DeVos and our “Failing Schools”: Overkill Approach to a Red Herring

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Red-herring

Red herring @ Lowestoft, Suffolk / Tim Parkinson

November 23, 2016; New York Times and Brookings Institution

President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as our next Education Secretary makes perfect sense if you think he wants to keep his word. During his campaign he promised that his administration would “free children from failing government schools,” creating a market-driven educational system. In Ms. DeVos, he has found a true believer in this policy direction. She believes that public education as we know it has failed and needs to be replaced with a new system of independent, privately operated schools. The New York Times’ Kate Zernike describes her thus:

As a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. [Her efforts] to expand educational opportunity in her home state of Michigan and across the country have focused little on existing public schools, and almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”

Before we consider the wisdom of radically changing our country’s public education system, maybe we should be sure they have correctly diagnosed the problem.

Dick Startz, writing for the Brookings Institution, suggests that concluding that public schools are failing overstates the case. Consider high school graduation rates, the gateway to even low-wage employment and necessary to move toward the additional education or training needed for more skilled and lucrative careers. Startz, citing data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, notes that graduation rates have been increasing for the past 15 years—not just for white students, but for children of color as well. While the achievement gap between these two cohorts stubbornly remains, it has narrowed.

In our increasingly tech-centered world, what happens post-high-school provides a better measure of effectiveness. Startz points out, “There’s a tendency to focus on degree completion at the high school and college level. Community colleges and associate degrees matter too, and they are also up. […] Over the last fifteen years, a noticeably increased portion of the adult population has earned a college degree.”

Despite screaming headlines to the contrary, on the whole, schoolchildren are safer than ever in our schools. For children 12–18, the rates of reported acts of violence in schools peaked in the early 1990s at over 90 per 1000 students. In 2014, the last year data is available, that number had declined to less than 20. And students feel safer, too, with the rate of students reporting themselves as being afraid of the violence in their schools falling by one-half since 1995.

Parents also see improvement in their schools.

Perhaps the most telling good news comes from the upward trend in the EdNext/PEPG poll in which the public is asked to grade schools. For their own local schools, presumably the ones the public knows best, a majority now assign a grade of A or B. We can’t pin down what exactly is making the public more satisfied, but things appear to be moving in the right direction.

This is not a picture of failure, but of a public education system that has been consistently improving. Nevertheless, its remaining problems are real. The achievement gap is important, particularly as we recognize other evidence of the power and pervasiveness of implicit bias, and we must fund these schools properly and equitably.

It may be that the improvements we have seen come from the reform agenda our new administration wishes to push more aggressively, the transformation of public schools from a government service to a marketplace-governed service product. However, the evidence is not convincing. There are examples of charter schools outperforming traditional public schools, but they are not better on the whole. Likewise, there are examples of the benefits of vouchers, Ms. DeVos’s preferred approach, but on the whole they have not been shown to help. These education reform issues are frequently discussed by NPQ.

If President-elect Trump and Education Secretary-designate DeVos see failure, they must be looking at the system differently than those who have vastly more experience. It is also possible that their intentions are more radical than making careful and incremental changes to improve educational outcomes for the nation’s children.

Blogger Mitchell Stafford sees Trump and DeVos as leaders whose “mission is no less than the total destruction of public education…[with the]…ultimate goal of “decoupling” state and federal dollars from supporting schools of any type.”

Under Secretary of Education DeVos, we will see the emergence of a two-tiered educational system: One, a system of elite private and religious schools for well-to-do, mostly White parents with the means to afford expensive tuition payments, staffed by qualified, certified teachers, with a rich curriculum based on face-to-face instruction in clean, safe, well-maintained schools; the other, a parallel system of “fly by night” virtual and online “schools” that open and close seemingly at random and for-profit charters operated by scam artists like Northern Michigan’s Dr. Steve Ingersoll, with little to no state or federal regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to the basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers.”

Even those who agree with Trump and DeVos about the need to increase competition in public education, like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, advise caution and more evidence-based policies. “The politics of education have turned nasty in recent years, featuring various ideologues who can’t be persuaded by evidence. DeVos will obviously bring some strong views to the Education Department, but here’s hoping that she is open to evidence as well. No matter how good an idea may seem in theory, it needs to help children in practice.”

Does the marketplace really care about children, or does it view them as a market for educational product? It seems our new administration could be willing to bet their futures on a grand unproven experiment that has less to do with solving documented challenges than with affirming the certainty of true believers.—Martin Levine