Educators React to DeVos Comments; Call for Revolution of Support for Public Education


There has been little inspiration from this new Administration about public education. Since early in his candidacy, President Trump has offered the opposite. His choice for Secretary of Education, bringing no experience in public education, has called public schools a “dead end.”

I asked a few public educators and advocates to react to a speech given last year by Betsy DeVos, the secretary nominee, which lays out her educational philosophy.

You can read the DeVos speech at the link at the end of this post. I will summarize it for you: She said, “We must revolutionize our education system in America.” She listed what she called “inconvenient truths,” like, “Our education delivery system … is antiquated and is quite frankly embarrassing.” Further, she said, “America has lost ground to other countries,” and, “Government really sucks.” Finally, she admitted we should pay teachers more, but also “fire” them more. And, she claims that public schools don’t provide equal opportunity for students. Her answer to public education is to offer choice for all students including charters, vouchers for private schools, virtual schools/online learning, home school, etc.

While these educators were all alarmed by her remarks, they offered constructive comments on where improvements are needed in public education — based on their public school experience.

Public educators are who we need to listen to.

The Needed Revolution in Education

One principal summarized, “I don’t find that she’s presenting anything new, profound or close to a solution. What I heard was a mix of political and public opinion that only skates surface-level. Statistics show there are few home-school and charter models that have sustained success, and she fails to address any of the true issues of poverty within the school system.”

Another agreed with DeVos’s call for a revolution, but said the revolution should be focused on a rededication to public education.

“I agree that we need a revolution in education – however the revolution should be to end the stifling regulations from government and invest in what everyone agrees is an area vital to economic and social growth – education … Her premise of letting the money follow the child (like vouchers) ignores the system the child is leaving and does nothing to provide assistance to that district to improve its performance.”

Resources Do Make the Difference

All the commentators expressed concerns about funding. There’s not enough to address the deep needs some children have, they said, and it creates uncertainty in budgeting if funds are slowly siphoned off.

DeVos said, “It isn’t about the money.” To that, one teacher offered, “While I agree we need reform…her point to scoff at the idea that it isn’t about the money really irked me. It IS about the money. One of the first places that money is lost is education. The first place that money is needed is education.”

Feeding Innovation; Revamping Testing

What DeVos sees as “antiquated,” these educators have known first hand as innovative. Here are their comments on that subject:

  • I have seen enormous innovation (some good, some not), growth and change in mindset and methods. There has been constant work towards providing effective instruction for ALL children. I have huge concerns about money following children – that just weakens our public education system, which has a responsibility to provide for ALL children.
  • I have found a major roadblock to sustaining innovation lies in mandates associated with high-stakes testing. It inadvertently creates a group of disenfranchised youth whose gifts are not easily assessed.
  • Some of the best innovation I have seen is in public schools – far too much of it, though, choked by the high-stakes testing. (However) While strict monitoring can be a negative, lack of monitoring leads to substandard education.
  • I have NEVER taught somewhere that we were not trying to improve our practice as educators. There is certainly no shortage of research-based reform initiatives over my 36+ years in education.

Interestingly, this Administration will be implementing a new federal law that loosens up requirements of states including in the area of testing – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). And Kentucky leaders are already doing great work in designing a new accountability system that more accurately reflects the accomplishments of students.

Parents Must Be Partners

Several mentioned the need to address parenting issues. “Before making charter schools a solution, let’s work on changing parenting skills. Parents need to hold their kids and themselves accountable.” Another added, “We lack a structure in this country that connects parental responsibility with education hence the view that education itself becomes the choice.”

One questioned the real goal of this Administration. “I have believed for quite some time that there is a subversive political movement to dismantle our public schools and I see vouchers and charter schools as the tool that will further disenfranchise those who most desperately need a quality education.”

Listen to Educators

What I heard from these educators is critical information for this Administration– the President, his Cabinet and Congressional leaders:

  • Public schools require sufficient resources to ensure all students get what they need to reach their potentials.
  • Oversight and accountability is important, but it should not stifle innovation.
  • Parenting matters. The adults in children’s lives must support schools and teachers.
  • Teachers and school leaders make the difference. They deserve respect, professional pay and continual support to grow in their profession.

It is essential that our new leaders take time to listen to educators like these, and face some facts.

School Choice Is No Guarantee of Success

One fact that is important in light of the push to use public money for private schools comes from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers international assessments comparing many countries:

“PISA 2015 shows that a privately-funded education is not a guarantee of success. After accounting for the socioeconomic profile of students and schools, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools in science on average across OECD countries and in 22 education systems.”

I fear Betsy DeVos’s public comments and confirmation hearing have damaged her credibility to positively impact public education. And now we have heard the only words President Trump chose to say in his inaugural address about public education. He said it’s “flush with cash but … leaves our young and beautiful students devoid of all knowledge.”

This comment is at best hyperbole at such a high level it’s hard to even know what it really means. What is certain is it sets an adversarial tone that disrespects the educators who are making a difference every day for students.

That’s not a good start — not really a start at all.

I hope this administration changes its focus, and moves from the “surface-level” simple assessments, to learning from the experts and providing the help that’s really needed to support the 50 million American students who attend public schools.



About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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