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Betsy DeVos Links Nation’s Stagnant Test Scores to Lack of Parental Choice

By Alyson Klein — November 30, 2017 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used America’s stagnant performance on an international exam to make her case for her favorite policy prescription—expanding school choice—in a speech to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education in Nashville, Tenn.

Decades after the publication of 1983’s landmark report “A Nation At Risk” DeVos said America remains “stuck in the middle” on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

“We are being outpaced and outperformed by countries like China, Germany, Vietnam, and the U.K.” DeVos said. “We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk.”

One of the most intriguing arguments DeVos used to build her case: Other countries that have embraced school choice end up performing better than the United States. But she didn’t specifically say which countries she was referring to. The Education Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for more detail.

However, reports have found that countries that have gone big on choice have a mixed track record of success. For instance, in Chile, a universal voucher system has exacerbated inequities and had a minimal impact on student achievement, according to a research review by the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. However, the Cato Institute has a more favorable view of Chile’s school choice initiative.

What’s more, states that outperformed the rest of the country on the 2013 PISA—Massachusetts and Connecticut—don’t have robust voucher programs, although they do have charter schools. Florida, meanwhile, one of the states with the most robust school choice programs, actually did worse than the nation as a whole on the international comparison. (Of course, any researcher will tell you that school choice, or the absence of it, may not account for these differences.)

UPDATE: Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos, cited Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School, by Ashley Rogers Berner. Hill said that Berner argues that America is an outlier among Democratic nations in its state-provided school system. According to Hill’s summary, Berner notes that in several countries—including some that outperform the U.S. on PISA, such as Canada, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands and Demark—the state either operates a wide variety of schools or funds all schools but operates only a portion of them.

Personalized Learning

DeVos gave a shout-out to personalized learning programs, which generally allow students to learn at their own pace often using technology. “A child’s learning experience should be much more driven by the child and much more personalized and customized,” she said. “For many this is a departure from what has been the routine for years.”

DeVos worried that schools are losing high-flyers who finish lessons early and then are “bored to death” as well as the kids who are having trouble mastering material at the same pace as their peers.

Importantly, though, experts caution schools not to whole hog on personalized learning, at least not yet. The practice still requires a lot more study and refinement. More on personalized learning from my colleague Ben Herold here.


Republican Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, who interviewed DeVos after her speech, also asked DeVos for examples of innovative practices in states plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. DeVos said she saw the plans as more of a “floor” for state action than a “ceiling.” That’s a signal that she’s hoping that states will take more ambitious steps than what they’ve outlined for federal compliance.

And she noted that 90 percent of the money for K-12 still comes from the state and local level, so the feds need to take a step back. “The federal government has had an outsized role in recent times as it relates to the state. I believe the role of the federal government should be as light a footprint as possible,” DeVos said. “We’ve had top down approaches for more than a decade now and it’s proven to not be effective.”

No Plans to Leave

For weeks, rumors have swirled that DeVos was planning to step down soon, thanks in part to this initially misleading article. DeVos has told Education Week she planned to stick around for Trump’s entire term. And, channeling Mark Twain she said at the top of her speech that, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. I’m not going anywhere! In fact I’m just getting started!”

She called her plans “bad news” for “the teacher union bosses, the defenders of the status quo, the ‘education-expert’ bloggers and muckrakers and many of our friends on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress.”

And in response to Haslam’s question about why she’s sticking around, despite the “slings and arrows” she’s been taking, DeVos said she sees lack educational inequity, brought on by lack of choice as “an injustice that we have inflicted on our country.” She said for every child who has benefitted from a voucher or tax credit scholarship, “There are thousands and thousands of others who are not having those opportunities. ... I will continue to take slings and arrows to try to fight for them.”

It’s not a huge surprise that DeVos addressed Bush’s. Before becoming secretary of education, DeVos served on the organization’s board. More than half a dozen top officials who are serving in, or have been nominated to work at her department have ties to Bush or the Foundation. And DeVos has visited more schools in Bush’s home state of Florida than any other state.

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