Former Michigan Governor John Engler recently penned an editorial praising Betsy DeVos as a great pick for Secretary of Education. At the very least, his editorial needs a good fact-checking. So here we go.
I often get asked about President-elect Trump’s choice as the next leader of the U.S. Department of Education. In each response, I start by calling Betsy DeVos a highly qualified, creative and promising pick to lead the department.
Betsy DeVos does not have a degree in education, nor does she have any relevant experience in education. She sure doesn’t seem qualified in the academic sense.
Ninety percent of American students rely on the public education system for their schooling. Mrs. DeVos never attended public school, nor did any of her children. Again, somebody who does not understand the environment in which 90 percent of students learn each day does not seem to be qualified for the position.
The key is supporting what works, from rigorous standards to charter schools to transparency across the system.
The charter schools in Michigan favored by Engler and DeVos have not improved educational outcomes. The magic bullet of competition favored by business-friendly conservatives has only succeeded in dragging more Michigan schools down. And there’s plenty of evidence that competition isn’t the answer when it comes to improving schools. Just ask Sweden.
Thankfully, as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, Ms. DeVos has been singularly focused on accountability and results — exactly what our education system needs. She is a particularly strong advocate for increasing accountability of both traditional and charter public schools in Michigan.
Except, she’s not. DeVos has thrown a great deal of money to organizations and legislators that fought against oversight for charters in Michigan. She can claim to be pro-transparency and pro-accountability all she wants, but the reality is that DeVos’ actions show that she wants traditional public schools to play by a different, more stringent set of rules.
For example, she supported a new state law that grades Detroit schools from A to F and shutters the doors of any school that receives an F for three consecutive years. It has been a bitter pill for some, but a necessary prescription for a city system that has been failing students for years.
It’s a bitter pill because closing a school is not “accountability”. It’s punishing the local community, especially when the other choices (charters) in the area have done a poor job.
Of note, CREDO concluded that Michigan was “among the highest performing charter school states.” I am proud that the law that Ms. DeVos championed and that I signed in 1993 is achieving these results.
Test scores have been steadily declining in Michigan. If there are great results worthy of praise, we’re simply not seeing them. Over 20 years since Governor Engler passed Proposal A, and Michigan is ranked near the bottom of the nation in education quality.
To those who have seen the work that Ms. DeVos has led, and the educational successes she has helped achieve, it is clear that there is no one better to lead the Department of Education at this critical time.
[Citation needed]. Again, what successes is Engler talking about? Public money has been funneled into private pockets thanks to DeVos’ policies. In 2011, less than a quarter of Detroit charters were outperforming their public counterparts. Twenty-five percent is a failure no matter how you slice it.
Where’s the accountability for the failed ideas of Betsy DeVos?
Confirmation hearings begin tomorrow for Trump’s plethora of inexperienced, wildly unqualified, tremendously wealthy cabinet picks. While I’m concerned about pretty much all of them, Betsy DeVos is especially terrifying because we’ve seen her ideas fail firsthand here in Michigan. I’m begging the Democrats in the Senate to show some tenacity, and grill her. Make her defend her ideas with facts and research (spoiler alert: she can’t!) Push back against the idea that privatization is the fix for everything.
Here’s what I would ask, if I had the chance…
- Mrs. DeVos, you claim that all students deserve a quality education, regardless of their home zip code. The Michigan legislature has been eager to implement many education policies you support. Can you explain why the flood of charter schools in Detroit haven’t improved educational outcomes?
- Mrs. DeVos, Michigan has allowed charter schools to operate in the state for over two decades. We have over two decades worth of evidence that charters in Michigan do not outperform their public school counterparts. What evidence have you seen that makes you continue to push so hard for charters?
- Mrs. DeVos, you are a noted advocate of school privatization, as well as for-profit schools. In recent years, Sweden has begun rolling back their country-wide experiment with school privatization because it has not improved educational outcomes at all. Why will mass privatization succeed in the US despite a higher level of childhood poverty compared to Sweden?
- A follow-up on Sweden. Why do you think privatization failed in Sweden? What lessons did you learn from its failure? Why should the US travel down that road despite the large body of evidence that privatization won’t work?
- Mrs. DeVos, what was the original purpose of charter schools?
- Mrs. DeVos, which educational researchers have been most influential to you?
