Secretary DeVos Needs an Education

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos needs to get out of the office more.  Her lack of awareness of American public schools is embarrassing, although apparently not to her.

She made a surprise visit to Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, the scene of the Valentine’s Day slaughter of 17 students and teachers, this week. The Secretary had a quick walking tour of the murder scene, then met briefly with some students.  Student reporters say she took no questions, but her PR people claim that she answered ‘several.’  She then held a press conference for reporters, which she abruptly terminated, walking off in mid-question after taking only 8 questions.

“She wasn’t informative or helpful at all. It’s nice that she came to give us condolences, but we are so done with thoughts and prayers. We want action,” Senior Kyra Parrow said. “She didn’t come to inform us or talk about how we are going to fix this issue; she just came to say that she came. That disappoints me.”

In other words, she bypassed an opportunity to listen, watch and learn.

Even more disturbing are her tweets about public education.  Consider the one below, posted March 6th.

Does this look familiar? Students lined up in rows. A teacher in front of a blackboard. Sit down; don’t talk; eyes up front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t.

Apparently the photo on the right is stock footage, not something she has seen herself but merely an image that conforms to her preconceptions and prejudices.

Now, who is willing to try to educate the Secretary?  Well, I wish she had been with me in the schools I visited in southern Ohio and the South Bronx in New York City in the last week or so.  I did not see a single classroom where the kids were sitting in rows, quietly listening to a lecturing teacher.  And two of the four schools were a lovely rainbow of colors, not the racially uniform classrooms in DeVos’s two photos.

Start with PS1 in the South Bronx, a K-5 school  with mostly low income students that we profiled for the PBS NewsHour in 2011  If you watch that piece, you will see most first graders at PS1 reading competently.  At PS1 I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsensical sentence on the blackboard, something  like “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”  Then I asked the kids to read it aloud. If they snickered, that was clear evidence that they were comprehending, not merely decoding.  (Believe me, they laughed.  You’ll get a kick out of their critiques of my ‘story.’)

However, most 4th graders at PS1 cannot pass reading tests. Yes, tough home issues may be partially responsible, but teachers and Principal Jorge Perdomo are convinced that test anxiety paralyzes kids and teachers alike.  The same 4th graders who failed the reading tests were perfectly comfortable reading–and explaining–new passages to me.  I’d like Secretary DeVos to see the impact that tests have on children.

If Secretary DeVos were to visit PS1 today, she would see and feel the joy. She would see up-to-date technology and kids (nearly all of them black and brown) working independently and in groups. Moreover, using her smart phone’s bar code app, the Secretary could watch short videos of PS1 students making very impressive public speeches on a variety of topics.  While standardized test scores have not gone up significantly because test anxiety is still the order of the day, Principal Perdomo and his faculty are working hard to reduce test anxiety.  The tyranny of testing should be part of DeVos’s takeaway.

I’d love for the Secretary to meet the students at Dayton Early College Academy in Dayton, Ohio, which I visited last week.  I believe she would be impressed by their firm handshakes and clear, well-articulated narratives of their own personal stories.  DECA is a pretty close to a ‘last chance’ school, filled with kids who had not been successful elsewhere, and yet here they are earning HS and college credits at the same time.  I asked students why they were at DECA, and every one of them gave full credit to “Mom.”

Not far from Dayton is Yellow Springs, a progressive, integrated oasis in Republican Ohio. In both the combined high school and middle school and in Mills Lawn elementary school, project-based learning (or PBL) is the order of the day, and the projects that I saw will knock your socks off.  I realize now that I should have been taking photos, but I was having too much fun, listening and asking questions.  For example, second graders were writing and recording songs to help them memorize their times tables; they performed the ‘7 Times’ song for me, and I had the tune bouncing around in my head for hours.

To survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders first built a portable kiosk, which they set up downtown and proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, the students began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, and how much would it cost to build?  Then they proceeded to design homes. I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they will make to the town council.  That’s fourth grade, Secretary DeVos. 

High school art students have also embraced project-based learning.  This semester the students have chosen to try to capture, with empathy, in their sketches and paintings the essence of mental illnesses.  Read that sentence again!  They’ve consulted with local experts and national resources, and they have interviewed adults who suffer from depression, anxiety, et cetera. The work I saw moved me to tears, and I would like to think that Secretary DeVos would also be deeply moved.

If you have read my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (reviewed here), you know that I am a supporter of project-based learning because, done well, it entails knowledge creation.  With PBL, students are the workers, and their products are genuine knowledge.

Either Secretary DeVos believes that most public schools are boring, lock-step institutions, or she wants the general public to accept that untruth so she can undermine the institution.

