devos talks

What is Betsy DeVos’s ‘rethink school’ initiative all about? Her Wyoming speech offers clues

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting Ashland Elementary School in April.

According to Betsy DeVos, American education embodies that quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The U.S. education secretary kicked off her “Rethink School” tour in Casper, Wyoming, encouraging schools to be more innovative — and to help students avoid the boredom she once felt as a student.

DeVos’s speech to students at Woods Learning Center included familiar digs at “the education system” and Washington bureaucrats. It also sketched out her own vision for education in more detail than we’ve heard in a while, after a summer where DeVos made few public appearances.

That vision is all about parents having lots of options for where to send their students — and for many of those options to serve one slice of students well, rather than trying to educate students with different needs.

Here are a few key takeaways:

DeVos is convinced that school hasn’t changed in 100 years.

From today’s remarks: “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that. That means your parents’ parents’ parents.

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine – just waiting to be saved by the bell. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.”

This claim has gotten lots of attention recently — it is an idea central to last week’s primetime “XQ Super School Live” special on innovative high schools. (XQ, the initiative behind that broadcast, even shares most of a slogan with DeVos’s effort.)

Education historians say DeVos has a point in some respects, such as how school days are structured. But in other ways, schools have changed substantially — especially in how they now see themselves as an institution for all students, not a chosen few.

Her vision comes back to school choice …

“Your school leaders recognize this and say, as it says on your website: ‘We also know that families have many reasons for choosing various schools. Some want to send kids to the school down the street, while others select schools based on proximity of daycare or work … Open enrollment gives families the opportunities to find the schools that are best for them and their children.’

School choice is the issue that brought DeVos, a longtime school voucher proponent, into the public sphere. On Tuesday, DeVos’s praise for Woods Learning Center’s district centered on its willingness to let parents choose a school for their children.

After the speech, a Woods Learning Center student asked DeVos what kind of changes she wants schools to make.

“Starting with the opportunity for every kid, every child to go to a school that is going to fit their kind of personality,” she replied.

… And personalized learning.

From today’s remarks: “Here at Woods, you know that well. Your personalized learning program rethinks school because it’s structured around you. Each of your learning plans is developed for each of you, recognizing that each of you is different, and that you learn at your own pace and in your own way.

Your success here at Woods is determined by what each of you are learning and mastering. Not by how long you sit at your desks.

That is awesome, by the way. If I had that opportunity when I was in school, many many many years ago, I think I would not have been nearly as bored as I was.”

This focus on personalization is why DeVos wanted to highlight Woods Learning Center, she said. It’s also a focus of her former advocacy group, the American Federation for Children.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, an AFC board member, said at the group’s convening in May. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

The research evidence for those blended or personalized learning models is mixed. Results are worse for fully virtual schools, which DeVos did not mention.

Watch DeVos’s full speech here:

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.