Full disclosure: Although I have never met or interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, I am a huge fan. In fact, the closest I have been to her was at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Baltimore recently. Sitting maybe 75 feet from her, I was dazzled as I watched her hold off some tough questions from education reporters, a notoriously aggressive bunch. That stellar performance gave the lie to those who mock her intelligence.
In Baltimore she proved that she is smart. Sure, she made a lot of gaffes early in her tenure, but now–after just 27 or 28 months on the job–she doesn’t get flustered. She has learned to avoid answering direct questions; instead, she ignores whatever she is asked and pivots back to her talking point: “Students and parents need ‘freedom’ to choose.” Ask her anything, and she will–with a smile–talk about ‘freedom.’ She couldn’t do that if she weren’t a smart cookie.
Moreover, Secretary DeVos is a gutsy defender of minority positions. Here’s an example: A less courageous person would fold under pressure and take the popular position that public schools are vital to our future because they enroll about 90% of students. But, showing a backbone of steel, DeVos swims against the tide. She is not afraid to criticize public education. And she hasn’t just shown courage once or twice; no, she’s out there regularly–every day–taking on public education, essentially saying “Damn the consequences!”
I also admire her because she is a great friend of the American teacher, something her critics never acknowledge. In Baltimore, for example, she came out strongly in favor of paying teachers about $250,000 a year! She cleverly suggested pegging teachers salaries to the salary of the President of the American Federation of Teachers. Since the average teacher salary today is under $60,000 and the AFT President makes nearly $500,000, the Secretary is proposing a salary INCREASE of about $190,000 for the average teacher. So, the next time someone says DeVos doesn’t like public school teachers, wave that in their face and tell them to zip it!
Sadly, not a single education reporter led with that news in their stories about DeVos at the EWA annual meeting. I was embarrassed for my profession, frankly. Quadrupling teacher salaries, for crying out loud! Why wasn’t that their lead story?
I also admire the Secretary’s neutrality on the question of pedagogy. Although she is the nation’s leading educator, she refuses to get drawn into arguments about which approaches to teaching and learning are most effective. Phonics and phonemic awareness versus whole language? No comment! Project-based learning versus rote memorization? No comment! Social and emotional learning versus a strong focus on academics? No comment! So neutral is she that I don’t believe DeVos has ever said anything about teaching and learning, focusing instead on ‘freedom.’ When it comes to the central issues of teaching and learning, she is religiously opinion-free.
And finally, DeVos has shown that she’s in it for the long haul. She doesn’t get thrown off course by an occasional stumble or a temporary setback but hunkers down and works harder toward the goals she has set. Let me give you an example, more evidence for you to use should you hear anyone criticizing our Secretary of Education. DeVos is from Michigan, where she and her billionaire husband have strongly supported school choice, virtual charter schools and for-profit charter schools. On her watch, 80% of Michigan’s charter schools began as or became for-profit schools, and the overall education system has declined in what some have called ‘A Race to the Bottom.’ Even when evidence emerged that for-profit charter schools generally have disappointing academic results, low graduation rates, and frequent financial scandals, DeVos has not wavered in her support.
Now that she is our nation’s top educator, she is promoting what she supported in Michigan, arguing that these approaches, when free from picky regulations and serious oversight, will give students the ‘freedom’ that is a vital part of the American dream.
Some other leaders might have looked at the evidence and wavered in their commitment, but Secretary DeVos has the courage of her convictions. She’s in it for the long haul.
Call me a fanboy, but, as I see it, Education Secretary Betsy Devos has it all: brains, the courage to defend minorities, pedagogical neutrality, a deep commitment to higher salaries for America’s teachers, and the strength to stay the course despite the evidence.