Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Betsy DeVos Is Rethinking

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos kicked off her Rethinking Schools tour with some talking at the Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming. It was a lot of talking for DeVos, so we're fortunate that the department wrote it all down. But as far as rethinking goes, it appears that there's no "re" going on here unless it's rehearsing and rehashing.

Here are some of the Most Special Moments from her remarks:

Her Job

That's because my job is to work every day to help make all schools better for all students across the country.

Sigh. Then perhaps stop suggesting that public schools suck and should go curl up and die somewhere, dead ends that they are.

Her Exceptional Bad Analogy Skills

Arne Duncan could say the greatest things that sounded good if you ignored their complete disconnection from reality. He also occasionally said exactly what he meant, which created its own set of problems. DeVos's speaking arsenal seems to include bad analogies. She starts this speech off with a doozy.

The great West has always been a symbol of American courage, strength and potential. When settlers—perhaps some of your ancestors—dared to grow families and build communities here, abundant naysayers warned: The air is too dry. The land is too rocky. The resources are too scarce. It can't be done, they said.

How wrong were they, though?

Those early determined settlers of the west had something the cynics didn't: American grit.
They expanded America because they had the courage and audacity to rethink what America was and reimagine what it could be.

Where to begin? First, DeVos apparently never played that pioneering personalized education game, Oregon Trail, or she would know that what those brave pioneers often did was die (particularly from dysentery, apparently). So how wrong were the naysayers? Not entirely wrong-- and the pioneers who succeeded were the ones who listened to the warnings and planned accordingly. "Never mind the salt pork, Betsy! Just pack the grit!" said no wise pioneer ever. "We'll live on grit" sounds about as good as "We'll live on love."

Plus-- and I feel that this is kind of critical miss for someone whose record on People Who Aren't White is not great-- the West was not exactly empty when those determined settlers showed up. In addition to a lot of dying, westward expansion included a lot of killing. It involved a lot of folks (and their government) saying, "Well, you folks may already be here, and you may have forged a successful relationship with the land over the past 100 years, but we want the land you're using, so we're going to take it from you because we're better than you are and we deserve it."

Okay, so maybe this is a good analogy for charter development.

The Same Old Same Old

One of DeVos's major themes has certainly emerged-- school's haven't changed for a long time.

For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent's parent's parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the "average" student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.

This is quite an insight for someone who has almost never set foot in a public school.

First of all, it's just dumb wrong. Come to my school. Try to find a chalkboard. They're still mostly there-- behind the Smartboards. To repeat the claim that schools have not changed in a century is just historically illiterate. 100 years ago, hardly anybody graduated, minorities (by which I mean groups like Italians) had to start their own separate schools. The sheer volume of things to be taught were vastly smaller. It is the kind of claim that I can't believe anyone actually believes even as it's coming out of their mouths.

Second of all, yes, there are some superficial, institutional features that have stayed fairly static through history, for the same reason that we still drive on the left and men wear pants with zippers in the front-- because time and wide-scale testing have shown that they work.

Someone Has Hired a Speechwriter

It's a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

And that speechwriter has their eye on the Spiro Agnew prize.

Wait Just a Damn Second!

And like those western settlers, anyone who dares to suggest schools ought to do better by their students is warned off: It's too hard. It'll take too long. There's not enough money. It can't be done.

Oh, come on! Those are not the words of public education defenders-- that's reformster talk!! It's reformsters who have said we can't wait for public schools to improve, which is impossible anyway and besides, we can't spend any more money on it. Those four lines are classic reformster justification for charters and vouchers and anything except trying to improve public schools! It's like a Nazi rally where a speaker says, "And our opponents have the balls to claim there's some sort of Jewish conspiracy! What's wrong with those people!!"

Institutions Are Bad

Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education "system."

What's an education "system"?

There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you're individual students, parents and teachers.

This is a standard DeVosianism-- institutions are terrible and individuals must be the focus. Depending on your level of cynicism, you can read this one of several ways:

1) DeVos has been rich and privileged her whole life and has no idea that some people in this world have neither the power, access or resources to get themselves what they deserve.

2) DeVos believes that government institutions interfere with God's righteous sorting of the deserving and the undeserving, so institutions should get out of the way and let people get what they deserve-- and no more.

3) Institutions generally thwart the will of the rich and powerful, like her, and those institutions must be swept away (particularly the ones that support giant unions that in turn support Democrats).

It also allows her to beat the drum for how no one school can meet the unique needs of all students, assuming as is her wont that schools are kind of like tofu, with no variety or variation within them. No, what they need is something more.... personalized.

Students, your parents know you best, and they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you.

And if that means they are overmatched against corporate interests that serve investor needs first, well, at least there are no nasty institutions stepping in to say things like "You can't just refuse to meet special needs" or "You aren't allowed to push out all the non-white kids" or "It's not okay to require adherence to a particular religion."

