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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' '60 Minutes' Interview Should Motivate Us

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Betsy DeVos.jpg

How many of you tuned into 'Sixty Minutes' on Sunday night in anticipation of the Stormy Daniels interview? It didn't happen. But, if you stayed with the show, you saw the interview segment with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She had visited Stoneman Douglas High School this past week (though we haven't heard that she spoke with any of the students) and she will be somewhere at the table of decision makers about school safety federal policy. The interview did little to change minds about her knowledge of schools and of education. She repeated some of her performance during her hearings where she defended her thinking by repeating over and over again with one-line replies that were evasive and without substance. She spoke of urgency and of task forces and of arming teachers. She spoke about the regulatory changes initiated by the Department. She was nervous and well she should have been.

Here are the high points noted in Valerie Strauss' brilliant Washington Post article on this embarrassing interview:

  1. She couldn't say whether the number of false accusations of sexual assault on school campuses is lower than the number of actual rapes or assaults.
  2. Arming teachers "should be an option" for states and communities, she said, even though she couldn't "ever imagine" her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, having a gun.
  3. "We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level, and we have seen zero results," she said -- a statement Stahl challenged.
  4. "I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them."
  5. In reference to the #MeToo movement, she said she experienced some moments decades ago that "today would just be viewed as unacceptable."

Here we address issues 3 and 4. An interesting thought arose as the questions came and the answers failed to make much sense.  On the issue of vouchers, Ms. DeVos appeared, on the surface, to be a champion of the poor. She spoke with deep emotion that it is unfair that people of means can move from one apartment to another or one neighborhood to another or from a city to a suburb and the poor families can not. She spoke of states' rights and rights of parents as to how schools are run and where children attend school. 

Then, the million dollar question...why vouchers?  Her answer...we are failing our students. '60 Minutes'reporter Leslie Stahl pushed back with data about the rising test scores and graduation rates in public schools. The best word to use about DeVos's answer is stumble. She truly stumbled through her answer and made no sense. She said in comparison to the world, we remain in the middle (not certain of her source).  However to our knowledge, our system, unlike any other, requires that all children begin school by 5 or 6 years of age and remain until they are in the middle of their teens, or until they graduate.  Also, we make room for those who take longer to master learning and allow them to remain in school until they are 21. That may skew our scores when we are compared to countries with selective retention for children.  Consider that our scores (no matter how much you may resent standardized test scores) have inched up while our inclusion remains a lynchpin of our public school system.

On the surface, federal money that follows a student to school is a sensible idea. Why not have it follow the child from one public school to another? Competition with the public realm is the goal...Isn't it noteworthy that the current administration is extending that thinking into other realms as well? Privatize the military, the air controllers, etc. It is personal for educators but let's not respond as if it was a narrow brush.

There are private schools, parochial schools, and charter schools that will benefit from her thinking. Some of those schools do not have to follow the rules, regulations, and mandates that public schools do. So as she collects her data about success, she may find some of those schools doing better than the public schools. But, the success may not be coming from the school being 'better', it may be because the school isn't bound by some of the same law or regulation. Her answer to why not work on the failing schools instead of letting students leave them, she mumbled one of her non-answers. Isn't it is always harder to change a system than to create a new one? But, in the process of casting the existing one aside, much is lost. The foundation of her argument is her thinking about government. We accept that a conservative thinks less government and less regulation serves all of us better. We don't argue for more government nor more regulation but we have seen the benefit of strategically developed and implemented law and regulation in improving the lives of children. That difference aside, here are the holes in her thinking.

Not all parents (particularly those who may be living in poverty) have even the time to investigate other school options for their children, apply, be interviewed, and, in some cases, overcome the transportation challenges...no matter how much they care about their children's education. Their time is directed elsewhere in other survival activities.

In the rural parts of our country where districts are geographically large and student density low, it is rare for a charter or private school to be available to families. Children may be spending an hour or even longer on buses to and from school already. So the intent to 'level the playing field' can only be achieved in cities and suburbs. But that isn't seen as her problem because she kept saying it is the responsibility of states and parents. Constitutionally she is right. Education is a state responsibility that's why we fund it locally and with state aid.

"Schools are made up of the individuals who are attending them." she said. Well, yes they are. And an embedded bias exists in her answer regarding this was about rights of children to be educated and the removal of those who are disrupting the educational process for others. Certainly we have all suspended a student on those grounds.  But never have we stopped after that. Those children who are disrupting the educational setting still deserve our care and our best professional work to keep them in an educational setting. She spoke of them as if they were invisible in her plan and her care.

So lets dig in. No matter whether a highly successful school or a struggling one, every day our work is to make each school better. It isn't regulation that makes a school fail. Here, DeVos is right.  Schools are made up of everyone who is in it, the students, the staff, the teachers and the leaders. If something isn't working, our job is to find answers.  If you hit a wall, there need to be colleagues with new thinking ready to offer a hand. We are all in the larger system of public schools and of education. We need to eliminate the subterranean completion among us. In the policy world, we are all as bad as our weakest link but not as good as our best. Complacency and myopia among us is part of the problem. We cannot lead policy conversations if we let specific school or district boundaries define the problem. As educators, all the children are ours. While this uninformed Cabinet Secretary who is supposed to care about everyone's kids wreaks havoc on our reputations and dismantles some of the best regulation we have seen in years, school leaders can step out and up. 

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.

Image by flickr user Gabe Skidmore, Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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