Thursday, March 30, 2017

DeVos: Mom With An Axe

This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stopped by Brookings to help them help her plug choice. The main purpose of the event was to roll out a new report (The 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index), but the main outcome of the event was that DeVos said some truly extraordinary stuff. First, she delivered some prepared remarks, but then she sat down for some Q & A with Russ Whitehurst (Brookings) and that's when some kind of amazing stuff just kind of fell out of her mouth.

You can watch all of it here, though I'm not sure I recommend it. While Arne Duncan specialized in a goofy grin, like a ten-year-old boy who had snuck into a strip club and new he was doing something that might be considered either naughty or awesome, and yet he himself didn't quite get it, DeVos leans more towards a church lady smirk, like it amuses her to imagine that all those Lessers are just having fits that she is this amazing. It is the look for which "supercilious" was coined, and it's not a good look on anyone, let alone a starched white heiress. Her Trump-approved minder should really help her with that.

Prepared Remarks

These include some standard DeVosisms, leading right in by noting that she is passionate about "increasing education options for parents and students" which she characterizes as a "fundamental right."

Her views about this were shaped "early on" in her time as a mother. The USED transcript omits the next part, but if we go to the tape, we see that here she tells the story of her relationship with the Potters House, a private Christian school recently profiled by Rebecca Klein. She and her husband sent a son there, volunteer there, and throw a lot of money at the place. Her experience, she says, led her to three conclusions.

First, parents know what's best for their kids. That will, further down the page, lead to a problem for the DeVosian view-- what are we to make of all the parents who choose, prefer, and support public schools?

Second, good teachers know what's best for their students. DeVos likes "good teachers," but I am beginning to wonder if she means "morally upright teachers" instead of "professionally accomplished teachers." She also hints here at something I've caught a whiff of before-- that choice provides teachers with super-awesome places to work where they can be part of an upright school that allows them to work long hours for less pay. Hooray.

Third, state and local leaders should be in charge, not the feds. I don't disagree with this, but my love of local control is tempered by the knowledge that in some places, "local control" means "racist and unequal." Consider the "failure factories" created in Pinellas County, Florida, or the segregation academies still running. So, local control might not be the absolute answer.

Tear down that wall. And that one, too.

DeVos underlines her commitment to choice, but she also underlines her commitment to children and families, not in buildings or institutions. It's a central theme of hers, and I wonder if it's a side-effect of life-long wealth-- if you always have the clout and money to stand up for yourself, does it seem inconceivable that some people without power and money need to have institutions to stand up for them? Or is this a religion thing, a desire to see all institutions torn down except the church? Whatever the case, DeVos once again lets her anti-institution (and by extension, anti-government) flag fly. Institutions also provide places for people to congregate and rebel and disagree with the Powers That Be and otherwise misbehave. Let's chop them all down.

She doesn't favor any one choice mechanism, but she does want to hit the old note about putting children's needs above adult political concerns, which is a handy way of dismissing virtually any opposing voices. Teachers don't express opinions about education because they are invested in teaching children-- they're just playing politics.

DeVos considers some specific cities that came up in the report, and her point seems to be that you need a good array of choices, and you need to make them accessible, and that includes a good application system. At no point does she suggest that oversight is needed to make sure that all the choices are actually any good.

Then she trots out Marilyn Rhames again. Rhames is one of Rick Hess's cage-busting teachers. And she acknowledges a quote from the report-- “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model.”She disagrees. She believes that alternatives are constructive to education, students, parents, and teachers. And she absolutely refuses to distinguish between them, lumping all choices together, including virtual charters that have been universally shown to fail hard. But then, she's not a numbers person.

An exceptionally bad analogy

DeVos now trots out taxis vs. Uber/Lyft as her example. It's a tortured analogy-- private transportation options are not a public good, a community school is not a hired driver, and Uber in particular has actually been pretty destructive of many things. And Uber picks its own customers! DeVos offers this example "from a different part of our daily lives," as if the vast majority of folks in this country can't afford either a taxi or a lyft, but instead depend on public transport like buses or metro systems, which is still easier than rural areas where none of those options are available at all. She also tosses Airbnb into the mix, which is kind of hilarious because I'm willing to bet that she's never stayed at one in her life, and I will double that bet that she has never offered her own home as an Airbnb option. But she will use these poor analogies to propose that since we love choice in these areas, we should offer choice in schools.

