Clueless Betsy DeVos Blames School Teachers, Doesn’t Get that Test-and-Punish Is Core Problem

After our new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Washington, D.C. middle school last week, she insulted the teachers there.  She said the teachers were “in receive mode,” and continued: “’They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,’ DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. ‘You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.’”

Let me point out that I have not noticed this “receive mode” among the teachers I know here in Ohio. Just last week Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), sent out a call for “activism now.”

Ohio requires far more testing than the annual test that was mandated by No Child Left Behind.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act  offers a way for states to develop their own accountability plans and a way to reduce—at least somewhat—over-reliance on test-and-punish.  Cropper is protesting the inaction of the Ohio Department of Education, which has just provided evidence that it will ignore the opportunity for states to have more latitude for shaping their plans for educational accountability rather than just have punitive sanctions imposed on them by the federal government. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “Ohio’s proposed new state education plan under ESSA… avoids making any changes in state tests or even any recommendations, despite complaints of excessive testing of students dominating surveys and feedback sessions across the state.”  O’Donnell adds that Ohio’s draft plan isn’t final.

Cropper castigates the draft plan: “This plan is devoid of an overall vision for education and does nothing to move Ohio away from a testing culture and towards a culture that is more responsive to the needs of children.”  Why, wonders Cropper, does the Ohio Department of Education intend to submit its empty draft to the federal government on April 3, despite that the state doesn’t really have to submit its final draft until September 18?  Is the state rushing this along to avoid public input and discussion?

Cropper urges school teachers and members of the public: “Continue your activism. Take the online ESSA survey now.  In each section, feel free to add whatever comments you might have about the topic, but make sure to include something that indicates that the plan does nothing to change our current testing culture and that the state needs to wait until September to submit so that it can be rewritten to reflect the vision Ohio wants for its students.”  She adds that the Ohio Department of Education will accept comments until March 6.

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding amplifies Cropper’s plea for engagement by forwarding an e-mail notice from the Legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee, which is also holding hearings on Ohio’s ESSA draft plan: “The Joint Education Oversight Committee will be hearing testimony regarding Ohio’s State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  JEOC will hold two meetings on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM and Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 1:30 PM in the Senate South Hearing Room. If you are interested in testifying please contact Haley Phillippi,  haley.phillippi@jeoc.ohio.gov or 614-466-9082 and indicate a date preference.” People wishing to testify should send their testimony to Phillippi 24 hours prior to the meeting.

The reason I was so amazed to hear Betsy DeVos criticize teachers as “in receive mode” is that, as part of a local education coalition in my own community, month after month, I listen to our teachers complain about the burden of testing and test prep on them and the students in their classes.  The teachers in our coalition were the people who demanded that we all read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, a plea for a return to progressive education.

While Betsy DeVos insulted teachers last week as “in receive mode,” in my community and my state, teachers are dismayed and up in arms about what they are receiving. Here in the words of Steve Nelson’s new book about progressive education—First Do No Harm, is the kind of pressure our teachers are irate about receiving from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: “Public schools all over America are judged by the standardized test results of their students. In many, perhaps most, communities the test results are published in local newspapers or available online. The continued existence of a school often depends on its standardized test scores… Neighborhood public schools are labeled ‘failing’ on the basis of test scores and closed, often to be replaced by a charter operation that boasts of higher test scores… What has occurred is a complex sorting mechanism.  The schools, particularly the most highly praised charter schools do several things to produce better scores…. (S)tudents  are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than at the ordinary public schools in their neighborhoods. Several studies show that charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with learning challenges or students whose first language is other than English.” (pp. 68-69)  All this pressures school administrators to force teachers to teach to the test at all cost.

Steve Nelson’s definition of progressive education is exactly what the teachers in my community’s elementary, middle and high schools are demanding: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

The teachers I know describe how they slip progressive projects and exploration in around the edges of the demands made on them to prepare children for tests.  They also manage to save enough energy to respond when Melissa Cropper of OFT asks them to speak up for a better Ohio ESSA Plan.  We must join them in speaking up.

We should also remind Betsy DeVos again and again that by reducing test-and-punish she could help everybody at school—superintendents, principals, teachers and children—escape education “in receive mode.”  If Betsy DeVos were honestly concerned that too many students are being trained and taught and instructed and that they are in schools that fail to emphasize deeper education—discovery, examination, problem solving, skepticism, curiosity and compassion, Betsy DeVos would be absolutely in agreement with the school teachers I know.

If Betsy DeVos really believed in progressive education, as Secretary of Education she could use her powerful position to support  teachers as they excite children’s curiosity and support their personal interests and development.

Small Local Group Uncovers Widespread Opposition to Confirmation of DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary

On Tuesday, January 3, as everybody crawled out from under holiday cooking, gifting and celebrating, leaders of our local Heights Coalition for Public Education met to consider mounting some kind of local response to the existential threat of a Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education. President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy Devos alarms us because her only connection with public schools has been a lifelong commitment to using her billionaire philanthropy to privatize education. We’ve all personally sent letters or signed petitions to protest Trump’s nomination of Devos to be our next education secretary, and we looked for a way to expand our advocacy to include our broader community.

