Should Progressives Help Secretary DeVos?

These are difficult times for fence-sitters and for those who take a stand.  For example, the leaders of IBM and Tesla are taking a lot of flak because they continue to serve on President Trump’s Economic Advisory Council.  Why serve?  Because, as one said, it’s better to be on the inside where he might be able to be a voice of moderation.  And poor Uber: its founder didn’t resign quickly enough for some former Uber fans, who are now using Lyft or Juno instead, while others Uber users are boycotting precisely because he did jump ship.

Anheuser-Busch is being both praised and pilloried for a  Super Bowl commercial that celebrated the immigration stories of its two founders. It’s widely reported that many businesses have set up ‘war rooms’ to work out how to deal with an unpredictable President.

What about education, where the controversial Betsy DeVos is now serving as Secretary after a grueling confirmation process that required a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President, a first in our nation’s history?  Even with questioning severely limited by Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R, TE), the hearing revealed how little she understands public education, while her own track record in Michigan demonstrates her commitment to vouchers, for-profit and virtual charter schools, and minimal accountability.

However, she is our Secretary of Education. As such, should progressives offer to work for her and with her, to help her understand the historic purposes and accomplishments of public schools?  She’s a smart woman, and perhaps she’d appreciate assistance from people whose sense of history and familiarity with Washington could help improve all public education.

Last week a college friend (with whom I have never discussed politics) wrote and urged me to offer my services to Secretary DeVos.  He had read my recent blog, the one in which I said that she was ‘stunningly unqualified’ to serve, and he used that as his jumping off point.

Here’s part of what he wrote:   I have been thinking that you might be one of those best positioned to help her. We all (including Mrs. DeVos) are aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against her about lacking experience in public education. There’s little to debate here; facts are facts. However, I don’t recall even her harshest critics accusing her of being dumb or not wanting to do the best job possible as secretary of education.

What do you bring to the table that she could benefit from? The knowledge you have gained from approximately 50 years of experience – everything from teaching in a public school classroom to interviewing top educators and teachers’ union leaders to analyzing the positives and negatives in U.S. education and commenting on your conclusions. You (and knowledgeable people like you who can be both critical and fair) are exactly who Mrs. DeVos needs to help her do her job.

When I responded skeptically, he wrote back, saying in part:   Abraham Lincoln, arguably our nation’s greatest president, purposely sought advice from those who had previously  vehemently disagreed with him.(Don’t get me wrong; I’m not equating Betsy DeVos to Abraham Lincoln. My point is that former adversaries can provide valuable advice and guidance.) I don’t buy that, by working with DeVos to improve the quality of education in our country so that more students are better prepared to handle their futures, you would become a hypocrite, become a sellout, or “lose credibility.” Far from it, you would gain credibility by turning criticism into positive action.

My friend’s argument, at base, is that Betsy DeVos is America’s Secretary of Education, and that, as Americans, we ought to be working in whatever ways we can to improve public education.  If Secretary DeVos hears only from privatizers, what chance does progressive education have?  I and others like me might be able to get a seat at the table, where we could argue for fewer tests, more social and emotional learning, more project-based learning, and so on.

So here’s the question: Am I selling my friend short by dismissing the notion of volunteering to be of whatever assistance I could?  Should we be making calls, sending resumés, offering our services, and knocking on doors in Washington in order to get close to Secretary DeVos?

Just by chance, I had lunch recently with a veteran Democrat, someone who’d been high up in Secretary Riley’s Education Department during the eight years of the Clinton Administration and who had been an off-and-0n, informal advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan during the Obama Administration.  I asked about serving in the Trump Administration, working for Betsy DeVos.  The response was immediate…and surprising.

“I’d do it,” my friend said, “But only if the position was important enough to guarantee having the Secretary’s attention, and only if it paid well. Position and power are what matter.”

What about volunteering, which is what my college friend had urged me to do?

“Not on your life!”  My friend went on: Volunteers are usually window-dressing. No power and influence, and their names are likely to be used to justify, or to create the appearance of support for, policies that progressives might find anathema.  There’s no upside to volunteering to help an Administration whose ideas are fundamentally opposed to yours, my friend said.

So I am not offering my services to Secretary DeVos, and I don’t think any progressives should.  If she asks for your help, think long and hard before agreeing.

But then, what is the best way for us to improve public education, if it’s not by advising the Secretary?   I think the role of educational progressives is to watch carefully and to speak up loud and clear when (if) the Secretary proposes actions that go against basic principles.

It’s also the duty of progressives to be for certain principles and policies: financial transparency in all dealings, especially charter schools; accountability for all schools (which Ms DeVos declined to support in response to Senator Murphy’s (D, CT) questioning; civil rights protections, and enforcement of IDEA, Title IX and other federal laws.

My own commitment is two-fold: to educational opportunities for all our children, and to public education as the essential glue of our democracy.

Your thoughts?

15 thoughts on “Should Progressives Help Secretary DeVos?

