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Betsy DeVos Wants to Rethink ‘Mundane Malaise’ of Traditional Schools

By Alyson Klein — September 12, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants teachers and school leaders to move past the blackboards-and-desks model of schooling, with an eye toward better serving individual kids.

Schools, she said, have looked pretty much the same over the past five decades or so.

“For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that! That means your parent’s parent’s parents!” she told students at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyo., according to prepared remarks. “Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. ... They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.”

That’s not helping keep kids engaged, she added: “It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.”

The speech kicked off a six-state tour to highlight what it means to “rethink” education. DeVos didn’t offer a ton of new specifics about how her department would help with that reinvention, beyond shining a spotlight on schools that she thinks are on the right track. And one of the more than 30 protestors outside urged her to “Rethink Vouchers” according to the Casper Star Tribune.

In her speech, without naming names, DeVos continued to do rhetorical battle with people who she says want to keep K-12 schools stuck in the past.

“Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’” she said. “What’s an education ‘system’? There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers.”

She said some schools have been able to move past the old model.

Woods Learning Center in Wyoming’s Natrona County, where DeVos started her tour, is a “teacher-powered” school, with no principal. Its students don’t get traditional letter grades. And kids can enroll in Woods through the district’s open enrollment policy.

“Students, your parents know you best, and they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you,” DeVos told the children.

She also likes that Woods emphasizes “personalized instruction” for each student.

“Your personalized learning program rethinks school because it is structured around you. Each of your learning plans is developed for each of you, recognizing that each of you is different, and that you learn at your own pace and in your own way,” DeVos said. “Your success here at Woods is determined by what each of you are learning and mastering. Not by how long you sit at your desks. That is awesome, by the way.”

‘Start Rethinking Schools’

DeVos didn’t delve into details, though, about just how her department might help schools begin to rethink instruction, other than, of course, by highlighting what she sees as good examples through the back-to-school tour.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would cut two programs that schools might use to remake instruction. It seeks to zero out the main federal program for teacher training and get rid of a new block grant created under the Every Student Succeeds Act that districts can use for technology, which can enable personalized learning programs. But so far, the Trump-DeVos school choice proposals have fallen flat in Congress.

After her speech, DeVos took questions from kids. Unsurprisingly, none of them mentioned the proposed budget cuts, but one student asked how she planned to “rethink schools.”

DeVos said this will ultimately be up to educators, not Washington.

“I’m going to challenge teaching and leaders in school to start rethinking schools, because I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “And the people I work with in Washington don’t have all the answers. But I’ll bet lots of teachers in lots of schools around our country have the answers.”

This week, DeVos will be visiting private, public, and charter schools, as well as post-secondary institutions, in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Her next stop Tuesday in Wyoming is St. Stephen’s Indian High School on the Wind River Reservation.

And on Wednesday, DeVos is planning to visit Firefly Autism House, an autism treatment program in Denver. From there, she’ll head to U.S. Air Force Academy, near Colorado Springs. And then she’ll visit Midlands University, in Omaha, Neb. The state’s Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, used to be the president of Midlands. Like the secretary, he’s a huge fan of school choice.

You can read DeVos’ remarks here, and watch them below:

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