Federal Opinion

What Should Betsy DeVos Prioritize?

February 27, 2018 15 min read
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Now just over a year in office, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to be a lightning rod in the field of American education. The debate over her K-12 philosophy and policy ideas remains vigorous in many quarters. Education Week’s opinion editors were interested in hearing from people in the field about what they believe matters most when it comes to schooling children. To that end, we asked a handful of participants to briefly consider if they were given the chance to sit down with the secretary, what issue or course of action would they urge her to prioritize, and how would they make their case. This is what they had to say.
—The Editors

Higher Education

It’s no secret that change is underway in education and beyond. Industries are morphing, jobs are shifting, and new careers are emerging because of technology. A century-long trend toward a highly skilled workforce is accelerating, and our economy will demand greater levels of education.


More Americans, both young and old, will need education beyond high school. And our institutions will have to evolve in profound ways to meet their needs.

That’s why we must seize this moment as Congress debates the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs colleges and universities and provides them with federal financial support. Our national legislative framework must enable and encourage the changes we will need over the next decades to build a stronger system for higher education. Our country has changed significantly since the act was last reauthorized in 2008.

Achieving consensus will take leadership from Secretary DeVos. I encourage her to support bipartisan negotiations in the Senate to help advance what should be a shared national priority. She should rally behind the proven strategies that can get us there: smart financial aid through a strengthened Pell Grants program, broad national data capabilities that allow for transparency with students, outcome-oriented approaches for colleges and universities, and robust accountability systems that reward student success and hold all postsecondary institutions to higher expectations.

A bold reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will enable our colleges and universities to support the dreams and aspirations of all Americans. In the midst of a challenging political landscape, the secretary has an important role to play in prioritizing sensible approaches to find common ground. As a former secretary of education, I encourage her to focus on the places where she can make progress on equitable access to opportunity.

Margaret Spellings is the president of the University of North Carolina System. She served as the U.S. secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration, from 2005 to 2009.

Personalized Learning

Education advocates and policymakers have spent decades debating what students should know and how to measure it. There is an opportunity now to seize on the growing consensus that meeting students where they are and personalizing their learning is not only a moral imperative, but possibly the only way we can truly ensure college- and career-readiness for all students.


Education advocates across the board agree that states need flexibility and support to ensure student success. But how much flexibility can be provided to states and schools without sacrificing accountability, equity, and quality? States must have the freedom to take the lead in answering this question. Fortunately, the implementation of the Every Students Succeeds Act creates the opening for states to do this by requiring essential, annual assessments while also offering flexibility around how students are evaluated.

Overhauling a statewide assessment system takes time and commitment, as any state leader knows. It also requires an understanding of which assessment approaches best support personalized learning and new college and career pathways, academic programs that are already underway in many classrooms.

The Education Department can help by highlighting opportunities for flexibility under ESSA and by sharing best practices. For example, states should be engaging with a number of assessment ideas that are evolving to better measure student success, including computer-adaptive testing. There are exciting examples of putting states in the driver’s seat that can be shared and collectively improved as states find what works best, but I encourage the department to guide states to approach these assessments boldly. The Education Department should promote collaboration through networks and consortia while providing policy guidance on technical issues.

The department can lead by ensuring parties keep their eyes on the ball. The goal should be to discover better ways to measure student success while promoting accountability and equity in quality learning environments

Karla Phillips is the policy director for personalized learning at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Teacher Quality

As Betsy DeVos enters her second year on the job, I urge her to do two things: 1) Invest in innovative programs to improve teacher quality and recruitment; and 2) expand funding for school choice programs without defunding traditional public schools.


It’s well documented that teachers are the single greatest school-based influence in student achievement. Yet, in February, President Donald Trump proposed his 2019 budget which would eliminate funding for Title II. This would cut programs and initiatives that recruit, train, and support high-quality teachers. This signals that the president would prefer to write off important professional development for teachers who haven’t produced desired results, rather than work to fix the education system’s flaws by working more closely with educators.

This would be a huge loss for our country’s teachers and students. With critical teacher shortages in many parts of the country and enrollment for teacher-preparation programs down by more than a third since the 2009-10 school year, ending Title II grants would only exacerbate the teaching profession’s struggles.

