U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent the last week and a half in Europe, touring three countries to learn about school choice, career and technical education, and more.
Her big takeaway: There’s a lot the United States can learn from Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom when it comes to training the future workforce and broadening school options. All three countries get higher scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, than the U.S., DeVos noted in a statement ahead of her trip. But experts also say aspects of all three systems would be difficult to replicate here.
DeVos’ swing through the United Kingdom focused primarily on choice. In addition to meeting with officials, she visited several schools, including The Grey Coat Hospital, a school for girls run by the Church of England, and Pimlico Primary, a charity-sponsored school.
In England, which is part of the United Kingdom, religious schools receive government funding, just like secular schools, said Paul Peterson, the director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University who has spent years studying the British system. Religious schools are also subject to the same regulations as their secular counterparts.
During a call with reporters from London on June 15, the final day of her 10-day trip, DeVos also gave a shout-out to the country’s “academy” schools, which are similar to charters.
School choice was also a focus of DeVos’ second stop on the 10-day tour, the Netherlands. That country has four sectors of schools—Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and secular. Students can choose to attend any school, and they don’t have to stick with their religious tradition, Peterson explained.
“Basically what you have in both the Netherlands and in Britain are regulated choice systems in which the students have full support and the schools are fully funded, and that’s different from what we have in the United States,” Peterson said. “We try to do choice on the cheap in the United States.”
But he added that it wouldn’t be easy to adopt the Dutch or British systems. The United Kingdom for instance, doesn’t have a written constitution like ours, with an amendment that calls for the separation of church and state. Instead, the United Kingdom’s constitution is considered informal, Peterson said.
“The choice [system here] is being treated around the First Amendment,” Peterson said. “How much of it we can apply in our constitutional system is another matter. It can’t be one for one, the same system. It’s going to have to be modified.”
On a call with reporters at the tail end of her trip, DeVos acknowledged the difficulty in translating that approach to the United States. But she said that public funding for religious education is something states can choose to adopt.
“I think the experience of both these countries has demonstrated that all of these schools can freely co-exist with one another,” she said.
DeVos’ first stop—Switzerland—focused on career and technical education. DeVos sees a lot to admire in Switzerland’s apprenticeship program, which allows students to prepare on the job for careers in health care, finance, and law, as opposed to only the more technical careers, such as welders and carpenters.
About two-thirds of students in Switzerland participate in an apprenticeship at some point in their education, according to DeVos. Employers work with educators to develop training programs, with common standards, curriculum, and assessments. High school students get access to work-based learning experiences, complete with mentors, and extensive career counseling.
But, DeVos did not call for a wholesale replication of the Swiss system and said she doesn’t think the federal government should necessarily spearhead any initiative on this issue.
“I don’t think it would be successful if we tried to put together a national or federal model and then said go and adopt this everywhere,” DeVos said in a call with reporters from Switzerland. “In fact, I’m positive that would not pan out well.”
Truly copying the Swiss approach would be a “monumental lift,” said Alisha Hyslop, the director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education.
“I think it would most definitely take leadership at the federal level,” she said. “Employers would have to completely restructure the way they interface with students. ... Here one of the challenges to work-based learning has been not enough places for students to access those opportunities. There’s not just the scale in the U.S currently. ... It would definitely need to be a big jump.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos’ European Tour Yields Insights, Cautions