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Betsy DeVos: Rethinking K-12 Education Is About More Than Private School Choice

By Alyson Klein — December 19, 2017 6 min read
Accompanied by principal Anthony Cherry, DeVos is greeted by students at the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Ind.
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A charter network that puts a premium on social-emotional learning. Public school districts that have improved their graduation rates through a focus on personalized learning and technology. A faith-based organization that exposes students to work-based learning experiences while they earn a high school diploma.

These are all educational institutions that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos highlighted Tuesday in a wide-ranging summit about how to “Rethink K-12 Education.” Also on hand: representatives from other charter networks, home schools, religious schools, and public school districts that have tried out new models, such as museum schools.

“This is not a conversation about school choice,” DeVos told reporters after the event wrapped up at U.S. Department of Education headquarters. “This is a conversation about doing what’s right for individual students. And it’s pretty clear from all of the participants today that we have innovation going on in traditional public schools. We have innovation going on in private schools and charter schools and home schools. And the focus really of the conversation is doing what’s right for students and looking for new ways to break down barriers to those opportunities for students.”

Big prevailing themes of the day included empowering children to take charge of their own learning, preparing teachers to offer students a more customized approach, and helping charters and other schools that offer a different approach to partner with traditional public schools.

There wasn’t a ton of talk about what the feds can do to help districts and states embrace a more individualized approach to learning. But during a large group discussion with DeVos, several educators brought up the importance of Title II funding for teacher development, which public schools share with private schools and charters. President Donald Trump proposed getting rid of the program in his fiscal year 2018 budget request.

DeVos said that she’ll continue to try to help districts and states get more leeway with their federal funds.

“Having the flexibility to prioritize the kind of training and professional development that was referenced here today continues to be a really important priority,” she told reporters.

DeVos’ school choice and innovation agenda has largely stalled on Capitol Hill, although the big tax overhaul wending its way through Congress does allow families to save for private school using 529 college savings plans. The plan has been criticized even by some school choice supporters for leaving out low-income families that may not pay taxes.

DeVos called the 529 language “a step in the right direction,” even as she acknowledged its limitations.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of the parents who are from lower income [communities] and does not empower them in significant ways. So that has to continue to be an important consideration on our radar screen.”

Individualized Learning

Events like the summit can shine a spotlight on ideas that hold promise, DeVos told reporters.

“Decisions are best made closest to the students, we know that, as a matter of both fact and experience,” DeVos said. There are “certain policy levers” at the department’s disposal, but they are a distant second to the encouragement we can give to states to pick up this mantle in a major way.”

Tom Rooney, the superintendent in Lindsay Unified School District in a rural, high-poverty community in California, kicked off the summit by talking about his district’s big challenges, including graduates who hadn’t learned to read. To help tackle the problem, the district has embraced an “uncompromisingly learner-centered culture.” Lindsay puts a premium on competency- based learning, which allows students to move on after they have mastered material.(Closer look at its work from a former Edweek colleague here.)

The district relies on technology to make this work, but “it’s not about putting a device in front of every learner,” he said. “Technology is seen as an effective accelerant [for] learning.” And the district has made other changes, including ditching A through F grades, and moving away from grade levels in favor of flexible grouping based on students’ skill levels.

Lindsay is getting results, he said. The district went from a graduation rate in the low 70 percent range to more than 90 percent. Most students in the high-poverty district go on to four-year universities.

Also touting customized learning, enabled by technology: Stephen Mauney, the superintendent in Mooresville Graded School District, in North Carolina, which has a successful 1-to-1 initiative. (We profiled it here.) That technology has enabled a “transformation of a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered environment,” he said. The district has seen a rise in its four-year graduation rate, from 77 percent in 2007 to 93 percent in 2017.

DeVos asked Rooney and Mauney what the toughest part of the transition has been.

“Adults are not ready to let learners take charge of their system,” Rooney said. “Frankly there aren’t a lot of people who have that level of courage who say, ‘I’m willing to dismantle the old system.’” He’s heard that districts couldn’t adopt the model Lindsay is using because of funding, because unions wouldn’t sign off, or because of rules and regulations coming from the state and federal level. “Those are actually excuses, and your learners are suffering because of that,” Rooney said.

(It’s worth nothing that not everyone is a huge fan of personalized learning. More here from my colleague, Ben Herold.)

Later, Elizabeth Goettl, the president and CEO of Cristo Rey, a networks of Catholic high schools, talked about her organization’s approach, which allows low-income students to participate in work-based learning experiences while they earn high school diplomas. The model, which is run by Catholic Jesuits, has seen strong results, she said. Cristo Rey students are more likely to earn four-year diplomas than other low-income students.

And Diane Tavenner, the CEO of Summit Learning, touted her organization’s work in credentialing teachers to teach in a personalized way. Teacher-prep programs, she said, largely don’t use those techniques, so it’s hard for teachers to then embrace them in their own classrooms. (We looked at Cristo Rey’s early days here.)

Carol Becker, a home schooling parent who is active in the Home School Legal Defense Fund, talked about education at home as a way for families to “be flexible and really tailor” instruction to their individual students’ needs. Her son and daughter, she said, learned German and French, respectively, as home schoolers. She also helped foster their interest in leadership.

DeVos also heard from Andrew Hart, the CEO of the Oaks Academy, a “Christ-centered” network of schools in Indianapolis that benefits from the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. Also speaking: Travis Works, the executive director and principal of Cornville Regional Charter School, the first charter in the largely rural state of Maine, and Nicole Assisi, the CEO of Thrive Charter Schools in San Diego, which puts a big focus on socio-emotional learning.

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