In addition to providing all teachers with the supports they deserve, I urge DeVos to explore a more pluralistic model for public education without dismantling funding for traditional public schools. Over the years, I’ve publicly expressed my frustration with traditional schooling in Chicago and my support for school choice, including private and home-schooling options. But the only way to prove that school choice is effective is to allow it to co-exist with a control group: undisrupted, traditional public schools—some of which continue to outperform their choice counterparts.

If DeVos defunds traditional public schools to increase funding for charters or vouchers for private schools, then it will be easier to discredit school choice as an illegitimate education policy that pilfers money away from the public good. We need to steadily fund all schools as we continue to explore ways to more equitably and effectively educate all children.

If the secretary invests in top-notch teacher-development programs and open pathways for high-quality school choice, she will support schools and teachers like myself in our work to fulfill education’s promise.

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is the founder of the faith-based nonprofit Teachers Who Pray. She taught in Chicago public schools for 14 years and formerly wrote the Charting My Own Course blog for www.edweek.org.

Leadership by Example

If I’m going to be honest, the first thing I would ask U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to do is to resign. Working within a large department with limited resources means that you get the most done when you can set a vision that inspires people. Her lack of visionary leadership has left a void that isn’t delivering what our kids need.


Now that I’ve said that, I would suggest the following priorities for the secretary:

• Be the champion of civil rights for those who need protection, such as transgender students. You made schools a scarier place for some kids when you rescinded the guidance for transgender students to be able to use a restroom that reflects their gender identity (rather than their birth certificate). The department should be the protector and voice for our students whose rights are being denied or marginalized.

• Get out of your bubble. Like anyone else, you came into your job with preconceived notions based upon your personal experiences. But great leaders expand their knowledge and encourage others to challenge them. That’s hard for people to do when they make themselves unreachable. Your public schedule too often says, “Currently, no public events scheduled at this time.” You also notify schools of your visits at the last minute. You do not actively seek or listen to those whose ideas differ from yours does not make your constituents feel heard.

I would ask that you live up to your own words—"You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching"—by expanding teacher voice in the education department. The number of active educators involved in the Ambassador Fellows program has been paired down significantly under your watch.

Finally, I would ask that, when traveling, you fly coach. I would imagine, for example, that it’s hard to empathize with teachers in Oklahoma who haven’t gotten a raise in 10 years, if you are flying over their state in your private jet.

Maddie Fennell is the executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association. She was a classroom teacher for 27 years, the 2007 Nebraska State Teacher of the Year, and a U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow from 2013 to 2015.

The ‘Have Nots’

When I was a member of Detroit’s school board in 2003, I was appalled by how dangerous our neighborhood high schools had become, and I left the board to join the nascent school choice movement. I did not realize then how much school choice would harm the children whose families are mired most deeply in poverty. In Detroit, the single most important factor for a school’s success is now how far its students travel to reach it. With a 51 percent poverty rate for children, Detroit’s “haves” are those families with a car and the ability to travel long distances, and the “have nots” are those who cannot make that trek.


Secretary Betsy DeVos should put forward a plan to help those schools that suffer most as a result of school choice—the schools children attend because they have no choice. These neighborhood-based schools need an infusion of social capital. They need people who can coach, tutor, and help the principals and teachers out in myriad ways. Over time, these volunteers will advocate for new policies and resources for the school based on their experience. Businesses and churches across America want to help, but they are often relegated to school supply drives as the single tool for social change. It does not have to be this way.

The school choice flywheel will continue to spin without much effort from Secretary DeVos, and she can take credit for its successes. But she should also take responsibility for those schools left behind. She can do this by creating pathways for robust partnerships between schools, businesses, and churches, and by celebrating the heroic ways in which ordinary Americans are helping the most disadvantaged students achieve extraordinary results.

This will not take a year or two. It will take a generation to overcome. Betsy DeVos can and should be the unlikely leader to catalyze that effort.

Mike Tenbusch is the author of The Jonathan Effect: Helping Kids and Schools Win the Battle Against Poverty (InterVarsity Press).

Racial-Equity Agenda

As Secretary Betsy DeVos looks ahead to the next year I implore her to confront the gargantuan racial disparities in the charter school sector, a crisis that threatens to undermine education reform’s hard-fought progress.


In 2016, just five foundations invested nearly $1 billion in charters and education. According to my research, only 1 percent of that money went to black- and Latino-founded schools.

By my estimate, black and Latino educators account for less than 10 percent of charter school founders and less than 25 percent of teachers. And while many municipalities regulate that a certain proportion of government contracts must go to minority-owned businesses, there exist no similar requirements for these public schools to ensure some portion of education funding goes to black or Latino communities.