I'm From the Government and I'm Here To Help

It's one of my favorite reform myths-- the myth of the downtrodden teacher. Not, mind you, that there aren't plenty of schools trying to strap teachers into straightjackets, but these days that's primarily because of the doctrine of Test-Centered Education. But reformsters are talking about those schools where the mean teachers union won't "let" teachers work an extra twenty hours a week for free or won't allow teachers the chance to enjoy all the benefits of union advocacy without paying for asnay of it.

But DeVos wants teachers to know that she gets them:

Too many feel like their hands are tied when the "system" tells them when to teach, how to teach and what to teach. I believe teachers should be respected as professionals and that they should have the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to meet their students' needs.

Of course, under ESSA "student needs" are still defined as "whatever the student needs to get a decent score on the Big Standardized Test." I truly don't know how the "respected ad professionals" part got in there.

So Wait-- Who Is Being Discussed

Also confusing:

Your teachers and parents certainly know better than so-called "education professionals," who are often staunch defenders of the status quo.

If teachers aren't educational professionals, then who, exactly, are we talking about? I mean, seriously-- I'm confused.

Reagan Because

Ronald Reagan was President in the 80's, when DeVos and I were fresh out of college and starting our grown up lives. Why anyone would bring him up to these kids is beyond me-- not even their parents remember Reagan. Going for the Grampaw support here?

Channeling Trump

But when I thought more about that, it hit me that you live with an unfortunate and unfair reality. Communities like Casper are often overlooked and dismissed.

But you certainly shouldn't be. Your needs are no different than the needs of kids, parents and teachers anywhere else in America. You need access to the best education possible to open as many doors as possible.

You have been unfairly neglected and mistreated by those fancy-pants big city elites. Says a regular old salt-of-the-earth millionaire heiress.

For the Children

Why are we rethinking schools? We're doing it not because DeVos or anyone said to and we're certainly not, you know, doing it as a way to open a lucrative billion-dollar market while privatizing one more vital part of the public sphere. No, we're "doing it for you."

The Purpose of Education (Apparently Many of Us Have Been Wrong on This)

Education should be a journey, a life-long one that encourages you to harness your curiosity into contributions to your family, our country and the world.

See? It's your way to become a useful tool. It's not for you to become your best self, or learn how to be fully human in the world, or to fulfill your on hopes and dreams. It's to contribute to your fanmily, country, world, and corporate overlords. Get an education and make yourself useful.

Some Swell Examples and, Of Course, Prussia, Plus International Comparisons

DeVos cites Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and John Deere as folks who didn't give up and always made stuff better, though they were also, in at least two of the three cases, incredible jerks who were awful to other people.

Also, no reformster rant is complete without a reference to Prussia, because Prussia is no longer a country but we are still following their exact model for education. That exact model. No changes at all. And those international tests-- we never win at those and how would we feel if we never got an Olympic gold medal, because the point of education is to win gold medals in international testing competitions.

DeVos now seems to be fighting the clock to squeeze in every remaining refomster cliché. Let's cite some cool schools that are well-funded and control their admissions and talk about them as if they know something new or are replicable models.

Big Finish

Let's empower lots of people, but mostly parents, but let's not talk about what truly empowering a non-wealthy, non-white parent at a rough place in life-- let's not talk about what true empowerment would look like there, because it would probably look a lot harder than declaring, "Here's your school voucher good luck see ya kay!" Children are the future. Schols must change. Rethink education. Don't get dysentery! Yay!


  1. Since the prefix "re" means to do again, wouldn't that mean that in order to "re-think", DeVos must have once thought in the first place? I'm not sure we can assume that.

  2. BTW, I hope you don't still drive on the left, at least since I presume you're still blogging from Pennsylvania, not England.

  3. I actually agree with a few of her criticisms, but disagree with almost all of her solutions. I don't know if rich people can never comprehend the problems of the poor and disenfranchised, but I think Betsy Devos's narrative is very different from the one that would help poor children. I'm not sure she does it intentionally. Individual choice often does help rich and powerful people, and education can elevate people to more prestigious positions, especially if they already start out in them.

    The problem is, it doesn't work like that for everyone. Devos has moved to another world where her rules don't apply.

  4. Democratic candidates, one a teacher and the other a retired teacher, just won special elections for the state House of Representatives in Oklahoma and New Hampshire, in counties that voted for Trump by a large margin. Way to get involved, teachers!

  5. For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school.
    Extrapolating this ridiculously stupid thought would mean that a student starting their junior year of high school feels a lot like they did on the first day of kindergarten.

    They dive into a curriculum written for the "average" student.
    I thought the Common Core was all about rigorous academic demands, higher order, critical thinking skills, and college and career readiness? Now it’s just average? And doesn’t DeVos realize how severely curricula have been constrained by the pursuit of the very test scores she has been using to justify charters and vouchers?

    They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.
    Kind of like adults that hold jobs that involve schedules and routines. Kind of like college students that follow their class schedules using routines that help keep them focused and organized? What a horrible concept to expose K to 12 students to while promoting college and career readiness.

    It's a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.
    DeVos is one nattering nabob of negativism. Not sure what “it” she is referring to unless she means the parochial school model she is so enamored with.