Federal Opinion

Why the Left Should Work With Betsy DeVos

By Jennifer L. Steele — March 09, 2017 5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivers her first address to the Education Department staff in Washington last month.
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As many on the left decry U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, they overlook what they may have in common with the new secretary: a skepticism of test-based accountability policy and top-down reform. DeVos’ comment last month to the conservative website Townhall that the teachers she’d met during her first public school visit were in “‘receive mode’” was widely viewed as a criticism of teachers. But her intended target appeared to be the role that current federal education policy plays in the classroom.

In the controversial interview, DeVos referred to the teachers she had visited as “wonderful, genuine, sincere,” but noted: “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.” When the Twittersphere blew up in frustration, which included a disgruntled tweet by the school and retweets by the school’s teachers, DeVos responded a couple of times on Twitter to clarify, including: “.@JATrojans Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”

In fact, DeVos’ rhetoric from before and after the Townhall dustup calls for greater school and teacher autonomy. After 15 years of federal education policy aimed at sanctioning schools and teachers based on test scores, such statements should come as a breath of fresh air for critics of test-based accountability.

Since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002, the governing assumption of federal education policy has been that teachers need the threat of sanction to work harder. Under NCLB, a sequence of consequences befell schools that did not consistently increase the share of students scoring proficient on math and reading tests. Under the Obama administration, these regulations were augmented by Race to the Top incentives for expanding school choice (a priority DeVos shares) and for tying teacher evaluations to students’ test-score growth.

In truth, the best evidence suggests that accountability pressures do drive school improvement. Several carefully executed studies have demonstrated that No Child Left Behind led to modest gains in student achievement. For instance, a 2009 Northwestern University study found positive NCLB effects on 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores, using Catholic and other private schools as a comparison group. In 2011, researchers writing in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management reported improvement in NAEP math scores in states that had weak school accountability structures prior to No Child Left Behind. And that same year, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study that among schools that were on the threshold of sanction under the law.

At the same time, NCLB accountability carried well-documented limitations, including schools’ narrowing of their curricula to focus on the tested subjects of math and reading and the narrowing of pedagogy to emphasize test-taking skills. Whether this trade-off is worth it depends on whether one is focused on strengthening the safety net beneath weaker schools or allowing innovation to flourish. As a society, we have to care about both.

DeVos’ federal role will force her to grapple in new ways with this balancing act, and there is reason to believe that she may take the charge seriously. Though her limited command of federal education policy during her confirmation hearings raised concerns across the political spectrum, her early weeks in office have taken a very different tack from those of the president who appointed her, with the exception of some gaffes along the way. On Day 1 of her appointment, her all-staff speech to the Education Department expressed her desire to collaborate across differing perspectives and to learn from her colleagues. On Day 2, she reached out to the heads of both national teachers’ unions and made plans for school visits with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. On Day 3, she sent a letter to the chief state schools officers noting that she expects them to stay the course in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, which supplanted No Child Left Behind.

DeVos’ rhetoric from before and after the Townhall dustup calls for greater school and teacher autonomy."

Although DeVos’ comments to Townhall about her school visit ignited a Twitter storm, other remarks from that interview evinced diplomacy. For instance, she deliberately avoided the interviewer’s bait to blame social problems on absent fathers and to call for more religion in schools, instead simply noting that schools need to focus on “the whole child.”

In her second week in office, news reports alleged that DeVos had argued against Trump’s decision to roll back Obama-era guidelines protecting transgender students in schools. And in a subsequent statement, she insisted that the department was committed to “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students ... from bullying and harassment.” That, along with a subsequent interview she gave at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, suggests that she takes seriously the department’s commitment to students’ rights and safety.

To be sure, DeVos is a conservative whose comments at CPAC left no doubt as to her ongoing preference for market-based over government-based approaches to school reform.

But if she was genuine in telling her Education Department colleagues that “there is no greater achievement in the world than positively changing the life of a child ... through education,” then her commitment to the ideology of school choice will have to be tempered by regional questions of scalability, transparency, and quality in ways that may have been less urgent in her prior role as an advocate. Empirically minded people can disagree about the relative promise of choice versus top-down accountability, as long as they stay grounded in evidence and pragmatism.

In the meantime, if DeVos’ emphasis on local and classroom autonomy were to help reframe teachers as problems-solvers rather than problems, that could be a small step toward fostering more humane and locally responsive schools.

What DeVos and her fellow Republicans must avoid is swinging the pendulum so far toward deregulation that the luck of geography, wealth, and parentage become even stronger educational determinants than they already are. Free public education, though far from equal and far from perfect, has been an economic engine and an opportunity ladder for many generations of Americans. Meaningful improvement lies in capitalizing on its strengths—often, its teachers—rather than framing them as its downfall. When DeVos reframes the education problem from teachers to one of accountability overreach, those on the left should see not a rejection, but a partial reflection of their ideals and a window for an evidence-based dialogue on expanding educational opportunity.


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