Friday, April 28, 2017

Is DeVos Misunderstood?

On a certain level, I feel just a smidgen of sympathy of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

There has been a steady drumbeat against her, and she has drawn more negative coverage-- heck, more coverage of any sort-- that any education secretary in memory. Nobody made jokes about Arne Duncan on late night television. And some of it is not entirely fair. When I heard the line about the bears and guns in school come out of her mouth, I suspected it would stick to her like a big rotting albatross, and that has turned out to be true. While it captures her level of disconnect, I'm not sure it's a fair or substantive criticism. And I think folks like the late-night comics who mocked her as stupid are just off-base. DeVos may be many things, but
I don't for one moment imagine that she's a dummy. And as anyone who has even the slightest public profile knows, it's one thing to be criticized for what you actually say and do, but it's really annoyed slammed for things that aren't even accurate. That's a lesson teachers have been learning for at least the last decade as reformers have attacked us for everything from failing to fix students with special needs to turning students into lesbian socialists.

But a week ago, prior to her Ohio visit, DeVos issued a statement that seems meant to adjust public perception of her fledgling bureaucratic career, and it mostly reminded me of all the levels on which I have no sympathy for her at all.

DeVos opens by noting that nowadays, it can be hard to discern the truth. Despite being a member of the truth-impaired Trump administration, she appears to mean this un-ironically. At any rate, she wants to present two facts:

I believe every student should have an equal opportunity to get a great education.

And I believe many of those great educations are, and will continue to be, provided by traditional public schools.

These are not new views for me. You may just never have heard them if you only read about my views in the press.

Of course, when someone enters into a post without any experience that would prepare her for that post, she also enters the post without any previous track record. If DEVos had ever held a single government post or held a single position of responsibility related to public education, we would have known a great deal more about her policy preferences. As it was, because she entered the post eminently unqualified to hold it, journalist, bloggers and educators were reduced to sifting through her statements and behavior in the past. And because the billionaire heiress never really felt the need to explain herself to anyone, we've been reduced to looking at decades-old quotes and deductions based on the actions of the groups she has bankrolled.

So Betsy DeVos does not get to blame the press for pubic perceptions of her views on education.

I intend to visit schools of every type to see firsthand what's working - and what's not - for students across the country.

Well, that's a nice thought. But we're talking about a woman with a huge learning curve, because this is an adult woman with no previous experience at all with public schools-- or, for that matter, with the part of the world where people weren't born rich and didn't marry rich and so have to scramble and work for a living. I am not not NOT suggesting that she is automatically bad or evil because she's rich. I am suggesting that when you make someone who has never left Alaska the governor of Texas, that person will need to do more than just visit a couple of rest stops on the Texas interstate to get ready for the job.

DeVos has already demonstrated the problem with her ill-fated visit to Jefferson Middle School where she found the teachers, somehow, to be in "receive mode." Which is not only an insulting judgment  but an insulting judgment based on meeting the teachers briefly for a tiny part of one day on which those teachers were meeting the freaking Secretary of Education. And-- again-- into what frame of reference could DeVos have put that brief interaction?

DeVos hung more of her policy philosophy on the hook of her visit to Van Wert City Schools-- nice schools and all, but a whole bunch of students in their district chose to go somewhere else, which is fine, because every parent should have the option of school choice, says DeVos.

School choice is pro-parent and pro-student. It isn't anti-public school. 

And let me be clear-- I agree that being pro-charter doesn't have to be the same as being anti-public school. But under current law, it absolutely is. Because no lawmakers have the guts to insist on funding a public-charter system fully, we're left with the two types of schools engaged in a zero-sum death match over crumbs.

But pro-choice and pro-parent? No. School choice is mostly pro-business, pro-entrepreneur. It is only pro-parent if you believe, somehow, that would parents would rather have options instead of assurance of quality. I don't believe that's true. Furthermore, DeVos's construction suggests that parents and children are the only stakeholders in education. That is not true-- but it is a great assumption to push if you also want to push the idea that choice does not need any accountability measures.

In other words, if we conceive of a school as a business with parents its only customers, then we can argue that accountability-by-feet (the ones parents can use to walk away) is the only accountability we need. However, if we assume that schools need to be accountable to all the taxpayers who are paying the bills, then we might start thinking that some sort of accountability to those taxpayers might be called for-- the kind of accountability that frowns on tax dollars going to enrich scam artists and frauds and self-dealing greedhounds and people who just plain don't know what the hell they're doing.

School choice isn't about elevating one type of school over another - it's about trusting parents to choose the best fit for their child.

Nope. School choice is about turning education into a product, a commodity to be sold-- and that means that it's about marketing. And if we know anything about marketing, we know it's about targeting particular business-chosen customers and making them selectively informed about the "best fit." Virtually no business has as its marketing model "We'll just lay out the unvarnished facts and let customers make the best choice" * The only time a business says to a customer, "You know, this other company might be a better fit" is when the business does not want that particular customer.

Put another way, I trust parents just fine, for the most part. But I don't trust them all to have the time and resources to do deep research that will arm them against the tidal wave or marketing lies they will be bombarded with by various edu-flavored businesses. Put yet another way, I trust parents, mostly, to be motivated to make good decisions. I don't trust unregulated edu-busnesses to tell those parents the truth.