  1. To help or not to help, that is the question. I write this in my hopefully upcoming book: “If the current administration has no plan for accountability, tell them you are not afraid of accountability, you will measure up on all counts with an accountability system designed on an even playing field. And if the new administration doesn´t seem to be knowledgeable in the trends of education, let them stumble and bumble as long as you move ahead, from the ground up, to serve your children well. You become, not only the teacher of children, but by your actions, you become the teacher of educational leaders…. You the educators, are the only ones who can protect students from the Monsters, Ogres and other Politicians”


  2. Yes, yes, yes to all of this “financial transparency in all dealings, especially charter schools; accountability for all schools (which Ms DeVos declined to support in response to Senator Murphy’s (D, CT) questioning; civil rights protections, and enforcement of IDEA, Title IX and other federal laws.” and more. We have to redesign and restructure schools and how we are delivering instruction in this 21st century. For a reference about shifting the paradigm, there is a good illustrated video by Ken Robinson on the topic. Change by design not be default.


  3. Excellent question and timely post, John.

    There’s an outside chance I might get a meeting with Secretary DeVos through a mutual friend.

    It’s a WAY outside chance but it got me thinking about the question you pose here.

    If by some super-duper long shot there was something I could do to further her agenda, my thought is that as long as I could do it in a way I thought was good for kids and families, I’d probably do it.

    My thinking is that if only hardcore, free market Trump supporters work in education at the federal level, I think we have a serious problem on our hands. But if Sec. DeVos involves at least a few people from the other side, even in trivial ways, cooler heads may prevail. At least there’s a chance that other voices may be heard.


    Sent from my iPhone



  4. How can Ms DeVos who is now in charge of US Public Edu. ever improve it, when she is against increasing funding for Public Edu. and does not support Public Edu. ?

    As you said, ” Public Education …….as the essential glue of our democracy.”


  5. We will inadvertently help DeVos in the area of Title IX compliance at the K-12 level by demonstrating that families are informed and able to hold schools accountable. To mitigate her impact we can use a simple action plan at Advocacy, bad press, and lawsuits can be more effective than stalled OCR investigations when it comes to Title IX in K-12 schools. Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School!


  6. “A just released federal analysis of a signature Obama Administration initiative to aid failing public schools reports almost zero gains from the $7 billion spent. Yet, we are to believe Mrs. DeVos is the unqualified one here?”

    William McGurn. WSJ 2/15/1917

    from Steve Buckley


    • Steve
      You make a very good point, and I devote much of a chapter in my forthcoming book to this (Democratic) fiasco. The Obama Administration’s $7 billion federal effort designed to ’turn around’ failing schools failed spectacularly. Here’s one story about it:

      However, we reported on the risks inherent in this approach BEFORE the Obama Administration went in whole hog. We followed one middle school in Virginia for an entire school year (2011-12) as it embraced this (shallow) idea. We produced four pieces for the NewsHour, which I urge you to at least sample.
      Here are the links: (all 4)

      You can also find them on YouTube by searching for ‘The Turnaround Specialist.’

      That the Obama Administration messed education up badly doesn’t justify putting someone who is hostile to public schools in charge. But that Administration, and the preceding Bush Administration, did prove conclusively that Washington cannot run public education. I believe that we need a radically different approach, one that puts the needs and interests of children first. We also need to strengthen the ‘glue’ that holds our society together, and I believe that strong public schools do just that.

      Thanks for calling attention to this, Steve


      • John,
        I agree wholeheartedly that we need a radically different approach. I am not convinced that Betsy DeVos is hostile to public schools. I think she is hostile to the current situation and the stranglehold that the NEA holds on public education. I am not convinced that we even need a federal Department of Education. Local control and direction might serve children better than monolithic mandates from on high.

        I am a volunteer tutor once a week in a local elementary school. I know a little bit about what is going on in public education, but nowhere near as much as you do obviously. I’m with you. I want to see a system that serves children–not the establishment–best. If that involves a mix of charter schools, private schools, school choice, and traditional public schools; so be it.

        Steve Buckley


  7. It’s obvious that your friend is not a giver and doesn’t follow the Taft motto, “not to be served, but to serve.” The fact that she wanted to be paid really showed her colors, and I don’t buy in that you have no power without compensation. John, you and I have committed a great deal of our life to helping education and without pay. I would think that OUR Secretary of Education would welcome help and ideas on public education. We all know that our country has failed to educate our children versus the world, but not pursing excellence is a mistake. If only there could be cooperative and bipartisan support. Unfortunately, our country has become a political hotbed of dissenters and not builders.

    You should become involved. Not every thought and idea you may have will be accepted, but I would hope that it would have a hearing. How do we know if we don’t try? When we started our school in Bed Stuy, we weren’t experts, but we brought in people who knew more than us and we listened. Decatur Clearpool became a success when most thought it would fail. Lance, Michael Osheowitz of the Gould Foundation for Children and others made it possible.

    Enough said. Lets help!


  8. Having been trained in part by Saul Alinsky, I found that it has been possible to make real, important differences in kids’ lives by working with a variety of people.

    Some, like the late Paul Wellstone, I agreed with about 95% of the time. Some, I agreed with about 10% of the time. But I think we helped expand opportunity by working at the school, community and policy levels by offering specific, constructive, often researched based strategies.

