Betsy DeVos tweeted the other day about the lack of innovation in today’s public schools, saying:
“Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the ‘average’ student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine — just waiting to be saved by the bell. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.”
As someone who has worked in schools for the past 40 years or so, Ms. DeVos’ description of public education just didn’t ring true to me. I spend a lot of time in schools, and don’t see a lot of classrooms with “desks lined up in rows,” or teachers “standing in front of the room,” or even many “blackboards” nowadays.
What I do see are students working in pairs, or small groups, engaged in class projects, experiments, and active discussions. I see flipped classrooms, kids doing research, surfing the web, creating music, making art. I see teachers planning collaboratively, working in “professional learning communities,” and doing their best to teach to their students’ individual differences.
I also see a lot of schools experimenting with schedules, and a distinct lack of routine. In fact, everywhere I go I see students, teachers, and administrators working hard to do more with less, as federal and state funding for education shrinks year after year.
The funding situation is similar in the higher education sector, where I currently work. Since the late 1970s, funding for public higher education has “flipped”.
- In 1979, state aid provided 70% of university funding, with tuition providing just 30%
- As of 2014, this ratio had almost switched, with state aid making up only 21% of funding needs, and tuition at 71%
This “flip” has shifted the burden for state universities from the public to individual students and families…and has led to an unprecedented student loan debt crisis. In Michigan, the home of Betsy DeVos, a more than $1 billion reduction in inflation-adjusted state higher education and student aid funding has occurred since 2002, with the result being that the fiscal burden for public higher education has shifted dramatically to students and families, who now provide a full 71 percent of institutional general fund dollars.
All of this made me wonder what kind of innovation Ms. DeVos was expecting in the public schools, given that she never attended a public school, didn’t send her own children to public schools, and never worked in or for the schools until being appointed to the position of Secretary of Education. I wondered what kind of innovation was happening at her family’s company, Amway, the multi-level marketing behemoth in Western Michigan.
I started to think how awful it would be if someone was to find and post pictures of desks lined up in straight rows in Amway’s newly-designed Mt. Wellington, New Zealand call center, offices and meeting rooms…
…or of Amway’s Taiwan “Experience Center,” with its symmetrical rows of facing cubbies, full of grimly smiling workers, “just waiting to be saved by the bell”…
…because those photos might demonstrate that Ms. DeVos is simply an uniformed hypocrite, whose own company is nothing more than a current-day version of a 1950s pyramid scheme, and has been fined more than $56 million for unethical business practices.
Talk about a “mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.”
Come to think of it, I’m not sure if that’s Amway’s corporate mission statement, or Betsy’s goal for America’s schools as Secretary of Education.