DeVos then holds up some Florida choicey programs as a model of excellence, which if nothing else shows once again that DeVos has not done her homework. But her praise of the Miami-Dade system shows, again, where her heart is. She does not praise it for providing excellent education; she praises it for providing lots of choice. This is the greatest danger we face from Choice True Believers-- given the options of a no-choice system that provides a great education for every child, and a super-choicey system that delivers lousy educational results, they would choose the latter because when it comes right down to it, they value choice more than they value education.

DeVos calls public schools the backbone of the system, which is, I suppose, better than calling them the spleen, but not as good as recognizing that they are the education system, and modern choice is just a flock of leeches.

Then DeVos throws in a line straight out of 2010-- "What we will not do, however, is accept the status quo"-- which is a hilarious line because the status quo is, of course, a bunch of public schools being undercut and gutted, strapped to bad standards with the bungee cords of toxic testing, while charter- and voucher-privatizers hold positions of high office that they use to further attack and dismantle public education so that they can sell off the parts. The more typical reformster stance is to rail against schools that haven't existed for decades, but since DeVos has no real frame of reference for public schools, she can cast back even further. DeVos throws out the old saw about public education being stuck in the 19th century which only makes sense if you're someone who has spent no real time in a public school.

Technology! she declares, and you might think that this is, again, because she hasn't been in public schools to see that we actually have them new-fangled computer machines, but it turns out that she has particular tech in mind:

Today, it's possible for every student to learn at their own pace, with responsive technologies advancing them through topics they've already mastered and delving deeper into areas where they're struggling.

So, competency based education, or personalized learning, or computerized training modules for the underclass, or whatever we're calling it this week.

She also thinks it's foolish to assign schools based on where you live, which is another way of saying that's it's foolish to let a community organized, maintain and run its own schools. Having previously failed metaphorical framing by suggesting that education should be a Uber, DeVos now compares schools to banks and video rental stores, neither of which need bricks and mortars any more, and both of which are totally like public education. Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves.

DeVos frames these ideas as necessary because (again harkening back to the 2010 reformster playbook) we are falling behind our economic competitors in the world, because having students who score better on standardized tests would totally make up for having someone in the White House who keeps discovering that governmenty things are hard.

My mission is to unleash a new era of innovation in education to drive unprecedented achievement.

Sure. Might help if you had any idea what the precedents in actual student achievement were, or what the precedents in public education were so that you could spot the difference between an educational innovation and a new business launch. But hey-- she totally loves public education and she supports it and she doesn't want to replace it-- she just wants it to function in completely new and different ways consistent with how a private edu-business works (at least, she thinks she does, though if you don't know who things work now, it's kind of hard to conceive of something "new"). She has nothing against public schools but "our obligation isn't to any type of school."

No, it all comes back to DeVos's embrace of the most classic reformster line of them all.

It's all about the students. "It's time we put them first."

It's all about the kids. The money and power and union crushing and erasure of local control and silencing of local voices and dismantling of a foundational American institution and the imposition by an unelected official of an ideological stance on an entire nation-- well, all of that stuff is just gravy. It's all about the kids.

As I said-- any shred of sympathy I might have felt for DeVos is pretty much shredded when she starts talking. Is she occasionally criticized unfairly? Yes, I think she is. But is she misunderstood, with her policy goals unfairly maligned and misrepresented? I think not. We have a person in charge of our nation's public education system who does not value that system and would happily preside over its destruction, a dismantling she has worked for her entire adult life and never disavowed.

DeVos may feel that we just aren't seeing and hearing her properly, or she may just be experiencing some frustration because her attempts to control the narrative are being thrown off by, you know, facts and accurate perceptions and people not being dopes. We do see and hear her, and I think we see and hear her pretty clearly and accurately, and she is pretty clearly an enemy of pubic education.

*With, yes, the possible exclusion of Progressive Insurance, which has chosen this approach precisely because it is an approach so unusual and unheard of that it makes the brand stand out from the pack.


  1. Peter, you're once again spot on. The notion of choice=quality is one of the biggest lies in all of capitalism (one of the "warts" people don't recognize by name when they say capitalism has it's good and bad parts). As you say, it is particularly egregious to think "choice" is synonymous with "quality" because we see everyday examples of this not being true: look no further than Walmart to see that low price trumps high quality every single time. DeVos can't recognize this because she has always had the entire array of choices at hand - she can buy the quality product or the cheap product so she likely buys the quality product and thinks to herself, "Why doesn't everyone just buy the best?"

    She is exactly as bad as Donald Trump - horribly out-of-touch but uses the right buzz words to get people to think they might actually do something for you. She would gladly destroy public education not because she's evil but because she is too stupid, inexperienced and too blinded by and to her own privilege to realize that most people just want their schools to be good, not have a choice to go to some other equally poor school. She is one of the "elites" Trump supporters railed against and she deserves to fall just as they do.

  2. The only unfair thing about criticism of her is that maybe she's criticized more than the other appointments because she's a woman, but she has never said or done anything that shows she's anything other than stupid.