Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Thanks to many of you for passing along compliments about Joe Nathan’s great post from earlier this week. For those of you who missed it, I encourage you to check it out.

Thanks also to many of you for responding to our match challenges. We already have nine new paid subscribers from New Jersey, five more from California, and five more nationwide. Remember we have to get 10 in all our various states to draw down the match. So thank you to all of you who have already subscribed, and thank you to anyone new who will subscribe today so we can get closer to drawing down these matches!

Let’s get on to the update.


Today’s post grows out of a recognition that in some of my recent writing I have been trying to skip ahead, and I realize I need to slow down a bit to keep what I present here coherent. The recognition arose when I reflected on my post “General Principles for Overcoming the Great Disconnect of 2021” wherein I offered the four following principles:

  • There Isn’t that Much Equity to Lose
  • Now is the Moment to Consider Every School an Ally
  • The Words of the Moment are Agency, Accountability, Freedom, Blurring and Micro
  • This is a Crisis We Can’t Let Go to Waste on Equity

The coherence I want to maintain is one showing how these principles are aligned with the overarching agenda I have been advancing here since the inception of CharterFolk – The Greatly More Public Schools Agenda. The Principles and the Agenda are in fact completely aligned. This reflects my thinking that the way we help public education get over The Great Disconnect of 2021 is to pursue the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda, only on steroids.

What is the starting point analysis of the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda?

CharterFolk repeat after me:

Unfortunately, our nation’s public schools have turned out to be not that public.

Which is just another way of stating the First Principle: “There isn’t that Much Equity to Lose.”

As to the Second Principle, do folks remember what I said was my biggest mistake over my 10 years of service at CCSA?

Letting charter schools become understood to be one massive replacement strategy by not putting enough emphasis on the fact that chartering is designed to help absolutely all schools get better.

If there is ever a time we can’t afford to repeat that mistake it is now. Thus, the Second Principle is: Now is the Moment to Consider Every School an Ally.

(Joe Nathan, by the way, is one of our most eloquent voices regarding the importance of presenting chartering as something that can help absolutely all schools get better, which is another reason why I was delighted to present Joe’s Contributor Column this week.)

That brings us to the Third and Fourth Principles, which I want to focus on today. These are the principles that identify where we are trying to go. Our movement not having a good North Star has been a massive problem that I have been broken-recording on here at CharterFolk. At different times I have offered various policy ideas for what would help us arrive at a system that is Greatly More Public than the one we have today. Principle Three contains many of these ideas, but with words like “Agency,” “Accountability” and “Freedom” all thrown together, it runs the risk of sounding like a hodge-podge.

But it’s not. There’s a coherence behind what I am encouraging us toward. This morning I want to bring forward a new construct meant to help us understand that coherence more deeply so that we can drive with even greater aggressiveness toward that Greatly More Public North Star we are all aspiring toward, one that would fundamentally assist public education to overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.

I call the construct the “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education.”

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy, the idea that humans have different tiers of needs. This is a graphic I got from

The basic notion of the framework is that before people can address more aspirational needs of self-actualization, they must first ensure that basic needs such as sustenance and safety are met.

In my view, a similar construct can be created for our public schools. If we want to get to full actualization of fantastic schooling for everyone, we must make sure that base needs are addressed first. And when we see how askew our public education is set up from a proper hierarchy of needs, it puts into repose what our efforts should be.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Greatly More Public Education

Let’s consider first what a hierarchy would look like if our public education system were set up to achieve what all of us are driving toward – Greatly More Public Education for all.

At the base of our pyramid …

… is Values.

We’ve talked a lot about this here at CharterFolk. We need public education to reflect the shared values we hold to ensure that equity and excellence in education is provided to all. Specifically, we need to ensure that educational opportunity is allocated equitably in our society. Those who have historically been denied access to high quality public education in the past must have special access to it today. These values allow us to move forward with confidence knowing that we are helping public education achieve what should be its central mission, which is to ensure that our society becomes a better and fundamentally more just place.

Next, we come to ..

… Agency.

