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Common Ground With Betsy DeVos

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It was difficult to watch the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos.  She seemed more nervous than other appointees. Perhaps she was just more transparent than the other nominees. It has to be an intimidating moment to walk into those hearings with the high table, the microphones, the cameras and the lawyers and the press. She is the only candidate so far who had not submitted her ethics review.  Personal good intentions and policy leadership are related but they are not the same. Perhaps this was her entry into waters where she was not the ruler of the day. But, it did seem she was given cover by the rules for the hearing.

Committee members were only allowed one round of five minutes with no chance for follow-up in a second round. Why? The committee chairman said that is what was done for John King so it is being done to be the same. Dr. King was already the deputy in the department and he was already known by the committee. And, like John King or not, he did not bring the same worries to the table that Mrs. DeVos is bringing. The choice of Betsy DeVos is quite different.

First, she is a firm proponent of charter schools, and school choice as the solution for the many children still not experiencing success in traditional public schools. She has had great influence in states like Michigan and Florida where charters and choice have come to define or redefine the educational system and experience of children. Her position as advocate for families and children is that half the schools in the nation are not good enough.

When pushed by some committee members to commit that no public dollars would go to private organizations, she would not. She was asked about her family's contributions to conversion therapy groups for gay people. She denied it was her nuclear family. She fumbled one answer, not knowing the difference between proficiency and  growth measures. She was unclear about what she would do regarding uniform reporting of sexual assault on college campuses. She clearly stated that she supported local decisions about whether guns should be allowed in schools and referenced grizzly bears as a reason for having guns in some places. When asked about whether she would privatize public schools, she did not give a direct answer, saying, "not all schools are working". She concluded her answer with the solution being school choice. A senator from a large state in which some districts have policies that don't allow students to be on the bus for more than an hour and many schools are small asked what she would do in that case in order to offer the same choice as to parent in more populated areas. Her answer was distance learning.

Decades of Eroding Support 
We anticipate that despite loud voices of opposition and concern offered through union and school leaders, she will be confirmed.  But we must acknowledge this erosion of support for traditional public schools has been going on for decades. She is just another in the line of those who bring that philosophy to Washington. But, ironically, though a system outsider, she has been successful in shifting the sand.  

Our frames of mind cannot diminish our dedication to students and school improvement. The wholesale belief that student achievement will be improved by allowing parents to choose where their child will attend school is simplistic at best. Removing financial support from public schools only contributes to the frustration and it can feel demeaning to public educators, those whose students are successful and those who struggle mightily on a daily basis to help their students become successful. It is frustrating when public school educators are blamed for the effects of poverty, mental health, family turmoil, mobility, and other challenges students face.

The Common Ground
But there is common ground. Betsy DeVos and the public schools of this nation can agree that, despite the challenges students face, more children must become successful. Parents who have a choice won't necessarily take it. But we can be confident that parents who have a choice will want it if we are not meeting the needs of their children. So this is yet another wake-up call for us to re-examine the barriers for our work. She would argue that some schools serve the adults in them better than the children and only a redesigned system will put children first. But, we can do that today, can't we? Or is she right, we can't because structural barriers tether our flexibility?

We know the problems faced in each school and district. In addition to the issues the children bring, we also have teachers in need of professional development and recognition, schools with deteriorating infrastructures and archaic labs, classrooms, and sports and performance spaces, and contracts and schedules that define the space for us to become innovative. We too often offer passive welcome to parents. If they don't come to the invitations we send, the relationships lie fallow. We seldom go out to them with an extended hand of welcome. Some settle for children being safe as the measure of success but we know safety is only the foundation upon which the rest of learning is built. Online courses may be part of the answer but all need problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration and, we believe, an infusion of STEM centric curriculum.

In The End
Leaders admit that we cannot do this alone and the development of partnerships are essential. They are not essential for their value as contributors of dollars, but they have the capacity to help develop different types of learning opportunities and professional development for teachers.  Most kindergarten teachers have a belief that building with blocks is important. But few have been taught the engineering principles that can be learned from blocks and open doors and mindsets for a lifetime. Partnering with architects or engineers in the area, and bringing them in to schools to work with teachers to understand how those principles work in the world beyond school is so very valuable, even for the kindergarten teachers. Through partnerships teachers can learn, students can meet the professionals working in various fields and all three groups become motivated and engaged. Learning changes and students do better. There are schools across the country who have experienced these successes in both well funded schools and those in cities with higher levels of poverty. It won't be those schools parents will chose to leave. And, when we speak in defense of public schools we will have parents and partners at our sides. Then, charters or vouchers won't matter. Students will be receiving a quality education where their needs are being met and their limitations are merely gaps that are being closed. They will be experiencing success, want to stay in their schools, their parents will want them there. At least we can take that from the appointment of Betsy DeVos. It is a nudge forward. 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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