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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Will Secretary DeVos Just Be More of the Same?

By Peter DeWitt — February 08, 2017 5 min read
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Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, speaks during a rally on Dec. 9 in Grand Rapids, Mich. --Andrew Harnik/AP

We seem to find ourselves in this spot again when it comes to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Don’t know what I mean? We seem to be in a place where the person in charge of the U.S. education system lacks the experience to take the job. In this case, there is mounting evidence that there are countless better choices...but that doesn’t seem to matter.

It was interesting to watch the congressional hearings, because many of the same bipartisan group that didn’t seem to care about public education a few years ago as we went through increased accountability and mandates, seemed to be less partisan this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain members of that group who have long been supportive of public education. However, some of the Democrats sitting on the panel seemed out of practice when it came to defending public education.

I guess you never know what will unite us...

The Infamous Non-Answers
The rhetoric regarding Devos is not kind. Friends who are educators in Michigan have cited numerous articles to show that she has not been a friend to public education, and even her charter school operations seem to cater to a select group.

Much like many of President Trump’s other cabinet members, she is a billionaire (who donated millions to Republicans) because clearly billionaires know what to do with public education. Especially a billionaire who has never spent any time in public education. Can she provide innovative ideas that will help improve public education?

From the start of the hearings it didn’t look that way...

Devos is a proponent of choice for parents. We know this is a hot button issue. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer has spent some time researching choice. In the Politics of Distraction, Hattie writes,

Systems promote the language of choice, although it is usually only the more affluent who can exercise any choice offered. The choice is nearly always a choice of schools (not teachers), and the typical choice is between government-funded and private schools. As noted above, this choice between schools is despite between-school variability being, in most Western countries, small relative to the much more important 'within-school variability'. This raises the question, 'Why do we provide choice at the school level when this matters far less than the choice of teacher within a school?'

Devos has not clearly defined how parents living in rural settings, who often lack other options for schooling, are going to suddenly have a choice. It’s a bit disturbing to have someone in the position of U.S. Secretary of Education not be able to clearly define her plan around choice, and her record in Michigan certainly doesn’t help. When most school leaders interview to run buildings or districts, they have to provide their plan for the future. Why not our education secretary?

Let’s take this as an opportunity to understand why there are parents who want choice for their children.

Next, Devos couldn’t answer the difference between proficiency and growth. In the past we have had education secretaries who preferred proficiency over growth and now we have an education secretary who doesn’t know the difference between the two. If we are to provide a strong education to students we should all understand the difference between proficiency and growth. We expect our teachers and leaders to know it, shouldn’t we have the same expectation for the U.S. Secretary of Education?

Let’s take this as an opportunity to make sure we all have a deep level of understanding between proficiency and growth.

Lastly, Devos didn’t realize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was in fact a law. This is probably something she should have known. It’s a little more important than not knowing a student doesn’t have an IEP. This is the U.S. Secretary of Education, a person who says she wants the best for all students, not knowing that this is a law. Not only does this law affect anyone who works in a public school but it’s been one of the most important laws to date because of the protections it offers to students and families.

Let’s take this as an opportunity to understand IDEA for those students in our schools and classrooms.

A Better Question For Us?
Why are we here...again? As I sat and watched the hearings I just kept wondering why we are once again at this point where we are watching a leader being chosen to lead us who has no experience to do so? Why are we once again in a position where the leader of public education has a distaste for public education? This does not just begin with Devos. Former U.S. Secretaries Arnie Duncan and John King were not kind to public education either.

In New York State where I was a school principal, John King was the commissioner of education and he lacked experience in the job. We were pummeled by mandates and accountability, which was well documented in the media. King was following the direction of Chanceller Meryl Tisch who was a billionaire like Devos. Sure, she had experience as an elementary school teacher from decades before, but between her, the commissioner, and the Governor, public education was abused quite often. King ultimately got a promotion to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Governor Cuomo showed his softer side and Tisch stepped away.

At least Tisch and King had degrees. Devos doesn’t have such a degree.

In the End
There has been a vote of no confidence in public education by a certain group for a long time. Over and over again we find ourselves defending ourselves, and this time we have a leader who knows so little about us, that she cannot answer some of the simplest questions we have to answer in our daily lives?

Are we supposed to ignore what happens at the top, say it doesn’t really have an effect us, and go on with our daily lives? I do believe that we can’t always control the noise that’s out there but we can certainly control how we react to it. Devos is now our U.S. Secretary of Education. How do we educate her at the same time we wait for her innovative ideas?

As teachers and leaders, we have to ask ourselves why we are constantly in this place where we are fighting. Is it just politics are usual? If we are so good wouldn’t more people come to our defense? What is it that we have to do differently? And will Betsy Devos be worse...or just more of the same of what we have had?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the best selling Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.