Betsy DeVos, Education — March 3, 2017 at 10:38 pm

Who knew it could be so complicated?: DeVos edition


Donald Trump, in a moment of rich irony, appears to have been caught just a bit off guard with just how complex the American health care system really was last week.

“Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he added. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Notwithstanding the fact that nearly every American who has been paying attention to the Obamacare/ACA debate (spoiler alert: they are the same thing!) could have let Donald know the situation was a little trickier than he seems to have thought it was, you’ve got to give credit where it’s due–yes, Mr. President; the health care system is both complex and complicated, and a lot of very smart persons have been working on it for a very long time. It took those very smart people quite a while to come up with a policy solution that has reduced the number of uninsured to historic lows, provide coverage for those with preexisting conditions, and extend coverage to children under 27 years of age. And even though I know these words I’m typing will fall on deaf ears, please don’t screw it up by repealing it only to replace it with…a nonexistent “plan” that the members of your own party can’t even seem to find.

Now, in another not-so-surprising bit of irony, it’s looking like Mr. Trump’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has also been laboring under the misconception that this education thing is actually pretty simple–and is about to receive a similarly rude awakening.

Ms. DeVos, who as it has been widely reported, never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, and has never taught anyone anything, now finds herself in charge of the American education system–which includes nearly 100,000 public schools educating over 50 million children. It should go without saying that such a huuuge system would be, by definition, extremely complicated and complex–and yet by all accounts, Ms. DeVos appears to believe that our nation’s educational system can be described as the somewhat simple interaction of three things: children, parents, and schools.

[The complete and utter lack of any mention of teachers in the rhetoric of Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos has been conspicuous by its absence, especially to the nation’s teachers. Even worse, Ms. Devos’ frequent mentions of the virtues of online learning and virtual schools hint at her preferred vision of the future of education–a world of public school classrooms populated by huge numbers of children monitored by classroom “aides”, and children tethered to laptops and “personal learning devices” in virtual classrooms or being educated via homeschooling. Teachers have been trained to listen for their absence in these sorts of statements, and aren’t being fooled by empty rhetoric and false promises. They know that if you’re not at the table, you’re probably what’s being served for dinner.]

Here is Ms. DeVos’ simple equation for how schools work:

1. Take one poor child, trapped by zip code into attending a “failing public school”
2. Add the freedom of school “choice” that allows parents to send their child to the private or religious school of their choice*. (note: private schools not required to accept all children)
3. Cut in conservative-approved curriculum of revisionist history (slavery was a “side issue” to the Civil War, and Young Earth creationism taught in science classes instead of evolution)
4. Mix with vouchers* (note: offer not constitutional in most states)
5. Bake in Congressional oven controlled by Republicans eager to privatize public school system
6. Remove child when test scores reach pre-determined levels* and learning is complete (note: target scores may be changed without notice, and learning is never complete)

As much as Ms. DeVos might believe that this is the way that education works, any teacher dragging home on a Friday afternoon would have a couple of things to say about what’s wrong–really wrong–with this vision of schooling.

For one, kids come to school with a host of talents, skills, problems, challenges, and issues that contribute–in ways positive and negative–to their ability to learn. Simply plopping them down in a new school, with new classmates, teachers, classes, cafeterias, lockers, gyms, restrooms, etc., just isn’t going to magically improve their academic achievement. In fact, according to recent research from Jennifer Warlick, professor of economics and policy studies at the University of Notre Dame:

Student mobility is creating academic problems for the students who move, but it’s also a problem for those who remain.

While students who change schools, especially frequent movers, can suffer psychologically, socially and academically, another important finding is that academic achievement of the “stable core”—the 30 percent of students who stay in one school—is also negatively affected by the school’s mobility rate.

New students coming into the classroom require more time from the teacher, decreasing teacher availability for the rest of the class, they note; routines are disrupted as the pace of instruction slows to accommodate new students, who may be behind in the curriculum.
The negative correlation between academic achievement and school switching is crucial information, Warlick notes.

Further, for students whose learning is negatively impacted by factors outside the school’s walls a simple “change of scenery” is unlikely to have the desired effect.

In 1966, the Coleman Report concluded that “student background and out-of-school factors are significantly more important” than in-school resources in influencing educational outcomes, and organized these factors into the following categories:

  • Student risk factors, such as emotional and/or learning difficulties, English-language proficiency, and racial/ethnic minority background
  • Student motivation and desire to do well on tests
  • Parents’ attitudes toward education
  • Domestic stability and support, including access to books, technology, and other resources
  • Access to adequate health care and proper nutrition
  • Access and exposure to arts, culture, and travel, which are correlated with families’ socioeconomic backgrounds and poverty levels
  • It’s Complicated

    Stella is 7. She arrives at school most days not having eaten breakfast, and many days the school lunch is the only meal she gets all day. She didn’t have a winter coat when the weather turned cold this Fall–fortunately, the school maintains a supply of spare coats and boots for children like Stella, of which there are many.

    Stella’s parents divorced when she was 5–her father died the following year, and her mother is currently serving a prison sentence for substance abuse. After spending a year living with various relatives in the area, Stella now lives with her grandparents, both of whom are retired due to disabilities.

    Stella’s attendance at school is spotty, and when she does come to school she often exhibits behavior problems in her classes. Her teacher says that she suffers from “anger problems,” and doesn’t respond well to discipline. Yesterday, she greeted her teacher with smiles and a hug, and seemed excited to be at school–then, just moments later, Stella was taken to the principal’s office for hitting one of her classmates in the hallway.

    Stella would benefit greatly from working with a counselor, but the school district was forced to eliminate all counselor and social worker positions the previous year due to a state budget cut. The special education teacher recently recommended Stella for remediation, as she is struggling in both reading and math, but her grandparents have hesitated in agreeing to this plan because they don’t want Stella to be “labeled.” At this point in the year, Stella is in danger of being retained in 2nd grade for another year due to a combination of her poor academic progress and attendance problems.

    To think that simply moving a child from one school to another will provide the “silver bullet” that will overcome the effects of poverty, family or home dysfunction, learning challenges, and a myriad other obstacles and issues is a special brand of magical thinking about learning that only a person who has never been a teacher could seriously consider possible.

    A person like Betsy DeVos.

    The truth is that building and maintaining a public school system responsible for educating over 50 million children is a tremendously complicated operation, and requires experienced oversight and leadership from all involved. To have a Secretary of Education who persists in believing that the solution to all of the problems in American education can be solved by expanding school choice and voucher programs doesn’t help address these problems in a serious way.

    If the point of school choice and vouchers is to allow kids from poor schools to attend schools with more resources, how does that address the problem that the “choice” rhetoric acknowledges? It’s like saying that when your roof is leaking, instead of fixing the roof, you just move to a new house.

    If we all followed this “policy,” eventually we’d have entire cities with decrepit, run-down homes. And the only folks left behind in the leaking homes would be those who couldn’t afford a new house. Sound familiar?

    Welcome to American education under Betsy DeVos.