The Corner

By the End of the Day, DeVos Should Be DeSecretary

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

By the End of the Day, DeVos Should Be DeSecretary

It shouldn’t have come to this:

But Vice President Mike Pence is expected to demonstrate the position’s unique duty, and in historic fashion: In his capacity as president of the Senate, he is expected to cast the deciding vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s education secretary — the first time a vice president has had to resolve a tie on a cabinet nomination in the nation’s history.

There’s a flaw in the arguments of DeVos critics that they never quite getting around to addressing. Valerie Strauss, writing in the Washington Post:

But her critics say that anyone who would call the public school system a “dead end” — as DeVos did in 2015 — does not have sufficient interest in improving it but would rather seek to privatize it — and that is a line they don’t want to cross.

Hyperbolic, I suppose, but it’s not surprising that any reform-minded, results-focused assessor of our public school system would look at the results over the past decades and conclude it’s time to show some “tough love.”

In the United States, you can always find very good public schools and very bad public schools and a lot that fall somewhere in between. Criticism of the nation’s public school system as a whole shouldn’t be seen as a personal attack on your favorite teacher. In terms of what we would want as Americans – a public school system that gives every child the knowledge and skills they need to go on to succeed in life – the current system falls way short for way too many American families.

Almost all of DeVos’ critics were perfectly fine with Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan – and in a lot of cases, they were enthusiastic fans. He was, in their eyes, the very model of modern Secretary of Education. Frederick Hess noted that after being welcomed into his job with a bipartisan wave of enthusiasm in education reform, Duncan’s seven years were marked by mean-spirited partisanship; bureaucratic, Washington-centric programs; smug denigration of Common Core opponents, and an invasive army of lawyers bent on micro-managing local schools. 

But put aside the policy differences and too-partisan style. More importantly, in the Duncan years, our schools kept churning out the same old disappointing results. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress arrived in fall of 2015 and showed some backsliding from even the traditional mediocre outcomes: “The scores show 64 percent of fourth-graders and 66 percent of eighth-graders are not considered proficient in reading. In math, 60 percent of fourth-graders and 67 percent of eighth-graders are not considered proficient.”

That is lousy, and that’s after seven years of the Obama-Duncan approach. It didn’t work. Think about that apocryphal quote about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – a.k.a., insanity.

Duncan did enact some changes that teachers’ unions vehemently opposed; in 2014, National Education Association convention delegates passed a resolution calling for his resignation because what they deemed as a relentless focus on testing. But by and large, teachers’ unions knew a Democratic Secretary of Education was never really going to upset the apple cart too much, and would always push for the funding increases they wanted. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten mostly praised Duncan’s record upon the news of his resignation.

Do you feel like public schools are significantly better today than they were in early 2009? Worse? About the same? How about from eight years earlier? Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, the outgoing education secretary John King, Clinton’s pick Richard Riley – they’re all nice, accomplished, well-meaning people who have tackled what is perhaps the country’s biggest problems… and had little impact on the status quo. “A Nation At Risk” came out in 1983, declaring, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” How much progress have we really made in the past three decades? Indisputably we’ve made some, but… enough, considering the expense and efforts?

Betsy DeVos isn’t a professional educator? Well, we’ve tried professional educators for a long time now. She isn’t part of the system? That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. She’s really different from all previous Education secretaries? That’s fine, because we’re looking for really different results than all previous Education secretaries.

When it comes to improving schools his country tried the “nice guy” approach, and we’ve tried many secretaries who don’t ruffle feathers the way DeVos does and… we got the status quo. It’s time to try something different. Maybe she’ll generate worse results, or more of the same, and we’ll know the bull-in-a-China-shop approach to education reform doesn’t work. But it’s worth a try, because our children deserve better than the same-old-same-old, good-intentions and disappointing-results.