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DeVos: Federal Education Mandates Have Failed to Produce Real Change



The past decade of federal K-12 education redesigns "have not worked out as hoped," U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a wide-ranging speech at the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday. "Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem. Too many of America's students are still unprepared."

The Education Department, she said, needs to take a different tack.

"Educators don't need engineering from Washington. Parents don't need prescriptions from Washington. Students don't need standards from Washington. ... What I propose is not another top-down, federal government policy that promises to be a silver bullet. No. We need a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation ... a rethink," DeVos said, according to prepared remarks.

"'Rethink' means we question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion, and achieving his or her potential. So each student is prepared at every turn for what comes next," DeVos said.

DeVos sought to challenge the education community to ask itself a series of fundamental questions about the structure of K-12 systems.

"It's past time to ask some of the questions that often get labeled as 'non-negotiable' or just don't get asked at all," she said. "Why do we group students by age? Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can't a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn't technology more widely embraced in schools? Why do we limit what a student can learn based upon the faculty and facilities available? Why? We must answer these questions. We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students."

DeVos' remarks are one more signal that she intends to use the bully pulpit of her office to call for big changes in K-12 schools. But it's unclear if she is seeking federal resources to help school districts think through a major reworking of their systems. Congress has already rejected her budget proposals on school choice. 

DeVos' speech capped off a day of panels delving into the K-12 reforms associated with the President Geoge W. Bush and Barack Obama eras. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which for the first time required states to test their students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. And Obama approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion program that included some $100 billion for K-12 education.

ARRA laid the groundwork for Race to the Top, which rewarded a dozen states that pledged to evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores, adopt the Common Core State Standards, and put in place ambitious new student data systems.

Thanks to Race to the Top, "Unsurprisingly, nearly every state accepted common-core standards and applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in Race to the Top funds," DeVos said. "But despite this change, the United States' PISA performance did not improve in reading and science, and it dropped in math from 2012 to 2015." She also noted that scores in 8th grade reading on the National Education have slipped.

DeVos added that "common core is dead" at the Education Department. The two-year-old Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB, bars the secretary from telling states what standards they can or can't use. Most states have continued to stick with the common core, or similar standards.  

But people who worked on education policy in the Obama and Bush eras saw some clear game-changing wins. For instance, Nina Rees, the executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and a former Bush administration official, pointed to NCLB's requirement to disaggregate student test scores by subgroup, so that parents, policymakers, and the public can see how students in special education, English-language learners, minorities, and children from low-income families are doing relative to their peers.  

And Rees noted that states including Massachusetts raised the caps on charter schools in order to be competitive for Race to the Top. 

Joanne Weiss, who served as chief of staff to ">Arne Duncan, Obama's longest-serving education secretary, noted that most states are still using the common-core standards, even if they call them by another name.

Having a set of standards that are shared has allowed for higher quality curriculum and professional development. "I think this is just hugely important," she said. 

Read DeVos' full remarks here.

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