Friday, April 10, 2020

This Is Why You Need A Secretary of Education With Classroom Experience

Betsy DeVos has been pretty much no help at all during the pandemic closing of schools. The US Department of Education has offered next to no guidance to public schools on how best to navigate the current storm.

Imagine a country where, in the face of a major disruptive health crisis that cuts across all communities, the federal department of education says, "We've got some stuff figured out and some resources to share. Let us know what we can do to help you get through this." That might be cool.

This frickin' amateur
But it's not where we are. Mostly DeVos has seemed anxious to capitalize on the crisis by pushing online schooling. This has led to some unclear directives that seem to boil down to, "Get that education stuff on line, and if you have to leave behind some students to do it, oh well." DeVos also smells a chance to launch another kind of national voucher program.

All that, and once again, she shows the effects of having no actual background in a real classroom. Witness this little side note from a recent conference call, as reported by Andrew Ujifusa at EdWeek:

On a conference call with reporters Thursday that focused mainly on higher education, DeVos said that she recognized that the virus has created unprecedented circumstances for students and educators. But in response to a reporter's question, she also stressed that she's not inclined to simply let schools off the hook on their core mission, saying "We can do hard things" and that some districts that have responded well to the coronavirus should serve as a model for others.

"We have an expectation that learning will continue for all students," DeVos said. "And we would hope that it would be an aspirational goal ... that the students would not only maintain their current level of learning, but continue to expand" it.

This probably seems like a perfectly sensible position to take if you have no idea what goes on in a classroom.

There are layers here. Like the use of the phrase "let schools off the hook" which suggests, as DeVos often does, that public schools and their staffs are always on alert for ways to get out of work, that the teachers in this country are right now kicking back and sipping margaritas and not, say, losing sleep at night worrying about their students and their students' education.

And that "we can do hard things," which--well, first, what do you mean "we"? Since when were you part of the vast cadre of educational professionals who get up and do hard things every single day, because yes, teachers do hard things every single frickin' day and only someone with no direct knowledge of what goes on in a classroom would assume that the default setting for a teacher's life is "easy."

And serving as models for others is perhaps not completely out of line except that it's coming from DeVos and is rooted in her belief that every public school in this country is like every other one, that it's a nation of one size fits all, which again simply reveals a deep ignorance. While schools can (and will and have and do) learn from each other, one of the features of this mess is that every school, teacher, and family's situation is very specific and personal.

As for her expectation that learning will continue form all students-- is she not paying attention? Has she not read the accounts of the many students who have simply stepped away from crisis education entirely, either because of a lack of resources or too many other troubles at home or actually we don't even know some of the reasons. Is she not aware of the ongoing debates among education professionals-- can we teach new material, even if we have no way of providing some students with the support needed? Can we grade it or count it? Particularly when we are flying by the seat of our pants to shift instruction into a mode that has never been done effectively, even by the people who are in the cyber school business?

Can she not offer some clear understanding of the complexity of this task instead of just waving her hand vaguely and saying, "Make it work somehow. You know, be aspirational."

Meanwhile, privatizers are chomping at the virtual bit to get students shoved into more profitable avenues of education-flavored products, like her old friends at the Heritage Foundation who are cheering her on to keep pushing the product because this is ed tech's Katrina and by God they are going to cash in or know the reason why.

The Koch-funded Mercatus Center has more of the same. "Leverage the near-ubiquity of cellphones and internet to deliver instruction online," but near-ubiquity is a lame measure, indeed. I imagine that none of these deep thinkers would like to be shot into space in a rocket that contains a near-ubiquity of oxygen tanks nor live in a home with a near-ubiquity of food. Worried about students with special needs? Senior policy analyst Johnathan Butcher reads the fed instructions as saying, "Give it a shot, but hey, if you have to leave them, leave them with our blessing." Butcher adds "Parents, taxpayers, and policymakers should not allow traditional schools to claim they do not have the resources or expertise to deliver instruction online" based on God only knows what. And he touts the Florida Virtual School, Florida's experiment in cyber-schooling that just keeps failing upward because Florida's political leaders would rather finance a profitable turd than support public education.

In short, the amateurs are out in force, yammering about how schools should now see things their way, even though they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

It would be great, in the midst of all this, to be able to turn to a secretary of education who actually knew something--anything-- about the inside of a classroom, who actually had a grasp of the many issues involved in the current crisis. I don't mean to pick on DeVos, who is basically the Herbert Hoover of education right now-- I can't think of any secretary of education, not Arne "Katrina is super-duper" Duncan, not John King, not Rod Paige, not any of them, who would be worth a spoonful of rat spit right now.

But we could really use someone who knows what they're talking about and isn't just salivating at the chance to push some more anti-public ed policies. Of course, what any classroom teacher would know includes this-- that when times get tough and crisis rear their heads, you can absolutely depend on the government bureaucrats to be largely useless, and you'd better figure out how to navigate this on your own. Which sucks, but it's one of the many "hard things" that teachers already do, all the time.

1 comment:

  1. The achievement of any individual student is constrained by the weakest links in the partnership between student, teacher, parent(s), and administrators (via policies/oversight/support). I would wager my entire pension that Betsy DeVos would identify the weakest link of them all is the classroom teacher - as would any other clueless edu-fakir. As Rod Stewart famously sang, "I sincerely thought I was so complete, look how wrong you can be."