She acknowledges that critics ask "often politely," why not fix the schools we have? That's true. We do ask that. Then she continues, "If only schools received more funding, they say, the schools could provide a better learning environment for those being left behind." That's not true. There are plenty of calls to fund schools completely or fairly. There are discussions about how money can best be spent. There are plenty of calls to turn the governance of local schools over to local communities. There are many many MANY discussions about programs and curriculum and ending those God-forsaken Big Standardized Tests. But I know few-if-any public school advocates whose position is, "Just give us more money."

But Betsy has set up her preferred straw man, and now she will have at him. "But of course we've already tried that, and it's proven not to work." And she will prove it with those damn School Improvement Grants. This-- this-- is the Obama/Duncan legacy-- a bad policy that, by its failure, has provided the perfect ammunition to discredit the whole idea of funding schools. Thanks, Obama.

DeVos wales away on SIG and asks, "At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn't the solution," as if anybody, anywhere, had suggested that throwing money at schools is the solution, although one does have to wonder why, then, she and her husband have thrown so many millions of dollars at the Potters House.

She'd like to change the culture around education-- no more "us versus them" thinking, which is an interesting point of view for someone who has spent the last thirty years up to and including this one declaring war on public schools. But she doesn't want to talk about statistics or systems-- she wants to tell anecdotes about specific children who fit her preferred outcome. So we will get heartwarming stories about students "saved" by choice or "ruined" by public schools. I predict that the years ahead will provide many of these anecdotes. I also predict that the years ahead will not include anecdotes of charter fraud, voucher scams, students who were left abandoned when their choice school closed suddenly mid-year, or students who emerged from choice schools with no actual education. Her story today is about Michael, and she declares that even one more Michael is unacceptable, but I have a feeling we're not going to hear about the Michael's who are let down by choice schools.


So I urge us to come together to embrace policies that actually empower parents and give kids an equal shot at the quality education they deserve. It is the right and just thing to do. 

As always, I wonder why we only want to give kids a "shot" at a quality education. Why not resolve to give them the actual quality education? But then, this closing line is really the first time we've brought up quality in the whole speech. Then DeVos brings it home with the True Believer invocation of what is "just and right."

And now it gets interesting.

And now DeVos sits down with Whitehurst, pours him a glass of water he doesn't really want as if we're in her house, not his, and things become extraordinary, partly, it must be said, because Whitehurst asks her some really well-aimed questions.

What's your metric?

Whitehurst asks how DeVos/Trump would like to be measured in the future?  What would "we did a good job" look like?

She re-iterates her idea of replacing institutions with a student-centric culture. Whitehurst pushes back-- what exactly does that look like. How would we hold you accountable for that? Different funding mechanisms? Every parent gets to choose? Achievement is going to rise? At the end "I want some numbers" that tell me you got where you wanted to get.

Her measure is more choices. She believes the demand is there and it should be allowed to be cultivated. This is the part where DeVos says "I'm not a numbers person, not in the same way you are." Just empower parents. As long as we've got that policy, she's happy.

But what if it sucks.

Whitehurst wants to gently suggest that  a whole lot of choice could result in crappy education for a lot of students. Could she see, conceptually, "that a choice environment, implemented poorly. could have negative impacts on families." And he almost has an interesting idea going, but then he restates it-- could you struggle publicly with us over the dilemma of having choice, but academic outcomes are getting worse. And that's what she jumps on, with this extraordinary statement:

Well, I'm not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today.

Ah, there she is. Betsy "Public Schools Are a Dead End" DeVos. And she cites the continuing deterioration of PISA scores and NAEP scores and now Russ Whitehurst has to correct the Secretary of Education by pointing out that NAEP scores have risen dreamatically over the last twenty years. "It's actually interesting that the Bush administration focused on reading," not math, and the math got better and all DeVos takes away from any of that is that the federal top-down approach isn't so great, chuckle chuckle.

So the Secretary of Education cannot imagine how public education can get any worse in this country (though she's not a numbers person). Which means we have some huge disconnects operating here, because parents always know best, and lots of parents think public schools are actually pretty good, and yet they couldn't get any worse. Yikes.

