student success

Betsy DeVos Loves to Cherry-Pick But She’s Got No Real Solutions

I love parent-teacher conferences. I enjoy talking to parents about what goes on in my classroom. I know they have very specific questions about what is happening in my seventh-grade math class, and I have learned over the years how to engage in meaningful (no more than 10 minutes, because the next one is waiting) conversations. Many parents appreciate the expertise I bring, and begin to see the process of education in a new way. But there are still some who will try and use their experience as a student 20 years ago as the authority, and there’s no convincing them otherwise. Well, one of those parents is now the secretary of education. At a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Secretary DeVos became a complaining parent with a microphone, quick to cast blame and offer general advice with no real solutions, as has been her forte since the beginning of her tenure. I do legitimately think that Secretary DeVos thinks she’s doing right by children—maybe not all children, but at least the ones that matter to her. But, like the parents in those conferences, she is unwilling to concede ground to those who know the landscape far better than she. The current American public education system is not perfect. Teachers and students know this, and many excellent teachers are working to make it better. What DeVos offered was a list of questions the answers to which are fairly obvious to anyone who has worked in a classroom even a day in their lives. To wit:

“Why do schools close for the summer?”

I agree with the sentiment, actually. The regression of a student after not being in school for eight weeks is a real issue. So, you have two options: You have to upward-adjust the salaries of all school employees to account for two more months of work, as well as build bigger pools for substitute teachers—basically, a money issue. Or, you have to restructure the year in such a way that there are 12 months of school, with two-week breaks every eight to 10 weeks, for example. Both options require a major restructuring of how we do education in this country, and DeVos didn’t offer any new solutions.

Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address?”

Both of these questions can be answered with one word: money. Transportation costs are already significantly sized lines on a budget. If a student goes to a school 60 miles away, who pays to transport them? High school students are limited with after-school job opportunities if they get out at 5 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. Working parents may not want to leave younger children at home to catch a bus on their own. Is Secretary DeVos offering to fund before-school care for these children? Most likely, no. Finally, my favorite:

“Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?”

DeVos is especially tone-deaf when you consider the biggest issue in education: serving children at risk and in poverty. If they don’t go to a building, what is the alternative? Is she proposing free nationwide broadband? With devices? How would they access the learning? And that’s just the obvious practicality. That’s to say nothing of the millions of children who depend on their schools for a healthy lunch, a place to cope with home trauma and for building interpersonal relationships rather than just online conversations. A place where they can see the face of the caring teacher celebrate an accomplishment, rather than just see an emoji. Sports, extracurricular activities, leadership opportunities—how do you replicate those experiences in a virtual space? Belittling the progress being made by teachers, schools and districts is unhelpful. Instead of cherry-picking examples from the school models she likes, Secretary DeVos should be offering guidance to states on how to scale promising examples to help all kids. The fact is, we’re not looking to Washington to solve our problems. We’re looking to them to support our solutions. And that doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.
Kevin Cormier
Kevin Cormier is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow. Kevin teaches seventh and eighth grade math at Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He has served as a math teacher leader since 2012, and has expanded this role to head up data collection and analysis for the entire North Middlesex regional school district. Kevin was an ECET2 National Convening Attendee in 2016, ...

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