The education of Betsy DeVos

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a big day talking education at a meeting convened to discuss school choice.

The meeting was organized by the Brookings Institution, a D.C. policy think tank that had just released a new report, naming Colorado's Denver Public Schools as the No. 1 district in the nation on their Educational Choice and Competition Index, which evaluates school choice systems on options and process quality (as determined by Brookings).

Despite the Brookings ranking, DeVos took shots at Denver's school choice system, implying that without the inclusion of vouchers to send students to private schools and more charter school options, Denver didn't deserve the top ranking.

"The benefits of making choices accessible are canceled out when you don't have a full menu of options," DeVos said, while holding up the New Orleans Recovery District as a better model.

    Betsy DeVos is an ideological one-trick-pony who trots out test data to blame and shame schools and then asserts her ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach to school privatization as the shining-silver-bullet solution.

Denver's typically stoic Superintendent, Tom Boasberg, responded firmly:

"We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter. A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank No. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability."

Others might infer differently, but I take that last sentence in Boasberg's statement as a whammy toward DeVos, who used her wealth and influence to implement school choice systems in her home state of Michigan that notoriously lack oversight, basic regulation and accountability.

Even among champions of school choice as an educational improvement strategy, DeVos' Michigan model is often held up as an example of what not to do.

School choice is here to stay as part of the education landscape in our country and is likely to expand in the coming years. Public school advocates should not fear this new era, but should absolutely demand that the playing field really be level.

If public school dollars flow to any educational institution, then it must admit all kids, abide by the same rules and stand to account like other schools for results.

Failing in the creation of a level playing field will lead to two parallel systems, both funded by public money. However, one would have the responsibility of serving any child and the other would get to choose which students it wished to admit. The outcome of this model would be a devastating blow to the concept of equity and lead to segregation.

In the same meeting where she took shots at Denver, DeVos also denigrated the entire American education system, saying U.S. public schools are in such bad shape that she isn't "sure how they could get much worse." DeVos cited national and international assessment results, which have been stagnant or declining in recent years.

Betsy DeVos is an ideological one-trick-pony who trots out test data to blame and shame schools and then asserts her "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to school privatization as the shining-silver-bullet solution.

In her review of the testing data, DeVos leaves out that during the same era of decline in American results, school choice and privatization options have exploded all around the U.S. Yet, none of the countries that rank among the leaders in the world's education performance league tables are pursuing DeVos-like privatization schemes.

DeVos is correct in stating that our education system needs to be revived. But, like any good doctor knows, one must prescribe the right intervention to fit the problem, or else you may make things worse.

Our schools do indeed need to change — but where that change is most necessary is in the kinds of experiences students have in learning. We've got to move away from education systems which reward compliance, fact-recall knowledge and repetitive work, and move toward a student experience where skills such as entrepreneurship, initiative, critical thinking and problem solving drive the system. The student experience should nurture passion, commitment, perseverance and risk-taking.