Student Achievement Opinion

With Betsy DeVos at the Helm of the Education Department, We Need a Plan!

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 06, 2016 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, the 58-year-old GOP donor, leader and advocate, has been named as Secretary of Education by the President-elect. Though the appointment requires Senate approval, it is a forgone conclusion that she will be the Secretary. She fits the profile of the Trump cabinet: billionaires, conservatives, military men who have fallen out of favor with the current administration. The announcement that Dr. Ben Carson will be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development adds another criteria. Appointees do not need to possess deep knowledge of the agency they will lead. Loyalty matters most.

As open minded educators, we assert that being a conservative billionaire doesn’t mean one has nothing to offer for the public good. It does not exclude someone from being exactly the potential change agent needed. It does not mean they might not become the best advocate for their department and the best listener to the experts they serve. Their philanthropic records might reveal deep desire to give back in an area of interest. So we look further into DeVos.

She comes from one of the Republican party’s most powerful and generous families. She is a graduate of Michigan’s Holland Christian High School and Calvin College. Ms. DeVos’ husband is the heir to the Amway fortune and founder of an aviation charter high school in Michigan. Her brother is the founder of Blackwater, the security contractor which gained notoriety in the Iraq war. For decades, she has been chairman of the Windquest Group, an investment and management group. She is also chair of the American Federation for Children and is a nationally known supporter of charter schools and of school choice in general. An early supporter of high standards, she supported the common core. She is no stranger to education and clearly has strong ideas about what is needed to shake up and improve the system.

It was reported by the Washington Post that she has spent millions of dollars to endorse and expand voucher programs allowing families to use taxpayer money to pay to attend private and religious schools. The article reported

Jim DeMint, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, cheered DeVos on Wednesday, saying that “the school choice movement will have a champion in the Education Department.”

As one might expect Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers spoke out about Trump’s choice saying it

“makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”

There are often several roads leading to a destination. How can any educator argue with her articulated destination of the best education for every child? We support that. But, the road map to that destination is a convoluted network through an existing system. Or, as she may see it, an alternative and simpler one of building a new road. This is not new to us. Remember the current administration also created a department of education led by pro charter school secretaries and common core advocates and testing programs.

We Are Strong at Opposition
The results of the past experience is that we have become stronger in opposition. It is an exhausting tug of war. What is good for children is lost in the power struggle. At a conceptual level, there is a method and logic to vouchers and school choice. If it is too difficult to change a system create a competing one. Both will get better and more innovative or one will die. It is true that public education is entangled with contracts and local and state politics and funding systems that are broken. From a business standpoint in a capitalistic society, competition breeds success. And remember, we now have in government those who have mastered that system and amassed billions.

Competition Is Not An Answer
So why wouldn’t policy makers, business people, and those who have never lived a day in a public school think that if they opened the doors to competition, schools would improve? Here is why. It defies imagination that teachers working with students would work harder or better or differently if they were competing to keep them in their classrooms and schools. It is offensive to think that we don’t bring our biggest hearts and highest skill to the school and classroom every day. But, there have been a lot of offensive things said and done in the last year as this campaign cycle unfolded so let’s not think they will stop now.

As educators, and especially as educational leaders, it is a good time for recognizing what is true, what is working, what is not, and what will help change what needs to be changed. Then, and only then, can we come together as a collective voice and take a leadership role in getting done what needs to be done to make our educational system more effective for all students.

So what are the issues we need to raise? Here are three:

1. School Funding
In many places, school funding is based upon the real estate value of the homes and businesses in the area. In other places, school funding is a part of the locality’s budget. But, in all places there is also state control and aid and federal influence. Students who live in high poverty areas have more and different needs than those in wealthy suburban areas. Yet, they can meet the same standards if the effort is invested. In addition, wealthier school districts have funds that support athletics, the arts, and STEM initiatives that the schools in poorer neighborhoods lack. Why shine the light on the charter school instead of the public schools that have overcome incredible odds? It is from them that change agents ...and all of us...need to learn.

2. Closing the Gap(s)
We have identified gaps in success for a long time. In addition to income levels, and the separation between those who have experienced pre-school before kindergarten and those who have not, we know there are students who slide to the edges for many reasons. For some, it is poor attendance, for others it is a matter of socialization, psychological, and psychiatric problems, for others it is learning differences. We have come to understand learning as more than a digestion of information offered. It involves motivated learners to be present, prepared, active thinkers who can solve problems alone and with others, who can discriminate truth from fiction and are adept at communication. That is a tall order especially in a world of whirling social media where truth and fact and fairy tale are so closely associated. A fundamental question is do we aspire to create thinkers and questioners and problem solvers or test takers?

3. Abandoning the Bell Curve Mindset
It becomes our responsibility to speak out and educate the public about how our work has changed and what it takes to reach all students and every child. If we are committed to success for every child, we have to be able to step away from that bell curve mentality. We cannot accept that some won’t make it, that some will be exceptional and most will be found in the middle. Carol Dweck’s work tells us if we live by the bell curve, we create the bell curve and that leaves children behind.

Make the Case
What we have to be prepared to do, though, is to admit the work we have left to do. We have to make proposals not just for money but for children. We need to give them faces and names. We need to make the cases for the ones in the dark corners rather than empower the outsiders and the advocates by our silence. We need to be the ones loving these children into the light. Hard as it is, we may need to work alongside those who would take us apart but we cannot let our voices be for ourselves. No, we are the ones who know the children best, at least we hope that is true. We haven’t achieved the level of success we hope for with every child. We have to admit there are children whose needs have not been met.

Common Ground
We cannot rise against what Betsy DeVos may bring forward as the solution to a problem. She sees it from her perspective. We need to broaden and deepen it. Let’s presume she has good intention with children at its center. We need to develop a dialogue to meet her on that common ground otherwise we will contribute to our own demise and have little credibility in any of the conversation.

Competition won’t do it. Vouchers will not do it. They will reveal yet another gap...that of parents engaged in their child’s learning and those who are not. Children will continue to suffer. So in addition to rising up in opposition to Betsy DeVos because of her history and her articulated beliefs, we can take this moment to stand up, acknowledge what is true about our work, and advocate for the path toward 21st century success. We have to join our voices and choose our battles.

Ms. DeVos will have a reality lesson ahead. She will lead in an administration where education may fall far behind budget cuts, growing deficits, infrastructure and jobs, and immigration and foreign relations. She will now be responsible for the tangled web she wanted to change. Ironically, she may need us as advocates to make her own agenda become a reality. If that turns out to be the case, we should be ready to be smart, be strong, be agile and be what the children need.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.