Home > Uncategorized > Betsy DeVos Has the Right Diagnosis… but the Wrong Prescription

Betsy DeVos Has the Right Diagnosis… but the Wrong Prescription

May 12, 2017

As readers of this blog realize, I am no fan of Betsy DeVos… but after reading this excerpt from a speech she gave at the Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Summit in Salt Lake City, earlier this week I believe she has correctly diagnosed one of the major problems with public education. In the speech she states that the major reason our schools are floundering is that they are based on the Prussian system devised in the early 1800s…. and this diagnosis is, I believe, accurate. But the major reason our schools are failing children raised in poverty has nothing to do with the Prussian system and everything to do with government policies that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with housing… a point she almost makes but ultimately sidesteps. After decrying the fact that our schools are based on the factory model put in place in the 1800s, she goes on to make a number of valid but disconnected statements, which I have numbered to facilitate my analysis:

  1. The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live. If you’re a block away from a better school zone, too bad. This of course creates a problem for those who don’t have the financial means to move to a different home.
  2. If real estate prices are based on the neighborhood school district, it will always adversely affect the economically disadvantaged. Thus the most vulnerable are trapped in the worse performing schools, while the wealthier families get the better schools.
  3. Our students have fallen behind our peers on the global stage In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, the U.S. ranked 20th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math. That’s worse than the 2012 PISA ranking which was somewhat higher in reading and math.
  4. And it’s not for a lack of funding. According to their 2012 data, we spend 31 percent more per pupil than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average on elementary and secondary students.
  5. The facts show our system is antiquated, unjust, and fails to serve students. This is flat-out unacceptable.

Statements #1 and #2 are completely accurate… but offering vouchers that are not worth the amount spent by the “wealthier families”, Ms. DeVos’ favored solution to this problem, will not solve the problem. The only solution to this problem is to have the government institute policies and provide resources that make it possible for low income housing to be put in place so that those “who don’t have the financial means” CAN afford to have their children attend those school.

Statement #3 omits one key fact: the children of “wealthier families” do better than ANY country in the world. Our scores are low because our schools are inequitable… and the schools serving the children raised in poverty are underfunded as are the safety nets needed to provide their parents with the support they need.

Statement #4 omits two key factors: the higher levels spent in affluent districts pull up the mean costs as does the cost for health insurance that school districts, as employers, pay in the US but do not pay in other countries where the government underwrites those costs.

Statement #5 is also inaccurate because our system DOES serve students raised in affluence extraordinarily well…. it is the children raised in poverty who are shortchanged.

Ms. DeVos spends the balance of her speech analogizing public education to telecommunications, and concludes with several points that could have come from this blog (with the exception of the verbiage highlighted in red italics), beginning with a question she posed to a “room full of innovators”:

if you were to start from scratch, what would America’s education system look like?

I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.

Here’s how I would answer the question I just posed to you: We would build a system centered on knowledge, skills and achievement – not centered on delivery methods. Traditional, charter, private, virtual, and other delivery methods not yet developed: all would be treated as viable options so long as they met the needs of their students.

This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn. When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code.

The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.

So when a school — any school — fails any student, that child deserves the right to move on. The goal is not to promote choice for choice’s sake. The goal is to provide a wide range of quality options that actually help individual children learn and grow in an environment that works for them. For too many Americans, there is only one, single assigned option, and it isn’t working.

But here’s what Ms. DeVos fails to acknowledge: affluent parents already have choice. They can choose to live in a community or neighborhood that has extraordinary schools or pay for the private school that meets the unique needs of their children. It is only the children raised in poverty who are assigned to underfunded schools in the ZIP codes that they are relegated to by government policies that have no choice. Until we face that issue— the issue of poverty– we will continue to have disparate test scores, disparate services for children, and an increasingly divided nation.

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