Read the polls. Poll your own opinion.

Imagine a network of parent and teacher leaders acting akin to community PTOs or PTAs. But more powerful, legally, at the state level. Envision a network of leaders who advance student-centered policies. Who know children are whole people, not bits of Big Data.

Leaders who believe learners are engaged through natural curiosity, not make-work. Who understand children are best prepared for adulthood by practicing self-direction and lifelong learning, not compliance and test taking.

Leaders who want children to see learning as a challenge making sense of the world, not as a burden taking place in a school. Who know children should be known personally, not categorized by one-size-fits-all.

Here is what parents can do:

1. Help teachers who help children. Give skillful teachers the legitimacy and power to do what real kids need, not what bureaucracies demand. Thank skillful, maverick teachers (those like Amy Lake!). Send letters supporting them to principals and editors.

2. Become a parent leader. Inform yourself. Read articles and blogs (ours and others). Collaborate with parent and teacher leaders. Tee up community dialogues and discuss what’s best for local children in local schools. Increase the organized power of parents.

3. Advocate legislation. Work with fellow leaders, state by state, to make policies that support whole child development. Expand intrinsic motivation and limit obsessive testing. Work to advance the status and self-regulation of the teaching profession.

It is time for leadership. Time for parent leaders to join with teacher leaders. Time for the two to take power and to make policy. Time to craft public education policies that work with the way children work. Past time for enduring solutions and high time for higher learning achievement. You can do this. For your children.

#charters #vouchers #educationpolicy #parentteacheractivism #studentachievement #legislation

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