The long mandate of high stakes, standardized testing has weakened public education. This has set the stage for a high stakes drama: dismantling a cornerstone of American democracy.
Reforms like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, even the Every Student Succeeds Act rely on extrinsic motivators. That is, they rely on carrots and sticks: tests, accountability, merit pay, VAMs, school closings, and the like.
There’s a big flaw in all this. Six decades of research prove that extrinsic motivators only work for narrow, short-term tasks – not for broad-based, long-term learning achievement.
Even good schools must play by these top-down, burdensome, costly reforms. Achievement, at best, remains flat-lined. Some schools have been made worse. The public’s perception of public education has been skewed by flawed policies. The result? Widespread disarray.
Vouchers and privately managed charters step into this disarray and undercut the effort to strengthen public schools. They do so by touting test scores. By diverting public funds for public schools to private schools, religious schools, for-profit charters. By dissipating the community energies needed to fix community schools.
The effect is pernicious. Even good schools must fight this entropy. It does not matter that year after year polls show that most parents have faith in local schools and teachers. What matters in policymaking is that year after year wealthy interests seek to shift public opinion.
What are the big-picture stakes behind all this?
Many politicians and power brokers favor a privatization ideology. They aim to convert a public good into a private commodity. They cast public education as a “government monopoly” – even though public schools have long been local endeavors, financed by local and state taxes, overseen by local, elected leaders, and valued as centers of community cohesion.
The ideologues of privatization project disarray and promise “choice.” They ignore research that vouchers and charters do no better than public schools. Secretary of Education DeVos risks ungluing the cohesive commons of our communities. “To each his own” risks “e pluribus unum.” Dismantle public education… and undercut a cornerstone of democracy.
This cornerstone has endured for 175 years. It has shouldered a national purpose amongst a diverse people. It has synthesized the educational elements required of a democracy. It has asked us to take care of each other and not just ourselves. Shall we wreck this cornerstone to favor private gains over the public good? No, for the costs clearly outweigh the benefits.
Across the board, public schools already do as well or better than voucher or charter schools. Plus they strengthen the social fabric. So let’s not become unglued. Rather, let’s rededicate ourselves to strengthening our own community schools.
There are ways to do this. Treat public education as a public responsibility not as a private commodity. Reject extrinsic motivators used on students that curtail their learning achievement. Vote out interest groups that hold disproportionate power in setting policy.
Instead, use intrinsic motivators to teach children. Get behind local leaders to govern local schools. Give teachers the autonomy to engage students in personalized, active, deeper learning that connects schooling to the world they live in. Encourage parents to insist on motivators that work – and to work with teachers to set local policies.
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it.” – John Adams
To be sure, there have been problems with schools throughout our educational history – like segregation and poverty. There are problems now – like flawed policies. All of us have our weaknesses, and all of us have our strengths. But none of us deserves to be pigeonholed for our weaknesses alone. The past and present of public education are filled with strengths, with millions of success stories. Let us see to it that the future will be filled likewise.