We crafted a sign-on letter for organizations and assigned different people to reach out to leaders they knew to see of their organizations would consider signing on. On Wednesday, we learned there was some time pressure: DeVos’s hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (Senate HELP) Committee had now been scheduled for January 11.

Everything sped up. When some organizations lacked a way to meet formally to consider our letter, they polled their members. People responded by telling leaders of their organizations their own stories and their concerns about the danger of losing democratically controlled public schools whose mission it is to serve all children.  One person complained: “Betsy DeVos has refused to pay a $5.3 million fine for campaign violations by her PAC in Ohio. She’s not only an anti-public education ideologue but also a scofflaw and a deadbeat to boot.” Another sent his dismay as a former longtime resident of Michigan: “Thanks for this letter. We spent most of our lives in Michigan and are very well acquainted with the anti-government, anti-public education beliefs and advocacy of Betsy DeVos.  Trump could not have picked a worse person to head public education in his administration.” As they rejected the idea of expanding a school choice marketplace, many declared their commitment to improving access and opportunity in our public schools.

We discovered this week that a mass of people from across our community, across Greater Cleveland, in surrounding counties, and across Ohio were delighted their organization had been given an opportunity to weigh in on this important matter that will affect our public schools, our communities, our state, and our society.

On Monday, with members of the organizations that signed on, we will deliver our letter personally to the Cleveland offices of our U.S. Senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. While neither of our senators serves on the Senate HELP Committee, we are putting them on notice that we expect both of them to pay attention to next week’s Senate HELP Committee hearing on the DeVos nomination. We are asking them both to oppose the DeVos nomination when it comes before the full Senate.

Here is our letter:

Ohio Organizations Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

January 9, 2017 — President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As local and state Ohio organizations committed to protecting and improving one of America’s primary civic institutions, our public schools, we oppose confirmation of Ms. Devos.  Based on her record, it is clear that Ms. DeVos is not an advocate of public education and would use her position to undermine this essential democratic institution to the detriment of children, communities, our economy and our democracy.

Every human being is valuable. We are committed to the principle that our public school system, regulated by law and overseen through democratic governance, is the institution most able to serve the needs and protect the rights of all of our nation’s children. Public schools are also the best way to ensure that valuable public resources achieve public purposes.

Traditional public schools serve 90 percent – approximately 50 million – of our nation’s children and adolescents, yet Betsy DeVos has no experience with public education. She has never attended a public school, nor did she educate her own children in public schools. Neither is she a public school teacher. She lacks relevant expertise, never having served in a school or studied pedagogy, or school administration, or school psychology, or the philosophy of education.

Betsy DeVos is explicitly hostile to public education. She has said that public education is “antiquated and frankly embarrassing” — “a dead end.” In a speech last year she declared: “Government really sucks.” (Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, To Trump’s Education Pick, the U.S. Public School System is a ‘Dead End,’ December 21, 2016)

Betsy DeVos is a billionaire whose only experience with public schools is her extensive philanthropy that has underwritten lobbying to privatize public education. Ms. DeVos has used her position to promote the expansion of private school vouchers and to oppose responsible regulation of charter schools. The American Federation for Children––the organization founded by Ms. DeVos and the organization on whose board she served until her nomination as Secretary of Education—helped design Donald Trump’s plan to create a $20 billion federal block grant to states to incentivize them to expand vouchers for children to pay private and parochial school tuition and to expand charter schools. The Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan lobbying group founded by and supported by Ms. DeVos and her husband, blocked legislation in the Michigan House to responsibly regulate charter schools, a plan that had already been agreed upon as part of the Detroit City Schools bailout. 

Marketplace competition, by definition, creates winners and losers. Turning over education to a privatized education marketplace would abandon our commitment to all children. It would leave behind children likely to score low on the tests by which our society now judges schools, children with special needs, and children whose parents are unable to participate in or are not interested in school choice.

We support public schools that are required by law to serve all children and protect their civil rights, principles that we fear would be lost under the leadership of Betsy DeVos.

  • Central Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Cleveland Caucus to Reclaim Our Schools
  • Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, Local 795, American Federation of Teachers
  • Cleveland Teachers Union, Local 279, American Federation of Teachers
  • Cuyahoga County Educator Summit
  • Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus
  • Heights Coalition for Public Education
  • Lorain County Parents Supporting Our Children and Teachers
  • Northeast Ohio Branch, American Association of University Women
  • Northeast Ohio Education Association, Board of Directors
  • Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Northwest Ohio Friends of Public Education
  • Ohio BATS
  • Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding
  • Ohio Education Association
  • Ohio Federation of Teachers
  • Orange Teachers Association
  • Public Education Partners Ohio
  • Reaching Heights
  • Refuse of Cuyahoga County
  • Roxboro Middle School PTA
  • Roxboro Orchestra and Band Organization
  • Summit County Progressive Democrats, Board of Directors