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Betsy DeVos Says We Can’t ‘Spend Our Way’ Out of Stagnant Test Scores

By Alyson Klein — April 12, 2018 5 min read
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 22.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her four most recent predecessors—Arne Duncan, John B. King Jr., Rod Paige, and Margaret Spellings—agreed at a conference here that the nation is still struggling to educate its future workforce 35 years after the Reagan administration’s landmark “A Nation at Risk” report.

But they each have vastly different ideas about what to do about it.

DeVos said at the Reagan Institute’s Summit on Education, which focused on the report, that more money and more regulation aren’t the solution to the recent stagnant scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress.

“If you look at per-pupil spending, it’s gone up since ‘A Nation at Risk’ was reported,” DeVos said in an on-stage interview with Willliam Bennett, one of Reagan’s secretaries of education. “Scores continue to muddle along. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of, and this is not something we’re going to mandate or regulate our way out of.”

Instead, DeVos thinks states need to consider more “student centered” policies, inspired by Florida’s example. The Sunshine State was the only state to show significant improvement in math in 4th and 8th grade and in 8th grade reading on the NAEP. No state improved in reading at the fourth grade level.

DeVos ticked off a series of policies that she says have helped Florida achieve its recent results, including merit pay for teachers, a requirement that kids show progress in literacy to move on from 3rd grade, and an embrace of school choice, including tax credit scholarships and a voucher program for students in special education.

“I hope our governors and legislatures will do that, will take notice of those results,” she said. “But we know the forces of the status quo are very strong. And change is hard.” She said, too, there shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all solution” to the nation’s education problems.

No ‘Sense of Urgency’

But the four former education secretaries—who spoke together on a separate panel, following DeVos’ appearance—talked about the need to reignite the coalition of business and civil rights groups that lead the accountability movement in the 1990’s and early 2000s, set education goals for the country, and diversify the teaching workforce.

“We don’t have a sense of urgency right now,” said Spellings, who served as President George W. Bush’s second secretary of education. “We all worked for presidents that were really using that national bully pulpit to drive closing the achievement gap and on and on. And I think people are exhausted with education reform or feel like it’s not possible to close the achievement gap, and so the boulder is drifting back down the hill because of a lack of urgency around the imperative of closing the achievement gap.”

And Duncan, who was Obama’s longest-serving secretary, doesn’t think that urgency is going to come from the federal government.

“If we’re going to wait for this administration to take civil rights protections seriously, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” he said. He pointed to the recent national student walkout, which focused on gun control. He suggested that students might end up being the best advocates for their own education, staging protests if they don’t have access to Advanced Placement or arts education, for instance.

Spellings, now president of the University of North Carolina, said the federal government has a role to play in holding states accountable for whether or not students—particularly poor and minority students—are actually making progress.

“I’m a big card-carrying Republican and what I’m going to say—and I think it’s a very Republican principle—is that we invest billions that we have in poor and minority kids, special education students, etc., we ought to get something for our money, and we do that by focusing on accountability for their performance.” She said that states can use the “wonkery” of their systems to “leave kids out. It’s just worrisome.”

Action, she said, has to be at the local level, but the feds play a key role too. “If I had a nickel, for every state chief, for every superintendent [that said] ‘Thank you, federal government, for keeping that hook, because the pressure to relent at the local level is fierce.’”

King, Obama’s second education secretary, agreed, saying that the federal government must make sure that states are sticking to the protections in the Every Student Succeeds Act for vulnerable children. A report by the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization which King now leads, found that some states—including Florida—are allowing schools to get top grades in the accountability system, even if historically disadvantaged groups of kids are falling behind.

If states aren’t seeing improvement, King said, they need to try something new. “The action part is critical,” he said. “If a strategy isn’t working, are you willing to do the hard thing politically and ratchet it up the intervention?”

Trump Bringing Governors Together?

Spellings said that if the federal government really wants states to lead the way, policymakers need to be sharing ideas and pushing each other to do better, like they did right after “A Nation At Risk” came out.

“We need convenings. They need to be learning from each other,” she said. Back in the 1980s and 90s, she said, “states were seen to be leading the reform movement. And I wouldn’t say that’s true anymore.”

Paige concurred, and suggested that there needs to be another summit on education, similar to the one that President George H.W. Bush held in Charlottesville, Va., back in 1989. He suggested the president could make that happen.

Another thing missing from the picture today, according to the four former secretaries? Cross aisle collaboration.

Paige noted that the No Child Left Behind Act was the brainchild of both Democrats and Republicans, including Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif.

“I saw no partisanship, I saw them working together,” he said.

Duncan and King, a former social studies teacher, also said that there needs to be a greater focus on civic education, and more broadly, on just getting kids from different backgrounds working together so they can develop a better understanding of one another.

“I worry about the breakdown of democracy,” Duncan said. “We need opportunities for kids to serve, and serve together.”

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