One of the things teachers are always weary of is change. We are constantly bombarded with new initiatives and programs meant to improve education, but in reality, they will be gone in just a few years. If the past two presidential administrations are any indication, that new initiative or push is for sure coming with Donald Trump, and based on her confirmation hearings there is reason to be concerned about his pick for Education secretary, Betsy Devos.
Traditionally, education has been a state and local issue, but ever since the George W Bush administration the federal government has increasingly become involved in school reform. The federal government can’t make laws that affect schools, but they have used the time-honored tradition of giving money to those who play ball by their rules. For things like No Child Left Behind, there were states that weren’t tied to it, but they also were states that did not get federal funds from it. That funding forces most states into those reforms, and whatever the Trump administration lays out is likely to go the same way.
Ms. Devos is a school reformer, so it's almost inevitable she will try to push schools reforms. Her past and her responses to Senators questions worry me. This list tells you why.
What Worries Me
1. Her Embrace of School Choice and Privatizing Schools
I am not opposed to school choice and charter schools in theory, but I think reality tells us to tread incredibly carefully in this space. The argument for them hinges on that school choice will allow students who attend poor schools to choose a better school. That argument is off base, and charter schools also run into the same issues business do: some are successful, and some are not.
The whole charter school movement started as a way for parents to get their children out of bad schools. The idea is that by giving parents a choice, the bad schools would dwindle in enrollment, and they would eventually die. This just scratches the edge of the problem, though. Poor schools typically are not just a management issue. They are a community issue. Poor schools typically are poor because they exist in communities that have deep issues. Those broad issues mean kids come to school with deep issues, and those deep issues make it difficult to hire and retain quality teachers. It means that even if you open up charter schools in lower economic communities, there is no guarantee that they will be successful. Charter schools end up just like a business: some work and some do not. Can we afford to put any children in what amounts to a failing business?
The other issue that comes up is who full school choice benefits. Wide school choice benefits parochial schools more than any other. Today’s parochial schools are expensive, and the hope of many school choice advocates is that state vouchers could be used to get middle school children to attend those schools. I think that could be good, but there are a host of issues with the federal government providing funding for a religious education
School quality comes down to leadership and the ability to hire and retain quality teachers. That’s why schools in lower economic areas struggle. Educators and administrators both get bogged down by the reforms put in place and the issues students bring with them to the classroom. It makes it incredibly easy to burn out. The fix to these schools comes down to finding the quality that is invested in the community. With that in mind, one possibility is to build teacher preparation programs into these schools. Hopefully, by doing that you can get teachers who will stay because they hope to make a difference where they grew up.
I see charter schools and school choice as just putting a band-aid on the problem. It might positively affect a few, but it won’t bring long-range reform to the education system. A comprehensive federal plan that advocates school choice is frightening because it diverts both attention and money from the real issues. Hopefully, Ms. Devos will be limited in her scope of implementation.
2. Her lack of experience
One of the things that Democratic Senators hit Ms. Devos on was her lack of experience. Ms. Devos has never designed policy for education, and she has never worked in K-12 education. While I would feel better if she had fashioned policy, the lack of K-12 experience is the bigger worry.
To be successful in education reform, you need to have empathy. You need to understand what teachers, administrators, parents, and students go through. That lack of empathy is the main reason we end up with unrealistic reforms like No Child Left Behind. It’s also why few realize that constant changes are more harmful to schools then just staying with one.
How is a wealthy woman with no experience in K-12 supposed to have that empathy? She has never lived through how tough working in a school can be. She has not even had to face elections and constituents over a policy she advocates. This is very concerning.
3. Her lack of knowledge
Ms. Devos might know her avenue well, but if there was anything that was apparent at her confirmation hearing, it was her lack of knowledge on education issues and topics as a whole. Two exchanges prove it, but in reality, she may be lacking knowledge in many areas in the complex world of education.
The first exchange that showed she lacks some knowledge was the exchange with Senator Al Franken from Minnesota. Senator Franken asked Ms. Devos about the difference between growth and proficiency. Growth is showing how much the student improved from year to year while proficiency is meeting a certain standard within a year. Ms. Devos had no idea. This is incredibly concerning since this is the key issue that many teacher evaluations are hanging on. In the past 20 years, the federal government has increasingly set the policy of which one we look at, and now we may have an education secretary who has no idea what they are.
The second concerning exchange was the one with Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts where she asked about her knowledge of the student loan program. Senator Warren asked her about her experience both running and in the program. Ms. Devos had no experience on it, but what was worse is what seemed to be her surprised response. In these replies, I saw her lack of empathy as well of lack of knowledge, and that is cause for concern
4. Her funding ties
We all know Washington hinges on money, and Ms. Devos is in the conversation because that's what she has. She has donated millions of dollars to Republican causes, and Senator Bernie Sanders was right when he hinted that she would not even be there is she had not donated.
Her donations are also causing concern. Government intervention is always tough for schools to deal with, and I wonder if her donations will prevent her from opposing certain Congressman’s legislative measures. I wonder if she will support certain things because she gave them money rather than them being what is right for schools.
I also worry that Ms. Devos will help individual education companies over others. I think we are just scratching the surface of what those ties look like. I think it's highly possible that Ms. Devos could reward government contracts to a group she has funded or supported without looking at the effects. If schools pick resources based on past relationships, why wouldn’t the Secretary of Education?
5. President Trump’s Lack of Interest
For the first time in a LONG time, education barely was even mentioned during the 2016 presidential election. I think Hillary Clinton’s record of focus in education topics means it was for sure not her. It was Donald Trump. Judging from his election performance, he does not care that much about education, and what he does believe relates to his business ties.
What all of this means is that Ms. Devos will have more influence than other secretaries of education. President Trump has laid out few ideas on education which means Ms. Devos will set policy. That means the only thing we can probably expect is school choice. Are we going to leave the other policies to chance? At the very least we should have a Secretary that we know where they stand.