By this I mean that our second priority must be to ensure that our public education system is populated with empowered agents, educators and parents, within whom we situate the loci of control over our public education efforts. We do not want a public school system where stakeholders within it have no decision-making authority. In fact, we want the exact opposite.

Once we have empowered units within the ecosystem, our next need is …

… Accountability.

There can be no agency without responsibility. Accountability brings the responsibility into the equation. As we have seen in recent years, there has been a great struggle in our society over the definition of accountability as it relates to public education. Our world thinks of accountability as making sure that agents are held responsible for results. That means having a third-party authorizer determining every five years whether your results with students warrant you continuing to have the privilege of operating a public school. Without very strong accountability, the whole system falls apart. That’s why we put it near the base of our pyramid.

Next comes …

… Freedom.

Freedom is sometimes equated with agency. In this case they are distinct. Agency is making sure that you are conferring decision-making authority (i.e. choice) upon the agents within the system. Freedom is making sure that all those agents have as much discretion as possible, consistent with our Values, while being held properly Accountable. Basically, what we are saying here is that we want short ed codes. We don’t want enormous bodies of law and regulation and district policy restricting the actions of agents so that we can have the Freedom we need to make great educational opportunities for kids.

Now we come to …

… Funding.

Fifth up from the bottom. Don’t get me wrong. Funding is massively important. It’s essential fuel that gives the whole system life. And generally, yes, the more funding we have in the system, the more greatly public education we are going to have. But it has to come on top of a stable base of Values, Agency, Accountability and Freedom, which allows the Funding to be invested to maximum effect.

Then comes …

… People.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I realize that people are immensely important. Without great educators we will never get to greatly more public education. But what is it that attracts the best people to give their lives to public education?

The ability to make a massive difference. To actually be able to help kids.

That means they have to see that they are entering a system where the values are right, where they will have agency and freedom, while being properly held accountable in schools that are generously resourced. This is what will attract the stunning educators, including the next generation of CharterFolk, we will need to take public education to whole new levels.

Finally, we come to …

… Program.

This is the “actualization” of Greatly More Public Education – stunningly great schools and other learning opportunities in massive abundance. If you have the foundations in the pyramid properly set, the great programs follow thereafter.

And here’s the thing: while the pyramid metaphor shows the whole structure coming to a point, in actuality, if you have done your hierarchy correctly, if you have enough power built into the system, nothing should be coming to any single point, but should in fact blow out into a vast multitude of directions …

… making a volcano the operative end point metaphor we should be envisioning if we do our work correctly – thousands upon thousands of excellent new ways to educate kids building on one other, achieving heights we have never seen before.

It’s an end state very different from the sad state we find in public education today, which, as we will see, is supported by a needs hierarchy that is fundamentally different from what we aspire to.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Maintaining the Establishment

As we turn to considering the Needs Hierarchy undergirding the system as we know it today –the system designed to maintain the Establishment – we remember, again our starting point analysis of public education today, which is that, sadly, our nation’s public schools have turned out to be not that public.

The Hierarchy of Needs construct turns out to be a useful tool for understanding why this is so.

What is at the very bedrock of the advocacy efforts taken on by those seeking to maintain the Establishment?

Is it Values, like is at the base of the Greatly More Public pyramid?


At the base of the Establishment’s pyramid …

… is People.

But not all people.

Only Establishment people, a much smaller group than is the full universe of people involved in public education. It is a fundamentally narrower base – one whose primary motivation is making sure that public education doesn’t change, so that those who are benefitting from the currently barely public status of our public education system continue to do so.

Once the Establishment has been able to target the subset of people toward whom it directs all of its advocacy support, its next focus becomes, of course …

… money.

The objective becomes directing as much Funding as possible toward the target beneficiaries – those vested in the perpetuation of the Establishment itself. All one needs to understand how the Establishment prioritizes the relative importance of the purple and blue shapes is to have ever once advocated for the inclusion of charter schools in a local parcel tax or other ballot measure. In places where Establishment protection is strongest, teacher unions and others would rather that a ballot measure not pass at all than a ballot measure pass that equitably includes charter schools. Yes, the Establishment is always wanting more money, but only if it is able to direct that funding only to itself.