    The book you and I worked on together was an example. So was some of the legislation regarding Post Secondary Enrollment Options, and chartering. Another example was projects involving collaboration between district & charters. We’ve done a number of those.

    I’ve found people who I respect and who are great partners across the political spectrum. I’ve also tried to keep our values and beliefs very clear. Some people are crooks and charlatans. I’ve found examples of those across the political spectrum too. As you know, the values and strategies we promote are found at


    • (I am posting this email from a friend, with his permission)

      Steve, regarding Project Based Learning, I’d like to turn you on to a movie,”Most Likely to Succeed” made about the school system in San Diego county that developed PBL. That system of 9 schools is inaccurately named “High Tech High”. It’s neither High Tech nor HS only. Rather a full K-12 system. It’s a Charter system with admission only by lottery due to extreme demand. They are also training their own teachers in their own graduate school- also state chartered.
      They avoid all possible testing as it is a counterproductive technique except for diagnostic purposes.
      About 10 years ago our Board traveled the country. The travelers included Board members, teachers, administrators, parents, children and our Union president. That travel was funded by outside philanthropy.
      We searched for alternative pedagogies as our standard lecture based “industrial” model was failing both children and teachers.
      We easily selected High Tech amongst 6 or so others. It was obvious to us all. Furthermore, their grad school was a source of coaches to guide our own installation. 6 years ago we converted to PBL in all grades. The conversion costs were also covered by private philanthropy. Those costs aren’t small because the teachers must all be retrained. We started with just converting 20% of the day to PBL. We are now at 65%.
      Our success has been truly wonderful from everybody’s point of view.
      We’ve now started a “Center of Excellence” as about 30 other districts have asked us to guide them. (And this area is politically very dark red.)
      Caveat: as a very small PUBLIC district with only 60 teachers for about 800 students, we are a natural beta site. Our voter population is also ideal: twice the undergraduate % as Ohio. Yellow Springs is destination for retired and active educators etc. In other words we have a supportive electorate that is very progressive.
      We also never teach to the test and avoid all possible testing except for diagnostics.
      Our HS is now rated 13th in Ohio and is the only highly rated HS in a medium income community. The other highly rated are in very wealthy communities.
      Our State Legislature is aware, impressed, but unmoved with a couple small exceptions.
      Arne Duncan was stuck in testcentric la la land. Maybe DeVos won’t be.
      Our teachers are ecstatic. (We survey them every 2 years) our kids are accepted in the Colleges they apply to. Our test scores are very high despite not teaching to those tests. Our cost per child is BELOW the State average. Furthermore, we educate all kids including the physically and cognitively challenged. Since we are an “Open” district everyone from nearby Districts is coming to us. We now enroll about 25% from other Districts and have had to set a limit of 35% from other places.
      As to the PBL pedagogy itself, it’s far easier for you to watch the movie first. By the way, we showed it to all interested voters free at our little local movie theater. These showings were organized and Q/A moderated by our kids.
      Get the movie! It’s cheap or free.
      From my point of view it’s a no brainer; and might, counter-intuitively, be just the ticket for DeVos. I would like to bring PBL to the attention of those in a position to leverage it.
      We’ve now added to its scalability by showing that it can successful in a public school that must serve all children with Unionized teachers and staff (unlike High Tech High).
      Nor do I believe it’s that difficult to gain parental and communal acceptance. Among its many virtues is that PBL is so overtly “hands on”. Most adults instinctively understand and have personally learned by way of hands on, experiential learning. Most adults dislike being lectured to. In that sense, PBL is actually conservative. Certainly not radically scary.
      And kids absolutely thrive on it.
      If there is a tough part, it’s leading teachers to understand how to abandon authoritarianism, while sustaining control. We did it by exploring the metaphor of “coach”. Also by being sure our building principals are pedagogic leaders, not simply building managers. I’d add that our kids now lead tours themselves and sometimes speak at other districts. Finally, the protocol for project development that High Tech developed is masterful in many ways. Among them is its insistence on a teacher collaboration process. No more silos especially in upper grades. To that we’ve added weaving in expert knowhow of all sorts from outside the academy.
      Richard Lapedes


  9. Hi John,

    I could not be more in agreement with this, your most recent blog entry. 

    Our job as progressives is not to lend credence to what will surely be bad policy under this Administration, unreflective of people’s life’s work (in your case, for example) or of all of our moral principles. Our job is to “shine a light” (brightly and often)–via whatever medium we have at our disposal–any time our children’s rights to equal educational opportunities is being elided.

    That said, I do agree with your friend who added, only contribute to “l’education sentimemtale de Betsy DeVos” if you have a legitimate seat at that Education Table, one that pays you well AND does not stunt your ability to resign (if necessary) and speak your mind to the press. Because as you stated, it’s all about transparency and accountability. 

    Betsy DeVos has had a lifetime of privilege and access to the highest echelons of learning in which to educate herself about the importance of public education in a democracy, but chose to remain ignorant. It is not up to you (or any other educational progressive) to carry her on your back up the mountain…even if she promises to give you a gun to protect you from all those grizzlies surely along the way.

    Thanks again for your thought provoking work, John,


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