School Choice & Charters Opinion

Betsy DeVos, Listen to Us. We Might Surprise You.

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 25, 2017 6 min read
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Education needs reform. Everyone says so. Betsy DeVos thinks vouchers and charter schools are the answer. Immigration needs reform. Everyone says so. President Trump thinks a wall is the answer. As educators, we know that to come to a solution for a problem, first we must be able to identify the true causes of the problem. In order to do that, we need to hear from voices within the system and outside it. Time spent parsing out the problem is necessary. Scientists and doctors work that way. Most of us teach and lead that way. Before solving a problem, be sure you understand the problem clearly and know what its causes are.

Graduation Rates Rise

Over the past decades, schools have welcomed more challenged learners. Schools have been working with increasing numbers of students with learning differences, mental health issues, and the effects of poverty. Schools are experiencing students struggling with gender identities and sexual orientation for themselves and with others in their lives. And student populations are more diverse by race and ethnicity. Standardized tests have entered almost every grade level. Accountability has overshadowed creative teaching and learning. Nevertheless, graduation rates have gone up. In October 2016, nprED reported:

The high school graduation rate in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 83 percent in the 2014-2015 school year, President Obama announced today, marking the fifth straight record-setting year....Achievement gaps have narrowed even as all boats have risen. Graduation rates range from 90 percent for students who identify as Asian/Pacific Islanders to 64 percent for students with disabilities.

Betsy DeVos, To Whom Are You Listening?

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in several interviews about the necessity of the border wall, referred to speaking with border patrols to get an inside look at the problem of illegal immigration at our southern border. It was a striking statement that those working within the system were asked how to improve the system. Laws will be drawn up based upon the information gathered from those patrolling the borders, those dealing with an influx of illegal drugs in our towns and cities, citizens, businesses, colleges and universities.

But what of education? Certainly education can be improved. No one is denying that. The system and the adults in it are frustrated and exhausted from the pressure to meet the needs of all students, keep pace with technology and include it in new teaching and learning environments, under the unrelenting pressure of accountability. We have become a throw away or replaceable society... new cell phones, computers, cars and even homes and marriages. Why are we surprised that this “nothing lasts forever” momentum would infiltrate policy thinking? Mix that contemporary mindset with a mindset that competition benefits everyone and profit is motive and we find ourselves in this place. But, why abandon the system without listening to those working within it? If it works for the border problem, why doesn’t it work for education? Well, it leaves us wondering to whom is DeVos listening?

Find Common Ground to Define the Problem

As educators, leaders and teachers alike, we have to speak out. But before speaking, we have to dig deeper and be sure we are not only calling out against something rather that we speak as professional experts who are searching for common ground...the improvement of the public school system. We need to admit that the random grade level academic goals are guesses. Can we all agree that by a certain time a child should be able to read and write to certain standards, but to aim those standards at each year of a child’s life is arbitrary and harmful? Can we all agree that:

  • schools have not effectively changed enough to become the dynamic, relevant and creative learning environments today’s students require?
  • rather than setting targets for achievement, children will benefit from targets for growth?
  • state and federal mandates for minutes of instruction and excessive standardized testing interfere with schools’ abilities to create programs that are best suited for their student population?
  • all schools would benefit from a relaxation of regulation? Even those schools that have stepped into the future and made changes to be responsive to the students they are serving and maintained or increased student achievement crave that.

To find the common ground, if those like Betsy DeVos can’t see it from our perspective, let’s try to see it from theirs. Let their words define how we organize our language and responses to the public outcry for school change. In this PBS interview, Randi Weingarten, Frederick Hess, and William Brangham discuss the failure of vouchers, the effect of vouchers on Detroit’s public schools, and whether Betsy DeVos is an enemy of public schools or whether school choice is a good thing. Educators are failing to use experience and voice and come together to describe what is holding the system back and define a vision for success.

We know Ms. DeVos is a proponent of school choice, vouchers and charters. Why? What is she trying to fix? Are educators fighting to maintain a model that is simply comfortable and just good enough? If that is the case, it is the wrong fight.

Rethink the Premise of the School Choice Solution

We have accepted the premise upon which the solution of school choice has been built. It is a solution to a problem that has not been properly defined. Certainly schools, like most institutions, can do a better job. Since they are not, what is holding them back? Is it a financial issue, one of will or one of complacence? Or none of these? Or is it a social problem being made visible by children in schools? Is it too complex to understand let alone solve? Does it require a change of mind and of behaviors and of policies? School choice as a solution assumes that other schools will do better. Do we agree on what better is? Or will we settle for that amorphous ‘better’?

Let’s push back. Let’s speak out with our vision for a 21st century idea for dynamic learning environments in which all children have a place and a path to success. Let’s demand public funding equitable enough for all children to be in those environments. No matter the choices Betsy DeVos makes, we, ourselves, are at a choice point. Do we want to be the opposition or the advocates? Do we want to demonstrate where success has happened as models for investigation? Could we agree to do that?

Lead as Advocates

If we come together with one voice, defining the problems and the barriers with a plan for success for all, then we are moving forward and will breathe 21st century life into our schools. We have raised the graduation rates but that our systems are exhausted. If the system has achieved all it can with pressure as the motivator, what else is there? Can we be incentivized and motivated in another way? What do we propose? Remember those graduate courses where as students we were asked to design a school pretending we had all the latitude we wanted? Well, maybe it is that time in real like for us now. If we were beginning anew, what would our schools be and what would they look like and feel like? It will be a tragedy if only those in charter schools know that energizing, innovative opportunity. Let’s advocate for us to have choices. Let us reject the image of Sisyphus and stop pushing the boulder around. We are not protectionists. We are educators and we are professionals and we know children and we want our creative moment. Secretary DeVos, why not listen to us?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Image by flickr user Gabe Skidmore, Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.