In Response To Gov. Engler

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?

Not The Change We Need

“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.

Competition Is Not The Answer To Everything

The Michigan state legislature is currently mulling a substantial financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools. If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that this aid is sorely needed. Schools in Detroit are physically falling apart. Students aren’t safe. Teachers are falling ill.

But don’t worry, education expert Betsy DeVos has an alternative solution!

I wish sarcasm translated better to text.

Ms. DeVos has joined the chorus of education “experts” who feel that all of the problems with our nation’s public schools can be solved with the magic bullet of competition.

Look, competition can be a good thing in some areas of life. Business pour money into product development hoping to gain new customers. We generally get better products as a result. Sports teams compete all the time, and it’s wildly entertaining.

But there’s one undeniable fact of competition, one that the education reform crowd always seems to ignore.

When two entities compete, one always loses.

This is fine if we’re talking about a couple of college basketball teams. This is not a game we should be willing to play when it comes to our children. The math just doesn’t work out. Forcing schools to compete for students and funding would probably work out great for districts that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would remain wealthy and continue to achieve. And some students will be left behind.

But what about school choice? Comes the reply.

Again, great for districts and schools that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would attract more students, and would no doubt change some lives. But many students would inevitably be left behind at their old schools, and the gap in the quality of education children receive would widen.

Look at this on a small scale. District A markets itself as a home for school of choice students. It offers a diverse curriculum, rich in the arts, filled with opportunities for students to create and grow. Thanks to the state funding that comes in with each student, District A’s budget grows with each student it attracts. District A is able to continue offering a fantastic curriculum, and the cycle continues.

Districts B and C are neighbors of District A. They were a little slow in adding programs to their curriculum, so they lost students, and thus lost money. Class sizes grow a little bit, parents continue to be attracted to the offerings of District A. More students leave, funding drops. Districts B and C are forced to cut programs to balance their books, only accelerating their decline. The students and families remaining in Districts B and C watch the quality of education drop. District A wins.

Look at it on an even smaller scale. I teach music. I could choose to foster a highly competitive environment with my 7th and 8th grade band students. Kids would compete for chairs, there would be challenges, all that stuff. Some kids would be motivated to practice more, and would thus win challenges and rise to the top of their section. Students who continue to lose challenges might lose their motivation, their passion, and may eventually leave the music program. Would my bands sound better? Maybe, but I’m not willing to pay that price.

We’re not talking about a battle between Comcast and Uverse for customers here. We’re talking about people willing to gamble with the education of their children. This isn’t something we should accept as a society. Instead, legislators and reformers should be proposing solutions that encourage schools and districts to collaborate. District A has some programs that have been very successful in enriching the lives of students? Great! Here’s some release time for the teachers in District A to share those lessons with teachers in Districts B and C. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Well, except for Betsy DeVos. And I’m okay with that.

Phil Pavlov, Enemy to Education

The sick-outs staged by Detroit Public Schools teachers in recent weeks have caught the attention of the state legislature, and not in a good way. Senator Phil Pavlov has rammed three bills through the Senate Education Committee aimed at punishing those who participate in the sick-outs, as well as punishing districts who don’t punish educators who participate in the sick-outs.

Senator Pavlov would have you believe that these bills are all about protecting kids, and getting them the education that they deserve. He says he’s identified gaps in the current strike laws in Michigan, “And so, we want to make sure we close those gaps for the good of the kids.”

It sounds noble enough, until you realize that Pavlov is refusing to address why DPS educators feel the need to protest. As I covered in a previous post, many DPS facilities are literally falling apart. Teachers are getting sick thanks to black mold. Parts of buildings are off-limits to everybody because they’ve fallen into such a serious state of disrepair. Senator Pavlov, how exactly is forcing students and teachers to try to accomplish anything meaningful in such a harmful environment good for the kids?

Suppose the Michigan Legislature actually passes these awful bills, what next? It’s not like there’s a teacher surplus in Detroit. These protesting teachers are standing up because they are literally the only advocate that many of these students have. If they are forced out, if they have their certification revoked, there’s not a line of people waiting to fight for these kids. Striking is literally a last resort for educators, an option that does not get pursued unless all other avenues have failed.

