U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has spent the past year trying to rise above the social media maelstrom that surrounded her rocky confirmation process. But the past two weeks showed she is still a prime target of vitriol from her opponents—and sometimes her own worst enemy in the public arena.
DeVos has plowed ahead with her agenda to better meet the needs of individual students in part by expanding educational options through vouchers and charter schools. She’s visited schools that she says are embracing outside-the-box approaches. She’s even poked fun at her own performance at her confirmation hearing.
But many educators continue to find her message mystifying and often offensive, even as it resonates with some parents. It doesn’t help that her performance is not always ready for prime time.
The most bruising recent moment for the secretary came during a wide-ranging interview with “60 Minutes” March 11 in which she seemed unable to answer basic questions about some of her policy positions. A department spokeswoman said the segment was “highly edited” and did not accurately capture DeVos’ views.
The interview capped a week in which the public’s polarized take on the secretary was on full display:
• DeVos got the cold shoulder from some students during a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., the site of the mass shooting last month that killed 17 students and staff members. Her staff said she structured her visit to minimize disruption for the school.
• On Twitter, the secretary tried to illustrate that little has changed in education over the past several decades using stock art, engendering social media outrage.
• And in remarks that she called “tough love,” DeVos told state chiefs she sees a lack of innovation and ambition in their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act fell flat with many state leaders, while garnering praise from others.
Such instances show after more than a year in office DeVos still hasn’t figured out how to frame her message from her perch as a cabinet secretary, instead of as an advocate, said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is linked to the progressive movement.
“She’s clearly at a loss for what her role is. She can’t just be a critic of others’ policies,” he said. “She has to say what needs to be done. She’s now in a position to lead, and she can’t do that.”
But DeVos does have an important message—it’s just not one everyone wants to hear, said Matt Frendewey, who helped lead communications work for DeVos at both the Education Department and at the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy organization she started.
“She’s challenging the belief that we have a world-class education system,” he said. “When families have to talk about selling their home to get a better school district, something is wrong in our country. That conversation is uncomfortable for [many] families and the education establishment that profits off of an education system that’s mediocre.”
‘60 Minutes’ Slip-Up
The “60 Minutes” segment offered DeVos a big platform for her contention that expanding educational options would help parents pick a school that best meets their child’s needs. And it may have been the secretary’s best shot so far to move beyond the impression her controversial confirmation hearing left in the public’s mind.
A “60 Minutes” spokesman said, “This interview speaks for itself.”
During the interview, DeVos wasn’t able to point to examples in her home state of Michigan in which injecting more competition through charter schools or vouchers had increased student achievement. (She said this had happened in “pockets” of the state, but didn’t say which ones.)
And she told interviewer Lesley Stahl she hadn’t “intentionally” visited low-performing schools to determine the cause of their problems. (“Maybe I should,” DeVos agreed when Stahl pressed her.)
For DeVos’ critics, the interview confirmed that she’s “incompetent and doesn’t care about schools,” said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton and the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform.
On the other hand, if “you think the media has been unfair to her,” Stahl’s pointed questions might have supported that perception too, Hlavacik said.
Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos, said that “60 Minutes” chose to air only “highly edited clips” of the interview. “It’s disappointing that instead of showing any of the lengthy and substantive policy discussion Secretary DeVos had with Ms. Stahl, ’60 Minutes’ chose to air only highly edited clips on limited topics to perpetuate a false narrative about her work,” Hill said.
But Candy Banda, the director of school leadership for the Dallas Independent School District, said DeVos’ comments showed how removed the secretary is from what actually goes on in classrooms.
Banda, who spoke about her personal views and not the district’s, was particularly put off by DeVos’ contention that the public funds students, not school buildings.
Students and their schools, “inherently go together,” she said. “Students fill school buildings, so they need to be funded and resourced,” said Banda, who has spent 20 years in education and taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Stoneman Douglas Reception
Some students at Stoneman Douglas weren’t thrilled when DeVos stopped by on March 7. They complained on social media that she met with a very small group of students, not the entire school community, and didn’t spend much time in Parkland.
“I thought she would at least give us her ‘thoughts and prayers,’ but she refused to even meet/speak with students. I don’t understand the point of her being here,” tweeted Carly Novell, a Stoneman Douglas student.
But one student, Kyle Kashuv, who later visited the White House, praised DeVos as well as President Donald Trump for how they reacted to the shooting. Last week, DeVos had dinner with Kashuv, who met in Washington with lawmakers about school safety on a day that coincided with the national student walkout.
At Stoneman Douglas, DeVos did indeed speak with several students, according to the school newspaper and the department.
The secretary also told the student journalists who covered her visit that she’d like to sit down with them and others in the near future, her spokeswoman said.
DeVos used her annual speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers to offer some “tough love” on state ESSA plans. States haven’t taken advantage of the law’s leeway, come up with innovative ideas to improve schools, and leave too many low-performing students behind, she said.
Her message didn’t sit well with many chiefs. They argued that DeVos asked for the bare minimum, then complained when she got it.
“Maybe [DeVos] forgot this bit when penning her lecture, but the letters she sent states specifically asked us to stick to the consolidated plan template and only include information ‘absolutely necessary’ for [department] consideration,” tweeted Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction. Evers is running to replace Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a DeVos ally who did not sign off on his state’s plan.
But at least one chief welcomed DeVos’ prodding.
“I appreciate the push,” said Nevada Superintendent Steve Canavero, whose state was singled out for praise in the speech. “She’s challenging us to rethink our flexibilities.”
Some educators were also taken aback on March 6, when DeVos tweeted a picture of two classrooms—one seemingly recent, one that appeared decades old—both showing similar set-ups in traditional classrooms.
“Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t,” she tweeted.
Teachers angrily fired back pictures of their own classrooms where students worked in groups, held book clubs, put together projects. That’s what real classrooms look like today, they told DeVos. The secretary, they noted, had used stock art.
“Here’s how my public school classroom looks,” wrote Anna Baldwin, a teacher in Arlee, Mont., who recently served as a teaching ambassador at the department. “Kids collaborating, round tables and rolling chairs, laptops for individual study. Do your homework, @BetsyDeVosED.”
Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa and Staff Writers Daarel Burnette and Madeline Will contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Still Challenged in Delivering Message