The players in the system

I have to tell you-- I'm liking Whitehurst more and more. Now he winds up with the notion that ESSA, Trump and DeVos all seem lined up behind the devolution of power to the states and localities and his question-- "Isn't that the traditional status quo model?" Which-- yes. Part of ed reform has been installing top-down power, so re-localizing it is in fact a return to the status quo. Okay, I like him less now that he includes the idea that school boards are elected by teachers unions.

Her response is predictable given her history. "We've seen" plenty of governors be really innovative, and she should have seen that because she's certainly thrown enough money at getting people elected who see things her way. "Empowering states" to be "laboratories" of choice is where we'll see headway made. IOW, now that we have better control of state governments, it should be okay to give them power again.

Federal role to play? "Highlighting" success and also something about states sitting back being satisfied with mediocre results. Wait-- what?? Did she just suggest that the feds are going to push accountability on the states after all? No, the federal role will be informative rather than mandating. So, you know, fliers and reports and emails and stuff. But Whitehurst is going to follow up.

What about the happy states?

If the state is happy with how things are going, then parents are stuck. What then? Just the bully pulpit, or...?

State plan submission for ESSA will be a very "good and instructive process" and they kind of bob heads at each other like maybe they can tease out a string of words that really means something. But in that process, the department will have a chance to "comment to" what the state plans. So, the power of comments. So, nothing. This has always been the challenge I imagine she faces-- she wants to keep the feds out of the process, but she knows just what she wants to see, and as the Trump administration fully grasps, if there are no consequences for breaking a rue, it's not really a rule.

Does DeVos see turning down any state plans? She doesn't know-- it's too early to say, and now she has her confident voice back. She knows this answer! But it's at least possible to refuse a state that's "complacent," and this gets a nod. But when he asks if there will be "revise and resubmit" orders, she just says there will be opportunity for discussion.

Will the feds break choice?

Whitehurst, in his Jimmy Stewart stammering way, allows as how he's just sort of compelled to ask about the budget. Which features huge education cuts, which will be covered by cutting programs, but also there's the shifting of money to choice. He then references the USA Today op-ed by charter operators saying "Don't slash the budget." And remember that time that Obama maybe killed Common Core by top-downing it (note: not a thing that actually happened). Oh-- it looks like a question is appearing over the horizon. If the feds throw their weight and tax dollars behind choice all top downy, will they hurt the charter/choice movement?

DeVos reminds us that the budget doesn't actually exist yet, so there's more sturm and drang to come before money actually appears. So, not going to answer the actual question. And Whitehurst lets her off by reminiscing about how Presidential budgets are aspirational.

Audience participation time

First up, Richard from the Century Foundation. He's going to tak about segregation and opens by noting that it can get worse with choice, but "if properly engineered" it could "produce" a lot more diversity. He asks DeVos if she supports or opposes policies aimed at promoting diversity.

DeVos warms up slowly, starting with basically "diversity is good." And then she references a report that shows that enough choices increases diversity. I'm not going to call the Secretary and alternative factifier, but this seems... unlikely? Then she works around to the Oaks school that she visited, which makes diversity a policy even though, somehow, that results in a school less diverse than the city it lives in.Now the sound is dropping out of the video, but DeVos manages to finally connect with this softball-- yes, diversity is good and we would be in favor of it.

Our next question opens with the observation that the government has a roll in protecting citizens from defective products (like exploding cars). So how does the fed balance the desire to favor parent and child choice with a need to protect consumers from metaphorically exploding schools?

"That's a really good question," DeVos says, as her metaphorical hourglass icon spins. First measure of accountability? If parents choose it. "I would love to see evidence of schools attracting students solely on the promise of a raffle ticket or something." Yes, as she has suggested before, DeVos believes that the market is never wrong, and if parents choose a school, it must be good. Parents (with information, though she doesn't say what the information would be) is the "first, best" form of accountability. Having information about the school's results transparent and available is the accountability we need. So, does she believe that choice school operators will never lie, or use very creative marketing?

