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DeVos Compares School Choice Fight to Uber vs. Taxis; Decries State of Test Scores

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 29, 2017 4 min read
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At a Tuesday event hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a speech compared the response of the education establishment to taxi services undercut by services like Uber and Lyft.

“Just like the traditional taxi service revolted against ride-sharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice,” DeVos said. (It’s not the first time she’s raised Uber in the context of educational innovation, or the lack thereof.)

But in a subsequent discussion Brookings’ Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst asked DeVos whether she was concerned that if school choice expansion is implemented badly it could actually hurt educational outcomes.

Her response? She said she wasn’t sure they could be much worse, and cited two national tests to back up her point.

“Our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate” when compared to other nations, DeVos told Whitehurst. She was referring to the Program for International Student Assessment, which is given to 15-year-olds in 77 countries and educational systems. And she said that the country’s National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are “stagnant at best.” You can watch her remarks on this issue here, beginning at the 1-hour, 1-minute mark:

(DeVos’ speech begins at the 39-minute mark, and her discussion with Whitehurst begins right after her speech.)

Here’s what we know about those PISA and NAEP scores:

  • DeVos’ remarks about PISA sound similar to what her immediate predecessor, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., said last year when PISA scores were released last December, when he told the press, “We’re losing ground—a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world.” On that PISA test, given in 2015, U.S. scores were about average in reading and science. But when it comes to improvement, since 2009, reading and science PISA scores have been flat in the U.S., while math scores have declined.
  • Overall on PISA, we’ve reported that U.S. students have been “treading water.” And describing our performance relative to other countries can be tricky.
  • DeVos didn’t mention Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS. But on that international exam, U.S. students have been showing slow and steady improvement, according to results released last year.
  • What about NAEP? From 2013 to 2015 administrations of the test, 12th graders’ performance declined significantly, according to results released in 2015. As for 4th and 12th graders, their results also dropped on NAEP results released in 2015.
  • However, NAEP scores in math had been trending up for several years before the Obama administration took over, particularly over the previous 20 years, as Whitehurst pointed out. DeVos responded that this shows a top-down approach like the one Obama took doesn’t work.

It’s important to note that DeVos spoke very generally about the exams, and that breaking out the results by subject and grade level are important to getting a fuller picture of performance on these tests. So, could things really get much worse? That’s a conclusion we’ll leave up to you.

At the event marking the release of Brookings’ annual school choice index, DeVos touched on several other topics:

  • Asked by Whitehurst how people should hold the Trump administration accountable for national education performance, DeVos stuck by her view that the ultimate focus should be on ensuring parents have access to the best options for their children.
  • President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget would create a new, $250 million private school choice program, increase charter school grant money, and make a push for public school choice. Is DeVos concerned that this is the very top-down approach she often criticizes? DeVos said the budget is still in its early stages, but that she’s committed to creating a “student-centric” approach in the budget and from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • On the Every Student Succeeds Act, Whitehurst asked DeVos if she could envision rejecting any plan submitted to her department by a state. DeVos responded that it’s too early to say, but noted that there will be many conversations about these plans at her department. “I suspect there will places where we can point out that they are probably being deficient in their approach” to at least one portion of ESSA, DeVos said of states’ plans.
  • DeVos praised governors in particular for helping to push innovative education policies in states, and said this means the federal government should take its hands off the steering wheel of education policy and focus more on helping states implement their priorities. “I think it’s more of an informative role,” she said of her department’s job.
  • As she has before, DeVos criticized the Obama School Improvement Grant program, saying it cost a lot of money, but didn’t lead to real improvement. “Good intentions and billions of dollars” aren’t enough to help kids succeed, DeVos said, citing a recent federal report on SIG.
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Liana Loewus, Assistant Managing Editor contributed to this article.