Monday, January 2, 2017

The Conservative Argument Against DeVos

It's not just progressives who have been up in arms about the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the post of Secretary of Education. The same network of conservative parent activists that raised an effective fuss over Common Core are exceedingly unpleased about the big-money donor and lobbyist being given the reins for education. The pressure to reject DeVos won't be coming just from the left and it won't be landing on Democratic senators.

The calls started with petitions like this one, calling for Bill Evers or Larry Arnn or Sandra Stotsky as Secretary of Education. And demanding that the new USED Secretary be a warrior against Common Core.

That promised warrior is not, of course, what folks got.

Here's Joy Pullman (The Federalist) at Conservative Review hitting the ground running with the reasons that DeVos is a bad pick.

First and repeatedly foremost in conservative circles is DeVos' deep love of the Common Core. Plenty of people remain unfooled by DeVos' attempted backtrack. DeVos would have been a perfect Secretary of Education pick for Jeb Bush, with whom she has a long history of partnering and contributing to his favorite policies. And as Pullman indicates, the anti-Common-Core parent network could react to DeVos quickly because they already knew her name, having come up against her money and her astro-turfed groups and her political connections in many of the states where the standards battle raged.

Christian conservative mom Jenni White (Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment) parses this quote form the DeVos website:

I do support high standards, strong accountability, and local control. When Governors such as John Engler, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Pence were driving the conversation on voluntary high standards driven by local voices, it all made sense.

White replies:

The first sentence contains the insidious, using-buzzwords-to-make-sure-I-get-everyone-from-every-ed-camp-into-mine, rhetorical nonsense. You simply can't have "high standards" and "strong accountability" at the federal level and get LOCAL CONTROL. You just can't. That sentence alone should be deadly in the confirmation hearings for Mrs. DeVos.

That and guys like Mike Huckabee are not exactly hard critics of the Core.

White's raising of the local control issue is also a repeated conservative theme. I have waited for decades to see more conservatives get this-- you cannot have government money without government strings, and vouchers stand to be the gold-covered trojan horse that brings government regulation to private and religious schools across this country. Here's how White puts it:

The term "school choice" - like the term "education reform" - means something different to everyone, but usually encompasses the idea that a benevolent federal dictatorship should 'allow' parents to move from one education facility to another (charter schools), hopefully dragging along public money (vouchers), in order to provide their children with a better education than that offered by their failing district school.

The local control issue goes hand in hand with the issue of purchased policy. DeVos is right in there with guys like Bill Gates and Jeb Bush in using her personal fortune to do an end run around the democratic process-- in particular to turn education into a worker training program for their particular private concerns.

Then there is the whole attitude issue. Sandra Stotsky herself bemoans the lack of parent voices in the ongoing discussions about education. And here's Pullman again:

The DeVos family are part of the new-money ruling elite who look down their noses at “rubes” like Heather Crossin [Hoosiers Against Common Core], who do things like oppose Common Core and vote for Donald Trump. These are not the kind of people to whom Trump promised Americans he’d delegate our power.

Indeed, conservatives, like progressives, can recognize the problem with DeVos's utter lack of public school experience.

Bottom line: Senators should be hearing objections to DeVos from across the perspective, and when you are calling your senator (there is no if-- you should be doing it, and soon, and often), you can take into account what sort of Senator you are calling. Your GOP senator needs to hear that DeVos's nomination breaks Trump's promise to attack Common Core and to get local control back to school districts. Your GOP senator needs to hear that you are not fooled by DeVos's attempt to pretend she's not a long-time Common Core supporter.

As was the case back in the days when Common Core was being shoved down our collective throats, the DeVos nomination can bring together folks with different agendas (Pullman, for instance, would like the Department of Education to go away entirely). It's rare that Presidential cabinet picks are axed, but we've been saying lots of "it's rare..." sentences lately, and with the Democrats planning to make hearings challenging for DeVos and seven other proposed Trumpistan mini-czars, at a very minimum, the new administration could be forced to burn some political capital to get their choice in office. Who knows-- conservative anti-Common Core moms were under-estimated before.