This is another DeVosian mystery-- the implication that public schools are operated by a bunch of lying liars, but charter and private school operators are somehow more virtuous? Or is the belief here that the Free Market somehow forces people to be honest or else they'll be deselected. Does she believe that people won't choose you if you're a big fat liar, because I'm pretty sure DeVos is serving at the pleasure of the living embodiment, the walking proof that lying can actually be a great way to succeed in the Free Market.

That's it!

Whitehurst tells the audience to stay seated until DeVos gets out "for security reasons." She's out, and Whitehurst is back to talking about his report.

DeVos's priorities and assumptions are certainly becoming ever-clearer. She's a Mom, and she's got a big Axe, and she is going to chop the crap out of the failed terrible public school system and make kindling for a warm choice fire. Her actual knowledge is shallow and severely by her assumptions-- unsurprising from someone who said at her hearing that she had not learned anything from her years of involvement in Michigan ed reform.

Sequel: Read here to see where Whitehurst himself thinks DeVos got it wrong-- particularly with that terrible Uber comparison.


  1. I could go on all day about what an idiotic analogy this is. Only someone who has never worked in education could spew such tripe.

    Where do I begin?


    Individual students and family members DO have such a relationship with teachers. How many people can point to a taxi-driver who changed their lives for the better, or whose driving skills impacted the trajectory of someone's life.

    Furthermore, a community DOES NOT HAVE A RELATIONSHIP AND PROFOUND TIES GOING BACK DECADES OR CENTURIES with the Uber and AirBnb companies, as they do with their public schools.

    Teachers and administrators have and make profound life-long, and life-changing connections with multiple siblings, and multiple generations of families (some long-timers have taught students, then later those same students' children, and finally even grandchildren.) Teachers I know are constantly being visited, or keep in contact with former students.

    A short-term ride, or lodging DOES NOT COMPARE IN THE LEAST to the complex, nuanced and profoundly impactful experience of teaching and learning that take place for 200-days-a-year (x 13 years ... if you include Pre-K) in a school, and the relationships that are formed in the process.

    Uber and AirBnb ARE NOT A PUBLIC GOOD.

    No Betsy, the school where I work is not a freaking taxicab, and my students and their parents are not riders.

    Privately-run charters and voucher-funded private schools are commercial, money-making enterprises where the primary goal is profit, profit, profit., AS SUCH, DO NOT AND SHOULD NOT EVER RECEIVE PUBLIC FUNDING.

    I could go on, but that's a start.

    Just after the above, Devos counters the argument that we should fully fund and fix our pre-existing public schools, instead of creating a parallel system of "choice" schools.

    Nope, that will never work, she says. The public schools are hopelessly and irreversibly screwed up beyond repair... in so many words. THAT'S THE SYSTEM THAT SHE'S IN CHARGE OF, by the way. THAT'S THE SYSTEM WHERE 90% OF UNITED STATES STUDENTS CURRENTLY ATTEND.

    It's like the Postmaster General telling everyone. "STOP USING THE U.S. POSTAL SYSTEM. We need to close it down, and open private mail services. Use Federal Express instead. Use WHATEVER ELSE, instead, because the postal systems that I lead all SUCK! Let's take money from the U.S. Postal system and give it to the new privatized Acme Charter Postal System."

    She makes the insane Orwell-ian claim that taking a wrecking all to a two-centuries-old public schooling system --- one that created and led to the United States becoming the leading economic power in the history of mankind --- "is not destructive. It's constructive."

  2. Can Secretary Devos name one --- JUST ONE --- country on Planet Earth where privatizing schools ("choice" is but a euphemism for school privatization) has led to an improvement in that countries' schools? It's been tried in two countries: Chile, thanks to a brutal 30-year dictatorship that crushed any resistance' to privatization; and to a smaller extent, Sweden.

    In both examples, there was a total free-market disaster, with stratification, economic segregation ins schools, and dreadful schooling for the working and middle classes, but huge profits from the plutocrats in charge of the Brave New Privatized system

    We know how this plays out, and we don't want it here.

  3. Maybe we could set up school systems to be just like Betsy's husband's father' business -- like multi-level marketing. If you choose a school, and then get other kids to come to that school, you get a cut of their voucher. Then if they get other kids to come, they get a cut, and you get a cut of that too. If you can get lots of kids to bring their friends, you could get so rich you won't need an education. Then you could be Secretary of Education.