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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Betsy DeVos Surprisingly Struggles with Basic Education Policy Concepts

I don't think Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had any idea yesterday that his question would lead to the most disqualifying statement made by President-Elect Donald Trump's Secretary of Education nominee, billionaire Betsy DeVos. Here's the exchange, via CNN:


DeVos can't answer whether she prefers proficiency or student growth as the standard for student excellence. In fact, it appears she doesn't know there's been a controversy over the issue -- something a simple Google search reveals. Look, there's pressure involved in these hearings. I get it. So did DeVos simply run out of gas, forget, choke? I don't know. But the fact that she can't have a coherent discussion about student growth and proficiency scores and claims to want to run our nation's schools is frightening.

Why?

Because all efforts we make to turn around struggling schools, or reward high performing schools, or pay teachers, or rate schools and states , or establish charter schools or vouchers depends entirely on proficiency and student growth scores. In some cases, it's growth that takes the day. In others, it's proficiency. But to not know about these concepts is truly frightening. Kind of like hiring a basketball coach who doesn't understand wins and losses determine who reaches the playoffs. Yes. It's that problematic.

Nearly as disqualifying: her lack of understanding that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) can't be overseen by states (which was her pat answer to any tough policy issue: Let the states and localities decide how to handle it). IDEA is a federal program that supports schools' IEP implementation and helps them hire Special Education Intervention Specialists, among other things.

And because it's a federal program, it ensures that every school in the country is required to meet these minimum standards. DeVos said during her hearing that each state and district should be able to implement IDEA how they see fit. Either she is ignorant of the program or she believes fundamentally that the U.S. Department of Education should exercise zero oversight of the $70 billion in taxpayer dollars it oversees.

Other issues from yesterday:

  • She wouldn't tell Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who represented Sandy Hook in the House, whether guns around schools were a good idea (except to defend against grizzly bears
  • She refused to say whether she would defend current regulations against sexual assaults on college campuses, though she did say that what Donald Trump bragged about doing with women was sexual assault.
  • She wouldn't commit to really any policies other than the same EduSpeak pablum everyone talks about -- ensuring kids and parents have opportunities. Who's possibly against that.
  • She outright refused to say that all schools that receive federal dollars should be put on the same playing field, which means charter and private schools will be judged differently than local public schools. She approvingly confirmed that charters currently are held to a different standard.
One more thing that concerned me. Here in Ohio, we have had a 20-year struggle with figuring out charter schools. The major turning point in our history with making these schools the high-quality options our children deserve came a few years ago when charter advocates and critics coalesced around the idea of quality governing school choices, not just the choice, quality be damned -- the If-Parents-Choose-It's-Inherently-A-Better-Option Fallacy. 

As Dr. Macke Raymond of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University put it: Education "is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state."

I thought it was telling that every time DeVos was asked about the quality issue -- whether a bunch of low performing choices are choices in a real sense -- she always returned to the choice for choice's sake refrain.

Maybe I'm sensitive to this because of our Herculean struggle with this issue here in Ohio, but not once did I hear her bring up quality first. Choice was first. Then quality. And that's concerning to me. Because for 20 years, Ohio operated like only the choice matters, and we became a national joke on charter school quality.

All the more concerning is that even without DeVos in charge, the feds have not had a good history here of investing in the "high-quality" charters their grant programs are meant to encourage. Last year, we found that nearly 4 in 10 charters that received federal money meant to grow high-quality Ohio charters went to schools that closed shortly after receiving the grant or never opened at all.

Imagine if quality wasn't even considered because the new Education Secretary didn't know how to measure it? Well, we may find out soon enough.

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