After funding, comes …

… Program.

Note that Program comes after identifying who gets paid and how much, but before Freedom or Accountability. This positioning reflects that the Establishment is committed to making Program great only to the extent that it can be achieved without granting Freedom to agents within the system and without holding anyone responsible for ensuring that Program quality is high. This is where the massive ed codes common to so many states come from. The idea is to value-project and micro-manage into statute a mountain of requirements that both keep Establishment people occupied and require even more money to comply with.

Then and only then, we come to …

… Freedom, Accountability and Agency, none of which exist in any meaningful way within Establishment schools as they are currently constituted.

Freedom is permitted only to the degree that ed codes have not explicitly banned different approaches to instruction and have not heaped up educators with so many compliance requirements that they have any time left over.

Accountability is essentially a foreign concept in most of public education today because, by definition, no entity can hold itself accountable. Yet, school districts, for reasons that make absolutely no sense, are entrusted to supposedly hold themselves accountable. In the end, unlike what happens with charter schools which are accountable to third parties with enough power to close the schools if they underperform, Establishment public schools simply deem their own performance acceptable and keep on operating in unaccountable perpetuity.

Finally, the only thing more anathema to the Establishment than Accountability is an entity (like a charter school) with decision-making authority independent of the Establishment itself. Thus we see Agency in the second-lowest priority position.

Which brings us finally to …

…. Values.

In the Hierarchy of Needs For Maintaining the Establishment, Values are not at the foundation. They are not the bedrock from which the other elements and characteristics of the public education system grow. They are just what happens to be made manifest after all the other needs in the hierarchy have been first addressed given that those other needs are considered to be higher priority than the Values themselves.

With this being the case, is it any wonder so much of public education in our country operates in a manner that is offensive to our values? This is how it was set up by design! In the DNA of our current public education system, Values come absolutely last.

It creates one of the great dichotomies related to the public education Establishment. On the one hand, it is immensely powerful, one of the most formidable political forces in our society today. On the other hand, its horribly designed Needs Hierarchy makes it ever-prone to teetering.

This system’s fragility makes it incredibly threatened by any actors who could disturb the precarious balance – actors like charter schools, which explains why the Establishment has done absolutely everything in its power in recent years to completely and utterly destroy the national charter school movement.

And then, against that general backdrop, came 2020 …

… and Covid …

… and racial awakening …

… which has tipped the Establishment into it the Great Disconnect of 2021.

Something at risk of becoming completely unraveled.

Putting it All Together

So recapping, I hope I am making clear that strong alignment and coherence exists between the Greatly More Public Schools Agenda and the General Principles to Overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.

We start where we just ended – with a sad realization that our public schools are unfortunately not that public, or that (Principle 1) There Isn’t That Much Equity to Lose. That has only been made more apparent during the Great Disconnect.

As we chart our course in the current moment, we remember our biggest mistake over the first three decades of our work, keeping front and center (Principle 2) That Now is the Time to Consider Every School an Ally. In other words, we keep our work focused on …

… People. A recognition that we can not do this alone. We simply must bring as many People as possible from the traditional system with us, knowing that they are as desperately wanting to make greatly more public education available to kids and families as we are.

In this moment of incredible need and opportunity, we propose many policy changes designed to help our schools generate greater equity and excellence, focusing on (Principle 3) Agency, Accountability and Freedom (and yes, of course, continuing to advocate for more Funding) …

… as well as the “Blurring” and “Micro-ness” that will allow the next generation of quality program and innovation to emerge on the landscape …

… never forgetting for one minute that at the bedrock of our work must be a North Star of Greatly More Public Values ensuring that we (Principle 4) Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste on Equity.

Strong Values allow us to prioritize and assemble our Hierarchy of Needs in a manner that is coherent and aligned …

… and ultimately generates the explosion of Greatly More Public Educational opportunity we want for absolutely all kids in our society, especially those who need it most …

… allowing us to overcome the Great Disconnect of 2021.