This open letter from a Renaissance High School student illustrates how these bills will just make a terrible situation even worse.

When you have lost these teachers, how will you replace them? Who wants to work in a school district where ceilings fall on student’s heads, and mushrooms grow in the hallways? I did not have an English teacher for the first
four months of school, and last year I did not have a French teacher the whole first semester. With a history of all these vacancies, how will firing 23 teachers help your case at all.

Rather than meet these problems head on and produce a beneficial solution, Senator Pavlov and those like him have chosen to instead punish the very people working to fix these problems. They have clearly stated that they believe silencing the teachers means that the problems with DPS will cease.

Any legislator who votes in support of these bills is not a friend of education, or the students they claim to support. I urge you to contact your legislator and tell them to vote against these awful bills. Encourage them to instead use their energy and influence to come up with solutions.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Stand With Detroit Teachers

The anti-teacher rhetoric in Detroit is out of control these days. If you aren’t familiar with what’s happening in Detroit Public Schools at the moment, let me bring you up to speed. After dealing with a state takeover, nearly a decade of frozen pay, and deplorable working and learning conditions, Detroit teachers have been staging ‘sick-outs’ to protest and shed some light on their predicament. The sick-outs closed 64 schools on Monday, and and almost two dozen on Tuesday.

Emboldened by Governor Rick Snyder’s steadfast commitment to destroying public education (see: the EAA, and the assault on democracy that is his emergency financial manager law), conservatives in Michigan have been lashing out at the teachers. A spokesperson for attorney general Bill Schuette kicked off the fun with this gem (note the plea to ‘think of the children’. More on this later):

“Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

Here’s a question for you, Mr. Schuette. Are the dangers of black mold and falling concrete not also hurtful to children? Is the fact that we are asking students to learn in this environment not outrageous?

Darnell Earley, the new DPS emergency manager also attempted to pile on when he called the sick-outs “highly unethical”. I do have to defer to Mr. Earley’s expertise in the field of highly unethical actions, as he is one of the people directly responsible for poisoning the children of Flint in the name of saving the city a few bucks.

As if the comments from Earley and Schuette’s lackey weren’t enough, the Detroit News posted an editorial calling for the leaders behind the sick-outs to lose their jobs. This editorial is amazing, for all the wrong reasons:

Students should never be used as bargaining chips

The irony here is delicious. This is exactly what Schuette, Earley, and others are doing when they ask teachers to go back to work for the sake of the children. The teachers are out there protesting for the sake of the children, because no educator in Michigan can expect the state government to do the right thing when it comes to our schools and our students. Snyder side-stepped democracy with his emergency financial manager law, the state takeover of DPS crippled the district and sent it into massive debt, the performance of the schools in the EAA continues to plummet, and Snyder and others have rammed through anti-teacher legislation despite initial promises that they would not do so. The self-proclaimed One Tough Nerd is nothing more than a bully. Anyway, back to the editorial.

In regards to Michigan’s anti-strike laws:

Lawmakers have failed to strengthen the law in recent years, but they should make it a priority now.

Because when faced with workplace and classroom conditions like this, the reasonable response is to punish the people who are trying to fix it.

“These actions by certain DPS teachers do absolutely nothing to address or correct the problems tied to the district,” stated Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “All it’s doing is damaging the education of thousands of students.”

Oh look, another lawmaker attempting to use students as a bargaining chip! Look, when going through regular channels to fix problems does nothing, teachers have to resort to drastic action. The teachers participating in these sick-outs are acting as a voice for their students. They are advocating for safer, healthier learning conditions. Representative Kelly is essentially refusing to acknowledge that crumbling buildings are an issue. These sick-outs are shining a national spotlight on this problem. Calling attention to the neglect of public education in Detroit is the most important thing that DPS students can do for their students right now.

I guarantee that none of the legislators that are sounding off on DPS teachers would send their own child to a crumbling school like Spain. They’re urging teachers to return to their classrooms, but they seem completely unable or unwilling to empathize with the plight of the teachers or students. Forcing students to learn in these conditions every single day surely does more lasting damage to them than missing a few days of school.

I urge you all to stand with DPS teachers. If you’re in Michigan, tell your legislator that the state’s treatment of DPS is unacceptable. Help raise awareness of what these brave educators are doing right now.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License