  1. I need to state first that I unequivocally oppose DeVos as US Sec. of Education or any other position in any public governmental body. She's a religious fundamentalist whose "deep agenda" has long been and always will be tearing down the separation clause in the First Amendment, particularly regarding public schools. Her desire to either get direct access to putting her flavor of Christianity (Dutch Reformed Church - and don't let that word "Reformed" fool you) into every public school or to destroy every public school that won't implement her notions of a "Christian curriculum" so that all American children must jump through religious hoops of religious indoctrination to move through K-12 makes her anathema to anyone who grasps the deep dangers of breaking down the walls between religion and public institutions.

    That said, making someone's position on the Common Core a litmus test about anything is, frankly, moronic. I despise the Common Core initiative - the entire mechanism by which it was developed, funded, disseminated, tied to federal funding, charter schools, and particularly high stakes testing. I also object to many particulars in both the literacy and mathematical content standards. However, there is also something very worthwhile and valuable called the Standards for Mathematical Practice that deserve serious consideration and support from progressive educators. They reflect the sort of mindset and actions that I believe are required for effective mathematics teaching and learning in the vast majority of cases.

    The anti-progressives education folks (Sandra Stotsky, mentioned in this piece, being a prominent member thereof, even if she has no credentials whatsoever in math or math education) despise the Practice Standards because the emerged from the NCTM Standards volumes written between 1989 - 2000 and which called for a more student-centered, sensemaking approach to mathematics education. And even though the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice do not tell teachers specific curricular materials, teaching methods, etc., the Stotsky crowd (correctly) "sees through" all that and recognizes the underlying philosophy it despises. They want and have always wanted an elitist approach to math content and teaching methods that keep it as stark, confusing, and forbidding as possible to the majority of Americans. We can argue from now until Doomsday why that is, but there is no question that they push "rigor" as code for "let's not let the wrong kind of people sit at the table of mathematics.

    If DeVos likes the Common Core - and I'm skeptical that she does - it's not because she actually likes IT, but because it serves her agenda. And conservatives who dislike it almost never do for any good reasons (that is, for reasons progressive educators would support if they saw what those reasons were). It's like Republicans who supported Hillary Clinton - they weren't doing it because she's a liberal or progressive.

    Finally, you can be certain that if DeVos' nomination is rejected (and I hope it is) the person Trump appoints next will be horrid as well - Stotsky, Michelle Rhee, Success Academy's Eva Moskowitz, or some other devotee of destroying public education or making it into an even worse mess than it is already - it will never be a person with an actual K-12 teaching or even administrative background unless it's some like Rhee who should have been kicked out of teaching for child abuse.

    And of course, there's always the possibility that the GOP and Trump will do away with the US DOE. After the last 16 years, however, I'm not sure that will be an entirely bad thing.

  2. I disagree with your claim that government money necessarily comes with government strings. We're seeing in the last few months a shift for some liberal governments toward piloting universal basic income programs--Ontario, Finland, and possibly Scotland and India as well given a cursory Google news search. While this doesn't speak directly to the content of your post, as an attitudinal shift, it does seem related to whether we view teachers as professionals: do we trust them as experts to be able to make certain decisions better than laypeople? The first comment on this post raises this issue with its reference to the Standards for Mathematical Practice.

    1. While I started out as an English teacher c. 1973, I will only comment on mathematics education here. And in my view, we have far too many people teaching K-12 math who shouldn't be (or who need to be sent in for "regrooving," to steal from the first Firesign Theater disc). The Standards for Mathematical Practice present a small set of basic precepts that can and should be taken into account (not necessarily all of them every time) when planning and teaching lessons, and when studying mathematics from Kindergarten to 12th grade and beyond. Clearly, the levels of personal and academic maturity change over time, so the ways in which one engages with math in terms of the Practice Standards will not be identical for all individuals or any two individuals at the same age. And so it will be with teachers as they mature and improve. But without some sort of guidelines, I fear that US mathematics education will continue to be inadequate.

      Note that I'm not saying "Inadequate for competing against Asia" or any similar nonsense. I'm simply saying "inadequate" from the point of view of what it means to do something well, whether as a learner, practitioner, or educator.

  3. I seldom disagree w/ the Curmudgeon in Chief, but I think Mike Goldenberg gets this mostly right: Betsy has never (in MI) been attached to promo-ing the CCSS, except as they relate to a framework for punishing schools and mis-evaluating teachers. And she came late to that support, because she was a Bushie (not a Trumpie) and he embraced CCSS, as well as all the other things that Betsy genuinely cares about: Privatization. Conservatism. Cheap "value school" education for the poor. Grinding down the unions.