- Mrs. DeVos, you and your husband were supporters of ‘Right to Work’ legislation in Michigan. Schools in Right to Work states routinely under-perform compared to their counterparts with stronger unions. Why do you believe that RTW legislation can improve education?
- Mrs. DeVos, you never attended public school. Your children never attended public school. You do not have a degree in education, nor does anybody else in your family. Some 90 percent of this nation’s children attend public schools. How do you plan to identify and empathize with the millions of families in the US public school system when you’ve never set foot in one yourself?
- Mrs. DeVos, you have in the past talked about the concept of a ‘value school’, where students can be educated for around $5,000 each. A study commissioned by the Michigan legislature recently determined that Michigan’s average per-pupil funding (considerably more than $5,000) is inadequate. The study found that the most successful districts in Michigan receive nearly $9,000 per student. How will your value schools be able to provide a well-rounded education in the arts and STEM for $4,000 less than the most successful districts in Michigan?
- A follow-up on value schools. What cuts will you have to make to bring costs down to $5,000 per pupil? How will you determine what is valuable, and what has no place in these schools? How will you justify these cuts to the communities they will impact?
“We need an outsider to come in and change things up for the better.”
“Our education system needs some radical changes if it’s going to improve.”
I’ve heard both of these things, and their derivatives, in the days since Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos was his choice for Secretary of Education. I agree that we need radical change in how we approach education in America. I vehemently disagree that appointing yet another outsider with no understanding of education is the way to achieve that change.
In America, we tend to equate wealth with knowledge. I don’t mean to imply that Betsy DeVos is unintelligent, but I do mean that her large bank accounts do not qualify her to make decisions on education policy. We’ve also listened to the education ideas of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and it turns out that they might not be education experts either.
We’ve got a long, rich history of letting people from outside the field of education determine education policy, and Betsy DeVos is a continuation of that tradition. Below is a list of previous Secretaries of Education, and their jobs prior to their cabinet appointments:
Shirley Hufstedler – Lawyer and judge
Terrel Bell – HS teacher, bus driver, public school superintendent
Bill Bennett – Executive director, National Humanities Center
Lauro Cavazos – College professor
Lamar Alexander – Court clerk, legislative assistant, Governor of Tennessee
Richard Riley – South Carolina state legislator, Governor of South Carolina
Rod Paige – HS teacher, college professor, public school superintendent
Margaret Spellings – Political director, senior adviser to George W. Bush
Arne Duncan – CEO of Chicago Public Schools
John King – Charter school teacher, NY commissioner of education
Betsy DeVos (nominee) – Chairman, Windquest Group, private/charter school activist
Since the position of Secretary of Education was established in 1979, 10 people have held the position. Only three of those people had experience in K-12 education prior to their appointment. Only two of those people have had extensive experience in traditional public schools. Perhaps the “radical change” we need to improve our nation’s schools should involve the appointment of a candidate who has dedicated their lives to public education. Who would better understand the challenges facing American schools and teachers than somebody who has spent an extensive amount of time both attending and working in public schools?
A public educator would understand that our kids can not be tested out of poverty. They would understand the value of a strong public school system. They would understand that mass privatization and school choice do not work. They would understand that putting students first does not mean actively fighting teachers and working to destroy unions. They would understand that empowering and trusting teachers would create far more positive changes than any amount of testing or accountability measures ever could.
So no, DeVos is not going to bring some radical, positive change to education in America. She’s essentially more of the same, another “outsider” with no understanding of what works or what is best for students. We already know her ideas won’t fix anything (but they will make a few people a lot richer!) This appointment is not draining the swamp, it’s yet another baffling refusal to listen to the experts in the field.
I’ll be calling my representatives in the coming weeks and urging them to vote no on DeVos’ appointment. I urge you to do the same.
Today hurts. There is no escaping that. I’ve been stumbling through, dazed and still trying to wrap my head around what happened last night.
Donald Trump is our next president.
Realistically, we could have eight years of progress bulldozed with the stroke of a pen in January when he officially takes office.
As a teacher, I’m terrified. I’ve seen what GOP control does to the state of education here in Michigan. Now the whole country gets to experience that nightmare. Chris Christie, a man who has made a name for himself bullying and intimidating educators in New Jersey, is sure to play a big role in the Trump administration. Trump himself is a proponent of school choice, an experiment that has already failed on a massive scale both here in America and abroad in Sweden.