Which is it? Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, I hold out that hope that the Secretary is uninformed and willing to learn.  I guarantee that the good folks at PS1, DECA, Mills Lawn Elementary, and Yellow Springs High School would jump at the opportunity to introduce her to the richness and variety of American public education.

 

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9 thoughts on “Secretary DeVos Needs an Education

  1. John, You wrote a nice piece about the optimism one can find in our education system and described some real hope for the future in the schools you visited. When I suggested many months ago that you volunteer to use your experience and knowledge to work actively with Betsy DeVos to improve educational outcomes, you respectfully declined (actually ran from the concept like a scalded cat after conferring with a colleague). My impression was that, within your circle of education-oriented cohorts , it was safer to sit on the sidelines and criticize the actions of the Department of Education and its secretary than go onto the playing field. You say you wish that Secretary DeVos could witness what you saw during your recent school visits, but do you really mean that? Have you ever invited her (or others in her department) to join you for one or more of these visits? If so, what kind of response did you get? Criticism of others, on its own, accomplishes nothing. It’s an easy thing to do because the critic has no skin in the game and runs no risk of failure. I think most would agree that our current (and previous) education system is failing America’s children. Our nation is the ultimate loser. We need workable solutions, not just problem identification with some rays of hope thrown in along the way. If you and others have potential solutions for improvement, please get actively involved in implementing those solutions versus just writing about them. Best regards, Marty

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • Marty, The offer is on the table, but I don’t expect any response. I also offered to help the DC Mayor with her search for someone who can turn around that disaster, but she has not responded. Frankly, DeVos seems bent on undoing whatever Obama did, whether good or bad. That’s irrational, but it’s also Trump’s MO as far as I can tell.
      DeVos and I agree on some things, but her cure is to walk away from public education, and that’s not only impossible; it’s irresponsible.

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  2. Wonderful commentary, John. The contrast between the performance of first and fourth graders in reading is very instructive, what the lit profs used to call a “telling detail.” You’re quite right to ascribe it to test anxiety. Obviously the kids in this school can read.

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  3. Besides test anxiety, the students may also be taking a standardized test that is not a good measure of their reading abilities. If it’s a CKLA/common core test, then it’s no surprise that they don’t do well, even if they are good readers.

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  4. John, as usual, you have great insights!
    In my many interrupted decades as a teacher, interrupted by such other things as being a stock broker, college coach, entrepreneur, and ne’er-do-well, I witnessed many superb teachers straight-jacketed by arbitrary rules set by curriculum committees, administrators, state and federal regulations. If teaching and learning were merely rote or even project based, a robot or teaching monitor could probably do it better than a real live, imperfect teacher.

    The art of teaching is individual. Both teacher and student usually do better when unnecessary rules don’t make teachers more robot-like, and students a tabula rasa to be filled with answers to tests. Some rote learning is wonderful! I find great satisfaction, even now, from the poems I was required to memorize in grade school and in knowing the multiplication table, but I wouldn’t penalize students much who under-perform those tasks which are easy for some and almost impossible for others. For example, Sully’s grading was both successful and unsuccessful for me. After his classes, I never again made an (unrealized) sentence error. However, I lost a letter grade from him and almost every other teacher/professor for spelling- and never learned to spell (except phonetically) which led to test anxiety and depression.

    Years later I learned to use a spell checker which made my deficit unimportant. The art of teaching is partly knowing what’s important, which may not be what curriculum committees or government agencies decree, and may even differ by the students’ aptitudes. The art of education administration is to provide a teaching environment where teachers and students may excel given their unique talents and aptitudes. I was very fortunate to often teach under those liberating conditions!

    Doug Allen

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  5. Doug’s comment is right on. It is captured in the vision document published in 2015 by Education Reimagined (www.education-reimagined.org) that describes what education ought to be. The answer is not the individual models you mention, John, which suffer from the curse of believing in “best practices.” All over the country, there are pockets of excellence (see the Lindsay Unified School District in California) but what we need is a mind shift to learner-centered education where each child is unique and the system is adaptable and flexible enough to accommodate how all children learn best. Secretary DeVos does a good job pointing out how antiquated and out of step our system is. She does not provide the mind shift solution.

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  6. Gisele, Project-based learning is one effective answer because it puts the learners first. It’s learner-centered, in your construct. For me, it’s “students as workers, creating knowledge.” PBL is not the only way, just one way, and I don’t think its supporters say they have the truth.
    DeVos’s criticism is based on her biases, not exploration. It’s true that schools need to change, but do you think that’s her agenda?

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