    Standards and curricula? Not really her gig (except for Intelligent Design and American exceptionalism).

    I also think Mike's right, re: CCSS. It matters why you hate the Common Core. If you hate it politically and for its current destructive uses, OK. But if you're peddling phony facts about any effort to think seriously, as professional disciplinary experts, about what students should know and be able to do, caution ought to be exercised.

    I dislike the Common Core. Intensely. But I don't dislike the idea that there is value in constantly updating what we used to call scope and sequence of knowledge and skills--so that we can tailor good curriculum for our students. THESE ARE OUR ISSUES, as educators. *That* is the problem.

    I know that saying CCSS are a statewide initiative (nope-no federal influence there...) is a BFL, but I'm going to say it repeatedly anyway. Because Betsy can't wave a magic wand and get rid of the Common Core--not in her magic powers. Let whomever wants it take credit for bringing down CCSS, state by state, but don't throw what's good about standards out with the bathwater.

    1. I always appreciate hearing from Ground Zero in Michigan. I'm not entirely convinced that Betsy's a CCSS fan, but it's clear that many of the anti-Core crowd do believe it

    2. Thanks for your reply. And I agree that if the anti-Core crowd here thinks she's for it, and wants to go after her for that reason, they should have at it. My blessing.

    3. Thanks for the kind words, Nancy. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater" has been run through the Math Wars and probably every other area of the Education Wars and Culture Wars, but fanatics don't much seem to care. Whether we are looking at the sorts of folks who despise the NCTM standards volumes starting with its 1989 publication, or the ones in the David Coleman camp who are going to go to their graves singing the praises of every single aspect of the entire Common Core initiative, extremism in the defense of stupidity appears to be no vice in the eyes of the ideologues and extremists. It wears me out.

  4. Au contraire: Common Core fits perfectly with vouchers. Because CC is only about skills, it will be possible for voucher-receiving Christianist academies to teach creationism while still claiming their using the same standards as public schools –all they have to do is have kids practice analysis skills while reading the Old Testament.

  5. And that fits your reading of, say, the Standards for Mathematical Practice in what ways?

    The problem with blanket condemnation of Common Core (what is actually IN them, that is) and blanket cheerleading for them is, as usual, lack of nuance. Monolithic "This stuff is all crap" and "This stuff will make the US "world-class" in education" claims are both ridiculous.

    I have not bothered to get into the literacy standards documents because that's no longer my field, but I've read some very odd attacks on close textual analysis. I realize that, having studied literary critical theory in the '70s, I'm no doubt hopelessly out of touch with the latest ideas on what makes sense for K-12 students right through professional literary critics, but I did study critical theory from Plato through the first 3/4th of the 20th century and came away with a great regard for the idea that the text as written is always the touchstone to which any attempt to "analyze" literature must return.

    Of course, it's certainly possible to write about "what this poem meant to me," at various points in one's schooling, and very few people plan to or will ever have to pass peer reviews of articles or books written for a professional audience. But I find it hard to understand why it would be bad for students to have learn how to actually pay attention to "the words as printed on the page" when writing about poems, stories, plays, novels, etc.

    Just because New Critics are out of fashion these days doesn't mean they were utterly wrong. It's possible to do a blend of postmodern criticism, social justice "readings" and perhaps other critical viewpoints and STILL pay attention to the words on the page. And I don't care if David Coleman approves, disapproves, or is silent on the subject. I developed my sense of what works critically long before I ever heard his name.

    Saying the Common Core is "only about skills" is to presume that there is a one-size-fits-all take on those standards - the one that David Coleman and Big Publishing/Big Testing have tried to sell us. I don't buy what they sell for the most part and have my own ideas for the most part about both literacy and mathematics education. Betsy and her Christian fanatics could probably take any set of standards and twist them to fit their agenda, though I wonder if she'd try to get the nation to adopt, say, the Abeka math curriculum which eschews everything that came after Cantorian set theory because the authors are convinced that transfinite mathematics and anything that is based on notions of infinity is an insult to "God Almighty." If the education wars have accomplished nothing else, they've helped to expose me to people with ideas of such profound insanity that, had I read about them first in someone else's writing, I'd never believed them to be held by real people not locked up in asylums.