Thursday, December 22, 2016

DeVos's Inconvenient Truths

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post turned up a 2015 speech from billionaire heiress and Education Secretary Designee Betsy DeVos in which Devos lays out her six "inconvenient truths," the guiding principles by which her vision of American education is powered. Ed Patru, a self-identified spokesperson for Friends of Betsy DeVos (so I guess that's a thing-- damn), indicates that the speech is a fair measure of DeVos's animating philosophy, so we'd probably better take a look at these six pillars of super-duper governance that's headed our way like a over-loaded semi with a brick on the gas pedal.

Inconvenient Truth No. 1-- Our education system in America is antiquated and it is quite frankly embarrassing.

DeVos compares public education system to the Model T, and talks about how Detroit totally innovated to do a better job of producing automobiles, so I'm a little confused-- she wants to send American children to Mexico and Canada to be educated under less safe conditions by underpaid workers?

This truth is where we get to bring up the criticism of DeVos that she has never in her life spent any time in an actual public school. She didn't attend one; her children didn't attend one. This is not a mean, personal attack-- it's an explanation for why she doesn't appear to know what the hell she's talking about.

This is what I call Reformster Timewarp Syndrome, in which reformsters criticize public schools based on the assumption that these schools are exactly the way they were fifty years ago (when some reformsters attended them as students). This is like criticizing the military for still fighting on horseback.

Is there room for improvement, growth and new creativity in public schools? Absolutely. And there's no question that like many institutions, public education is at root conservative. But on this point of antiquation and embarrassment, DeVos is just spouting vague, baseless baloney.

Inconvenient Truth No. 2-- American education has been losing ground to other countries for at least half a century.

DeVos says the facts here are "unarguable," and follows up that piercing argument with "it's really a waste of our time to even slog through this, it's just plain true and everybody knows it."

This would be the part where I draw attention to the fact that DeVos has never been in a leadership position where she had to use any method of argument beyond "let me just sign this check." Her assertion is completely arguable, it's not just plain true, and everybody does not know it-- and if she wants to convince anyone, she;'ll have to do way better than that.

She tosses out PISA scores which are a fine example of what we don't know and aren't measuring. Like most test score cultists, she skips over the obvious check-- is there a correlation between PISA scores and economic health, political success, or general world domination. Have the high test scores of Estonia led them to global importance? No? Then why, exactly, should we care.

For those who think Trumplandia will be a clear break from the Duncan-Obama past, she also drops this winner. After pointing out that lots of poor children are failing, she goes on to note that "we have too many children in middle class suburban areas that we think are doing well... but that are actually seriously underperforming." Why-- that's exactly what Duncan said! Maybe he can get a job in the DeVos department!

Inconvenient Truth No. 3-- We are stuck in a partisan rut. The political parties are dead enders when it comes to education revolution.

DeVos notes that there are plenty of nominal conservatives and alleged liberals who are on the choice train, but mostly politicians just won't step up. Republicans don't want poor black kids in their schools, and Democrats are the lackeys of the anti-choice unions. Hey, look! She also resembles Arne Duncan in her willingness to sweepingly insult all sorts of people. Remember how he was pretty ineffective because he couldn't play well with Congress? "Plus ca change..."

Somehow this turns into arguing that in DC, charter-private schools are awesome and the public system sucks, so keep the DC voucher program. Guess that's better than following the rest of her argument's path, which leads to the notion that we should scrap the political parties because the political division that matters in this country is the division between the rich and the not-rich.

Inconvenient Truth No. 4-- Government really sucks.

You know, I'm going to give her a point for pithy phraseology. And as she notes, parties and politics are one thing that she does actually knows. And she reminds me of a question I've always had-- if your main experience of government is using money to bend politicians to your will, just how far does that lower your opinion of and respect for politicians?

But government does things top-down, stifles innovation,likes idea-killing committees, and loves control, says DeVos, when really, noble and awesome entrepreneurs should be free to roam about and do as they wish. It will be interesting to see how she feels about this once the wheel of power is in her hands and she has the power to force everyone to Do The Right Thing in a top-down manner.

See, I don't even disagree that much with many of her criticisms. But she ignores the part where government has a role to stand between citizens and People with Power who want to do harm. She also ignores, as do all free market acolytes, the Great Failing of the Free Market-- it will not serve all customers, and public education MUST serve all customers.

Inconvenient Truth No. 5-- We don't pay teachers enough, and we don't fire enough.

Again, the words of somebody who has never run anything except meetings of a group she created with her own bank account.

But I am willing to bet that every one of you had one or more teachers who made a big difference in your life, who opened your eyes to possibilities and to opportunities. You probably recall them in your mind’s eye right now.

And likewise, I am pretty sure that every one of you had one or more teachers who should not have been teaching. That doesn’t mean they were bad people, or maybe they were, but regardless, they weren’t any good at teaching.

Sure. We could do that for all the people who came out of the same school, and they could make their lists, and the lists would not match. So then what?

Pay teachers more? Sure, but as she acknowledges, lots of folks (she says "Republicans") don't want to do that. Meanwhile, DeVos is the gazillionth person to fail to understand what tenure is and how it works and why it's needed. But even if she had simply worked in the private sector, she would have learned, as most private sector employers have, that you cannot fire your way to excellence.

She also uses this point to repeat that both political parties suck. She is adamant about that. I can see her building that great working relationship with Congress and governors and state legislatures already.

Inconvenient Truth No. 6-- In America we do NOT provide equal educational opportunity to our kids.

Truth that! But as I've complained before, equal opportunity is a crappy goal. All of the passengers on the Titanic had an equal opportunity to get in a lifeboat. What we really need is a commitment to provide a quality education to every student, period, end stop. Not just an opportunity.

But the "opportunity" weasel word is the great escape hatch for the charter-choice movement. We're only going to invest the time and money and attention and resources for a few students-- but all students had the opportunity to get them. This is how you spend the money to educate 100 students and leave 1900 behind-- by saying they all had the opportunity.

Students don't need an opportunity. They need an education.

As currently practiced, charter and choice are not the solution to this problem. The free market will not serve students on whom it cannot turn a decent profit. And trying to run ten schools with the money that used to fund one school is sheer idiocy.

This point is Devos's big finish. She accuses "defenders of the status quo" of hypocrisy which she "can't stomach." She makes the old complaint that public school students, trapped in a zip code, should not be made to wait until the school gets more money and improves, and yet charter schools make students wait all the time-- for improvement, for more money, for a new school because that one just closed because it no longer made business sense to keep it open.

DeVos has, in short, revived some of the reformsters greatest hits. Trapped in zip codes. Urgent-- can't wait! Money doesn't help (well, it doesn't help public schools-- it helps charter-choice schools just fine). I don't know if DeVos is a hypocrite or not. This is one more respect in which she resembles her predecessors Arne Duncan and John "Duncan Lite" White-- it's not always clear whether she is using devious political spin or she just doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. If we don't have the good fortune to see her appointment thwarted, I guess I'll just wait and see which inconvenient truth we are dealing with.

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