Public Schools

DeVos and our \”Failing Schools\”: Overkill Method of a Red Herring


President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos as our next Education Secretary makes perfect sense if you think he really wants to keep his word. During his campaign he promised that his administration would \”free children from failing government schools,\” developing a market-driven educational system. In Ms. DeVos, he has found a real believer in this policy direction. She believes that public education as we know it has failed and needs to be substituted for a brand 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 grow 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 positioned on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for college students and cash. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups trying to move students and money from what Mr. Trump calls \”failing government schools.\”

Before we consider the wisdom of radically changing the public education system, maybe we should be sure they've correctly diagnosed the issue.

Dick Startz, writing for the Brookings Institution, shows that concluding that public schools are failing overstates the situation. Consider high school graduation rates, the gateway to even low-wage employment and essential to move toward the extra education or training needed for more skilled and lucrative careers. Startz, citing data in the National Center for Educational Statistics, notes that graduation rates have been increasing for the past 15 years-not only for white students, but for kids of color too. While the achievement gap between both of these cohorts stubbornly remains, it has narrowed.

In our increasingly tech-centered world, what goes on post-high-school supplies a better way of measuring effectiveness. Startz points out, \”There's a tendency to focus on degree completion in the senior high school and college level. Vocational schools 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 university degree.\”

Despite screaming headlines on the contrary, on the whole, schoolchildren are safer than ever before 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 2021, recent times data is available, time had declined to under 20. And students feel safer, too, using the rate of scholars reporting themselves to be scared of the violence within their schools falling by one-half since 1995.

Parents also see improvement in their schools.

Perhaps probably the most telling good news originates from the upward trend in the EdNext/PEPG poll in which the public is inspired to grade schools. For their own local schools, presumably those the general public knows best, a big part now assign a grade of A or B. We can't pin down what exactly is making the public happier, but things appear to be moving in the best direction.

This is not a picture of failure, but of a public education system that's been consistently improving. Nevertheless, its remaining problems are real. The achievement gap is essential, particularly once we recognize other evidence of the power and pervasiveness of implicit bias, and that 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 desires 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 types of charter schools outperforming traditional public schools, but they're not better on the whole. Likewise, there are types of the advantages of vouchers, Ms. DeVos's preferred approach, but on the whole they haven't yet been shown to assist. 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 compared to those who've vastly more experience. It's also possible that their intentions are more radical than making careful and incremental changes to enhance educational outcomes for the nation's children.

Blogger Mitchell Stafford sees Trump and DeVos as leaders whose \”mission is no under the entire destruction of public education-[with the]-ultimate objective of \”decoupling\” state and federal dollars from supporting schools of any type.\”

Under Secretary of Education DeVos, we will have the emergence of the 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 an internet-based \”schools\” that open and close seemingly randomly and for-profit charters operated by scam artists like Northern Michigan's Dr. Steve Ingersoll, with virtually no state or federal regulation or oversight, along with a bare bones, \”back to the basics\” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified \”teachers.\”

Even those who agree with Trump and DeVos concerning the need to increase competition in public education, such as the New York Times' David Leonhardt, advise caution and more evidence-based policies. \”The politics of education have turned nasty recently, featuring various ideologues who can't be persuaded by evidence. DeVos will obviously bring some strong views towards the Education Department, but here's hoping that she is available to evidence as well. Regardless of how good an idea might seem in theory, it needs to help children used.\”

Does the marketplace really care about children, or will it view them as a marketplace for educational product? It appears our new administration could be willing to bet their futures on the grand unproven experiment which has less to do with solving documented challenges compared to affirming the certainty of true believers.

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