Friday, January 25, 2019

DeVos Has A Hammer

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been busy lately, making actual somewhat-public appearances and talking about all her favorites subjects. Thursday it was the 87th annual United States Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, and her remarks included many of her favorite points. But she's not just beating a drum; she's working with a big, heavy hammer. Bang bang bang. Here are some highlights:

Droll understatement: "I was active in local politics and policy" sounds so much humbler than "I used to run the GOP in Michigan" and so much cleaner than flat-out admitting that you're buying influence. Bang.

The 100 year complaint: Everything has changed in the last hundred years but "approaches to education have largely remained the same." Bang.

Meat widgets: There are millions of unfilled jobs in this country. Somehow, she fails to see any connection between this unfilled need and the push to stop immigration. Bang.

Fake statistics: Well, at least she didn't use an actual number. But she still claimed that "majority of the jobs that today's students will do just ten short years from now haven't been invented." This oft-cited factoid is bogus. Bang.

Odd transitions: In discussing the fact that employers say they can't find trained people (could it be that they are trying to fill jobs that didn't exist ten years ago?), DeVos unleashes this transitional gem: "There is a disconnect between education and the economy, just as there is often a disconnect between a child and the school they’re assigned to." Bang.

Is it a disconnect, or just hypocrisy: DeVos says that too many students are "treated like commodities." This is shortly after she suggests that the job of education is to make students useful to employers. Bang.

More neat widgets: DeVos wants to plug Perkins V, just signed into law last summer. We need to have a conversation about this new version of the bill some time, but what she's excited about at the moment is the way it breaks the "giant silos" between educators and employers. Or, as one commenter put it a month ago, "provides some new opportunities for tighter alignment of programs of study to data-driven workforce needs." Or, as I put it now, made it clear that education exists to serve business interests. And it spreads some money around, and the mayors will want to keep their eyes peeled for that. Bang.

Something new: DeVos is anti-silo. Education has too many silos. Not like the rest of the world, which is silo-free. Which I suppose seems true if you're a really rich, well-connected person who has always been able to swoop into any place she wants, including an entire public sector in which you have no experience or expertise. I suppose to that person it must seem like the world has no boundaries. Bang.

Rethinking: DeVos wants everyone to question everything so that nothing limits students from being prepared. She has a list of questions, which are all cagily aimed at one answer-- privatized, computerized, teacherless learning.  Her list of questions does not include, for instance, why should one family get to hold onto more wealth than they can possibly need while poor students have to worry about having enough to eat. Also, she's decided that CTE is good stuff (at least, you know, for certain people) and that there should be partnerships which involve turning schools into training facilities for particular employers. Bang bang.

Quotable nonsense: DeVos always delivers at least one pull-quote-worthy line. For the mayors, I's pick this:

Well, education is the least disrupted “industry” in America. And, let’s not kid ourselves, it is an industry.

Education is not a public good or a trust or a promise to our children or a valuable institution. It's an industry, like manufacturing toasters. Yet another quote that gives a clear insight into why DeVosian policies are so hostile to public education.

One size fits all: It's one of DeVos's go-to criticisms of public education. It's useful to her not because it's true, but because it sets up choice systems as the opposite of public ed. Of course, no school is one size fits all at all, as public schools are not only inclined by nature but required by law to accommodate all kinds of students. Certainly the Common Core movement was a concerted effort to force one-size-fits-all into public ed; the degree to which it failed is a measure of how much public ed is not inclined to be one size fits all. Meanwhile, charter schools only offer one size. They don't claim their one size will fit all-- they just refuse to accommodate those students that it doesn't fit. Not clear to me how that's better. Bang.

Swell anecdote: No DeVosian talk is complete without the story of a student that she recently met (despite her schedule, she is apparently always meeting students) who benefited from exactly the policies that DeVos would like to promote. Pretty sure DeVos needs to get out more. Maybe to actual public schools. Thump.

The governor's speech was vintage DeVos, and this week she also got her hammer out for a talk at the Heritage Foundation. She was there largely talking about the DC Opportunity Scholarship, one of the programs often held up as a proof of concept for choice.

For the Heritage crowd, DeVos threw in the big two-part idea that (part one) the majority of people want choice. Her basis for that claim is a poll run by-- surprise-- the American Federation for Children, the pro-choice advocacy group funded by the DeVos family. The poll was a phone survey of 1,200 likely 2020 voters; how those voters were selected isn't covered. John Schilling, the president of AFT, calls for "policymakers to listen to these voters," which-- well, the policymakers will have to implement these voucher policies because no voters have ever actually voted for a voucher law (vouchers just died-- again-- in Texas). The only way vouchers become law is when lawmakers create and pass the laws, voters be damned.

But DeVos has her own explanation for why school choice isn't more successful-- the damned teachers union is "the only thing" standing in the way because they have a "personal vested financial interest." I don't think DeVos is stupid, so I'll attribute this line to working her highly conservative audience, because the opposition to choice has come in many forms in many places-- including conservatives who don't want to see choice turn into another government power grab. School boards, superintendents, the NAACP, a whole host of other organizations, and actual voters, when it comes time to put a choice law up to a vote, have also stood in the way of school choice many times.

Even if the "survey" were accurate, even if people did say they want choice, that does not mean they want DeVos's idea of choice. "I want my child to be able to choose a good school" is not the same as "I want to see the public school stripped and destabilized and ultimately replaced by a privatized network of education-flavored businesses that may not even accept my child if she applies to attend them."

This is a long con we don't talk about often enough, and it's embedded in every DeVos speech-- the notion that educational choice can only happen via privatization, that the public school system can only be improved by dismantling its democratic systems and replacing them with private ownership. But "privatization" is a hard sell, while "choice" sounds just divine.

DeVos has a hammer, a big expensive hammer built to smash public education into small pieces (but not so small they can't be sold for parts). Every speech, she gets out that same hammer, maybe puts some new tape on the handle, shines up the head, but it's always that one hammer, beating away, over and over. Bang bang bang.

1 comment:

  1. Education has too many "silos". Yes we have "silos" - that is clearly defined subjects of study such as biology, geometry, economics, US history, music, etc. These still exist because a strong foundation in the distinctly different subjects is necessary before one can fully understand how they are related. Lets not forget that at the secondary level, a full year course in geometry may involves about 100 hours of class time. Starting children and adolescents with integrated models in math and science are much more confusing than enlightening. Integration has been abandoned wherever it has been tried. The First Law of Pedagogy states that, "Id it doesn't work, stop doing it." So would reformers please stop conflating how highly educated, trained professional adults work with how children best learn science, math, geography, history, etc.