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Was Betsy DeVos’ ‘60 Minutes’ Interview a ‘Trainwreck’ or ‘Selectively Edited’?

By Alyson Klein — March 12, 2018 7 min read
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Ever since her rocky confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ has struggled to get her message across to educators and the public. And those problems aren’t going away more than a year into her tenure: She and her team have endured hours of harsh headlines and social media hits after she seemed to stumble in her highest-profile interview yet, with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” Sunday night.

The most-shared clip appears to be a roughly two-minute segment in which DeVos wasn’t able to point to specific examples in her home state of Michigan in which injecting more competition through charter schools or vouchers had increased student achievement. (She said this had happened in “pockets” of the state, but didn’t say which ones. Click here for a full transcript and video of the interview.)

And DeVos told Stahl she hadn’t “intentionally” visited low-performing schools to determine the cause of their problems. (“Maybe I should,” DeVos agreed when Stahl pressed her.)

She also said that national school performance hasn’t budged in decades, a point Stahl disputed. DeVos clarified to say she meant the United States isn’t improving as fast as other countries.

For DeVos’ critics, the interview confirmed that she’s “incompetent and doesn’t care about schools,” said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton and the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform. That’s a perception many of them have had since her confirmation hearing, in which she struggled to answer basic questions.

On the other hand, if “you think the media has been unfair to her,” Stahl’s pointed questions might have supported that perception too, Hlavacik said. But he added, the show isn’t easy on anyone. “This what ’60 Minutes’ does. You can’t be shocked that you’re going to get some challenging questions and [be asked] to defend your ground.”

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos, said that “60 Minutes” choose to air only “highly edited” clips of the interview.

“It’s disappointing that instead of showing any of the lengthy and substantive policy discussion Secretary DeVos had with Ms. Stahl, 60 Minutes chose to air only highly edited clips on limited topics to perpetuate a false narrative about her work,” Hill said.

The interview seemed to have especially hurt DeVos with rank-and-file educators, who she’s had a tough time winning over.

Candy Banda, the director of school leadership for the Dallas Independent School District, said she found DeVos’ comments divisive. And she said they showed how removed the secretary is from what actually goes on in classrooms.

Banda, who spoke about her personal views and not the district’s, was particularly put off by DeVos’ comment about how the public funds students, not school buildings.

Students and their schools, “inherently go together,” she said. “Students fill school buildings, so they need to be funded and resourced,” said Banda, who has spent 20 years in education and taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She’s also mystified that DeVos said she hadn’t “intentionally” visited a low-performing school.

“That’s your job,” Banda said of the secretary. “You do it every day, and you do it with pride. If she really wants to know what’s going on [in schools] go talk to teachers who give their heart, their soul their passion, their time, their effort to elevating our kids.”

DeVos sought to better explain her argument about the performance of the nation’s schools on Twitter. On Monday afternoon, she shared charts of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores from both Michigan and the nation, arguing that they proved her point that American students’ performance is stagnant. DeVos said that she shared these 4thgrade scores in math and reading with CBS, but that the network didn’t show them.

And she added this about Detroit schools.

In a statement, Hill added that DeVos, “has been very intentional about visiting and highlighting high performing, innovative schools across the country. Many of these high performing schools are traditional public schools that have challenged the status quo and dared to do something different on behalf of their students--many where teachers are empowered in the classroom to find what works best for students.”

Some of her supporters said they saw problems with the segment too. The interview appeared to “selectively edited to fit a specific narrative” without proper context, said Matt Frendewey, who helped lead communications work for DeVos at both the Education Department and at the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy organization she started.

Frendewey said the secretary smoothly answered tough questions from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie during a live spot on the “Today” show the morning after the “60 Minutes” interview aired.

“When you contrast the two it raises the question of was the format situated to push a narrative” that benefits the “status quo,” Frendewey said.

He added that although Stahl has an impressive record, she isn’t an education reporter and didn’t appear to follow what the secretary was trying to say about the need to look for the educational situation that works best for individual students.

There’s no way to know what “60 Minutes” left out of the segment, agreed Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is linked to the progressive movement. But he didn’t see any unfairness in the interview, which he called a “trainwreck” for the secretary.

“The questions they choose to include are crucial questions and not insignificant to her role,” he said. “They were not trick questions.”

The sort of rhetoric that DeVos continues to use—that she is focusing on individual students and not the educational system—sounds very different coming from someone who is leading that system than it did in DeVos’ previous roles as an advocate and outsider, Noguera added.

“She’s clearly at a loss for what her role is. She can’t just be a critic of others’ policies,” he said. “She has to say what needs to be done. She’s now in a position to lead, and she can’t do that.”

The timing of DeVos’ perceived stumble isn’t great, Hlavacik said. Hours before the “60 Minutes” interview aired, the White House gave DeVos a high-profile new assignment: Leading a task force on school safety aimed at developing policies in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.

Banda doesn’t have confidence that DeVos is the woman for the job.

“I don’t think she can solve any public school problems, given the lack of fundamental understanding of our day to day,” Banda said. But she added that the secretary “could surprise us. We’ll leave that door open.”

During Monday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if DeVos would be the face of the administration’s efforts on school safety. Sanders said the president—not DeVos —would head up the administration’s actions on the issue.

Sanders said she wasn’t sure Trump had watched the entire “60 Minutes” interview. But she didn’t defend DeVos’ performance.

It’s unclear what Trump thought of another recent DeVos comment. During the “Today” interview, Guthrie asked DeVos what she thought of the president’s contention that NBC’s Chuck Todd, the moderator of Meet the Press, is a “sleeping son of a bitch.” DeVos said she would “probably use different language myself, and I think we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to be examples to our kids.” That should apply to the president, she added.

Credit: 60 Minutes/CBS News

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Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.