This, ironically, results in the gentrification of the communities where charters open. This ultimately displaces the very people these schools were founded to serve.

Similarly, something must be done about “no excuses” models, widely favored by white-led schools that predominantly serve black and Latino students. Centered on test prep and rigid discipline, these no-excuses schools routinely sacrifice student dignity on the altar of test scores. This must be stopped.

The U.S. Department of Education needs an audacious racial-equity agenda that increases public and private investment in more black- and Latino-led and staffed charter schools like the one I founded. We focus on positive self-identity, not shame, to achieve ever stronger gains each year. In fact, our almost-exclusively black and Latino student body outperforms their traditional school peers by more than 240 percent in English/language arts and math by the time they reach 6th grade.

Secretary DeVos, you have famously said that you “don’t know what can’t be done.” By explicitly confronting racial inequity in the charter sector, you will certainly do what no other U.S. secretary of education has done. As a black founder of a charter school, I promise you we are ready when you are.

Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II is the co-founder of Ember Charter School for Mindful Education in New York City, where he serves as a teacher and co-school leader.

Career and Technical Education

Betsy DeVos’ appointment as the U.S. secretary of education was controversial, but it seems appropriate one year into her tenure to emphasize the opportunities that lie ahead for education. One such opportunity that has bipartisan support and the potential for positive impacts is the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, first signed into law in 1984 and last reauthorized in 2006.


Three years ago, policymakers were optimistic that lawmakers would renew the act, which provides federal funding to support career and technical education at the state and local levels. But disagreements about funding and accountability provisions sank the bill. Despite emerging evidence that investment in CTE programing pays off, funding for the act has been falling in real terms over time. President Donald Trump’s new budget priorities—which propose funding Perkins at steady levels—do not invest heavily enough for the career and technical education students deserve.

This is where Secretary DeVos comes in. Her focus on school choice is right in line with CTE programming. Many CTE-themed schools and programs nationwide offer students a chance to attend a school other than the one residentially assigned. Exercising such opportunities for applied learning helps signal to traditional high schools that students want and need more from career education. As DeVos continues to advocate for choice to lawmakers, she should voice CTE’s benefits and advocate for the Perkins Act’s renewal.

Such a reauthorization could reinvigorate an education and workforce-development policy that is already ascendant in the era of college and career readiness. State policymakers and practitioners are focused on making school more relevant by enhancing applied coursework in CTE areas and growing career pathways for work-based learning and postsecondary education. They understand CTE’s potential to improve employability and economic development.

Reauthorizing the act is also an opportunity to inject measurement and accountability expectations into such education, where mandates are weak. Currently, there are not consistent expectations about collecting data on CTE program quality or alignment with workforce needs.

DeVos should stand behind the Perkins Act’s reauthorization—a real opportunity to do the education system good.

Shaun M. Dougherty is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Connecticut.

Lack of Choice

As the national voice for education and an advocate for school choice, the most important thing Betsy DeVos should do in her role is to educate herself about the value of traditional public schools and to treat them as another option, equal in importance to charter, for-profit, religious, and online schools.


The idea of choice takes for granted the fact that, no matter how many kinds of schools are offered, some children simply do not have a choice. Challenges of proximity, transportation, and overall affordability (even with voucher programs) narrow the options for many students. That lack of choice should not be a disadvantage.

Often, when we bring community members into schools, we hear the same questions: Why are two schools—located less than 5 miles apart—so vastly different? How is the divide so stark? What do schools need more of?

Betsy DeVos, in her role as education secretary, should be questioning those disparities, understanding the inequities and challenges, and investing in public schools so that schools and systems have the same autonomy as charters and private schools to make necessary improvements.

DeVos would benefit from spending more time in public schools to understand the value of this critical institution. This kind of firsthand involvement is the foundation of our success at Boston Partners in Education. We’ve seen that when people come into classrooms and mentor students on a weekly basis, they become connected to the schools they serve. They see the potential for excellence, and DeVos could widen her perspective in much the same way.

Investing in public school systems, not dismissing them, is the key to improving access to quality education and closing the opportunity gap for future generations.

Erin McGrath is the executive director of Boston Partners in Education, a nonprofit that pairs volunteer mentors with public school students.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Should Betsy DeVos Prioritize?


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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