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:

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.