Betsy DeVos, Corporatism, Education — January 22, 2017 at 11:40 am

Betsy DeVos is not just unqualified, she’s dangerous


Photo credit: M. Robinson

The news that Betsy DeVos will not divest her financial interest in Neurocore, a Michigan “biofeedback” company, should alarm anyone who cares about the health and safety of our children. Because this is not simply a financial issue; it’s part of a disturbing trend in Ms. DeVos’ involvement and activism in education, and her potential confirmation as Secretary of Education.

As reported in the New York Times, DeVos “is a strong supporter of using biofeedback technology to help children and teenagers enhance their performance in school…Ms. DeVos and her husband promote Neurocore heavily on the website for Windquest Group, a family office the couple use to manage some of their many investments.”

The only problem with this is that Neurocore’s “product” is not a pedagogical technique, or even a widely accepted medical intervention. In fact, Michigan’s Department of Insurance and Financial Services recently denied a claim for Neurocore’s services:

…a randomized, prospective, single blind single center controlled trial was done to access the efficacy of biofeedback in reducing the frequency and severity of migraine and tension type headaches. Sixty-four patients with migraines with or without aura and/or tension type headaches, age eighteen to fifty-five, who had suffered from headaches for more than one year, were entered into the study. Patients were randomly assigned to receive biofeedback in addition to the basic relaxation instruction or relaxation techniques alone. Biofeedback training consisted often, fifty minute sessions utilizing standard electromyogram (EMG) feedback from the frontalis and trapezius muscles and temperature from the third finger ofthe dominant hand. Visual and auditory feedback was provided. Thirty-three patients were assigned to receive biofeedback plus the relaxation techniques and thirty-one, the relaxation techniques alone. All patients were asked to respond to periodic questionnaires for thirty-six months. In their conclusion, the authors state that biofeedback is an extremely costly and time consuming treatment modality that, in their study, provided no additional benefit when compared to simple relaxation techniques alone in the treatment ofmigraine and tension type headaches in adults.

While Ms. DeVos believes that biofeedback is a valuable strategy for addressing ADHD, medical experts are not at all convinced that this disorder can be effectively diagnosed, or treated, through electroencephalography:

A 2013 article in The Detroit News questioned the efficacy of diagnostic testing for A.D.H.D., citing an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics News that suggested more research was needed.

The medical research here doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Neurocore’s advertising pitch:

In its marketing materials, Neurocore makes a direct pitch to parents, featuring the personal stories of numerous children in YouTube videos and offering tips on Twitter about helping students focus at school.

On Friday, Neurocore posted a typical tweet — “Do you suspect your child may have teen ADHD? Check out these common signs” — with a link to its website and a photo of a student at his desk.

Or on the thinking of the corporation’s chief medical officer:

Still, Dr. Fotuhi expressed confidence in the field. “It’s in its infancy,” he said, “but I can envision in the coming years, we’ll have objective data”…He said Neurocore had recently begun analyzing its data and results would be published soon in a scientific journal.

Here’s what is dangerous about this issue: medicine and education are not professions that can afford to employ a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach. Before physicians, or teachers, apply a technique or intervention with patients, or students, it is incumbent upon them to rigorously and strenuously test, examine, and analyze those strategies in experimental settings, and to vet these ideas widely and transparently in an effort to determine any potential problems or unintended consequences. Dr. Fotuhi’s acknowledgement that while Neurocore has just recently begun to gather and examine data on their biofeedback techniques, but is already advertising their services directly to parents at a cost of $2000 per session, is terrifying. And the fact that Betsy DeVos stands to benefit financially from this reckless activity is absolutely disqualifying with respect to her confirmation as Secretary of Education.

Even more disturbing, the evidence here suggests that DeVos’ involvement with this untested medical intervention masquerading as pedagogical “product” is merely part of a larger trend in Michigan’s charter school sector.

As I’ve written about previously, Michigan eye doctor and charter school operator, Steve Ingersoll, ran a similar scheme in his schools in Northern Michigan–until he was sentenced to a federal prison stay for his crimes. Instead of biofeedback, Dr. Ingersoll’s scam was called Integrated Visual Learning (IVL), and involved “testing” children’s eye movements as some sort of diagnostic evaluation:

Here’s a teacher’s account of IVL, and how it was used in Dr. Ingersoll’s school:

“His claims were/are at best a novelty in my opinion. If I recall correctly, students were initially given a screener to see how their eyes tracked on a page of text. This was done with a special machine and a pair of glasses hooked up to the machine. If their eyes didn’t track from left to right (as in how a person reads a page of text) and from one line to the next in the correct “zig zag” pattern during reading, then they were considered to need “therapy.” Therapy was expensive and rarely covered by insurance.”

What’s missing here is any description of how children learn. How does this “test” help teachers adapt instruction? What happens when a child’s eyes don’t zig zag? Are they taught differently, or just not admitted to the school?

Um, not so much…according to another teacher:

“There was NO room in the school specifically for IVL testing. There may have been equipment, but kids were never observed for vision. The IVL methods were taught to all kids, because Ingersoll made the staff do it; middle school and high school as well. Even the Special Education teachers had to teach it. which meant critical standards were not met.”

Dr. Ingersoll’s unethical actions were possible in large part due to Ms. DeVos’ efforts to eliminate any meaningful regulation or oversight for Michigan’s charter school industry.

Michigan’s charter school “industry”–and that’s what it is, an industry; not an educational system, but rather a business model designed to steal public money and slip it into private bank accounts–is wildly out of control, an unregulated Wild West playground for unscrupulous hucksters, quacks and charlatans who see our school system and our children as an untapped well-spring of profits. And the stream is flowing.

If Michigan is any indication, we are about to witness a radical experiment in our nation’s schools–an experiment using our children as unwilling guinea pigs, with no regard for data or ethics, and a total obsession with profits. Betsy DeVos is clearly demonstrating that she is more concerned with benefitting from her financial investments than with making sure that our country’s children have access to education that is research-based, pedagogically-sound, and safe.

Ms. DeVos has been honest about her lack of knowledge about children, learning, or schools, and now has shown her willingness to subject our children to radical, untested teaching methods–all in the name of profits.

Betsy DeVos should not be permitted to set foot in our schools, much less run them. The ideas and policies that she espouses represent a clear and present danger to American education, and our children. Call your representatives and tell them to vote against her confirmation as Secretary of Education.