I fear that any legitimate objections we raise will simply be ignored, because we swept this man into power with a legislative majority at his fingertips. Could our schools privatize en masse? Could Right To Work legislation become the law of the land? I shudder at the thought.
Let me step away from teaching for a moment to address a more immediate concern, civil rights. Trump said in his victory speech last night:
Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division – have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to get together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.
It sounds like a lovely sentiment on its face, but its not. First, for us to start healing, Trump has to acknowledge that many of these wounds have been caused or worsened by his hateful rhetoric. And it’s not about party. We know Democrats, Republicans and independents can work together – they have in the past. A far more troubling division reared its ugly head these past several months. I’m talking about Muslims, Latinos, blacks, women, the LGBTQ community…all of these groups and more have been subjected to abuse from Trump, his surrogates, and his supporters. As scared as I am right now, I can not fathom how some of my friends and students must be feeling. If Trump truly wants to heal the nation, he must reach out to all of the people his campaign demonized.
For our part, we must make sure that now more than ever, the marginalized people in our lives know that we value, love, and support them. Stress the values of respect, kindness, and decency in your classrooms. Do your best to ensure that your students don’t feel afraid or unwelcome in your room. We need to ensure that what really makes this country great – inclusion, diversity, respect – are alive and well in our classrooms and our communities.
Each of the past three school years, my students have celebrated Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM) with an evening of chamber music. Starting after our December concert, the students pick their chamber groups and music, and they begin rehearsing together. This collaborative experience has been very empowering for the students.
This year, I’d like to expand that collaboration beyond my classroom walls. What if several ensembles around the country performed the same piece of music during MIOSM? What if these schools recorded their performances and shared them with the other performers from around the country? How cool would it be for students in Michigan to hear how students in California interpret and perform the same piece of music? What if we were to create new music for these students to perform during MIOSM?
The seeds for this idea were sown back in my college days. Trombonist Brad Edwards composed a series of fanfares for International Trombone Week, and made them freely available to any interested musicians. My plan is to compose a fanfare for concert band, and make it freely available to any groups who would like to perform it as part of an MIOSM performance.
I invite any interested composers/educators to join this fanfare collaboration by contacting me here. Ideally, I envision several short new pieces being created each year that encompass a wide range of styles and ability levels. Any groups that perform these pieces and have access to recording equipment would send in a recording of their performance, which we would then post online to share with every other group that performed the same piece.
I hope some of you will find the potential of this project as exciting as I do. The potential for interaction between performers and composer is great, and I love the thought that my students could start some deep musical discussions with students from all over the country. Again, if you’re interested in participating in this project as a composer or a performing ensemble, drop me a quick note here.
I worked at Jimmy John’s in college. A couple of them, actually. And I was pretty damn good at slinging sandwiches. It’s been at least 10 years since I put on the uniform, and I’m pretty confident that I could still get behind the counter and pump food out quickly.
When I was at JJ’s, I had a pretty clearly defined relationship with our customers. They pay for a sandwich, or sandwiches. I make said sandwich. We exchange pleasantries while I wrap their sandwich. I tell them to have a great day. They leave. It was different with regulars only in the sense that we would repeat this process with them on a daily basis.
That’s where it ended though. When that sandwich left the shop, the door closed on that relationship. I never stayed after my shift had ended to help any of the customers become better at consuming their sandwiches. I never lost any sleep worrying that the Italian Night Club I had made during the lunch rush didn’t have a warm home to go back to. I never had the urge to go check in with sandwiches that I had made years prior.
And after sitting through yet another meeting where somebody described the local community as “our customers”, I couldn’t help but realize just how terrible that label is. “Customer” doesn’t even begin to describe how deep the bonds are between teacher and community. We care deeply for our students even when they leave our classes for the day. We sacrifice our time and energy even when we are off the clock.
When I made a sandwich, there was no considering what impact that Beach Club with extra sprouts would have on the community. When I teach kid? That’s a huge part of my thought process. Is what we’re doing in here benefiting the school community, and the community at large?
When we call the public “customers”, we are selling them short. They are our allies, our supporters, our partners, our stakeholders. Calling them customers does them a disservice. We are just as invested in the students as they are, let’s start conveying that and think of ourselves as more than just customer service reps.