first semester

Betsy DeVos’s first week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

After a bruising confirmation fight, Betsy DeVos has taken the helm at the U.S. Department of Education.

As she introduces herself to the education world, we’re here to help you keep up. Here’s what you should know about the protests, gaffes, and policy shifts that have marked her first few days on the job.

She’s having trouble getting into schools. A main critique of DeVos was that she’s never spent time in public schools before, and some of her sharpest critics have spent the week trying to make sure that stays the case. Protesters briefly blocked her from entering a Washington, D.C., school her first day on the job, and San Diego’s school board also rescinded an invitation for her to visit local schools amid pressure from the local teachers union.

She hit back in a speech on Wednesday. “The protesters’ behavior, I think, is a reflection on the way some seek to treat our education system today – by keeping kids in and new thinking out,” she said.

She’s still playing it safe on some issues. The education department had indicated that DeVos would talk about the achievement gap in that speech. She didn’t.

But she’s making moves on some big policy issues. Before becoming education secretary, DeVos had engaged with only a narrow set of policy issues, mostly around school choice. Now she has to tackle many more, and she has started to do so. Last week, she reached out to state education officials to let them know that she plans to stay the course on the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control over education policy to states. She also said she would look to cut “unnecessary” programs from the department, in a bit of traditional Republican rhetoric.

An editorial cartoon likened her to six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering an all-white school amid racist protests. The comparison was condemned as both offensive and inaccurate.

She embarrassed herself online. The likelihood of DeVos typing the education department’s tweets herself is almost zero. But the account’s misspelling of the name of black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois — followed by “our deepest apologizes” — didn’t do much for her image as someone out of touch with schools and the kids of color that she is supposed to serve.

She’s inspired some people to jump into public service themselves. “Since Betsy DeVos’ confirmation, we’ve had a flood of people come and say specifically, ‘I want to run for school board to protect the schools in my hometown,’” Amanda Litman, co-founder of the political action committee Run for Something, told NPR.

Meanwhile, one of her predecessors has joined the #resistance. Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary for seven years under President Obama, has made his concern about President Trump clear with a steady stream of retweets — and messages of his own.

Duncan also weighed in on the DeVos school protesters, tweeting, “Agree or disagree w @BetsyDeVos on any issue, but let’s all agree she really needs to be in public schools. Please let her in.”

Speaking of Twitter, she got a new account. She’s now @BetsyDeVosED.

She’s still attracting interest far beyond the usual education audience. One stunning thing about DeVos is that her nomination galvanized interest and opposition from a wide constituency — an unusual phenomenon for an education department nominee. That hasn’t changed now that she’s in office. A website for millennial women took a look at the fashion designer who has dressed DeVos, and a home tour posted on a design site included a detour into the homeowner’s questions about DeVos’s leadership.

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.

DeVos later added:

first steps

Secretary Betsy DeVos on first school visit: ‘Teachers are waiting to be told what they have to do’

For someone now running the federal education department, Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t have many ideas for how it’s needed.

In one of her first interviews since being confirmed as secretary last week, DeVos said the federal government was right to step in “when we had segregated schools” and to ensure girls’ access to sports teams. But she suggested that those issues have been resolved, narrowing the issues where federal intervention might be appropriate.

From the interview, published Friday by Axios (the new news site created by Politico’s founders):

“I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

In fact, American schools, by some measures, are more racially segregated now than when the federal government began to play an active role in desegregating them in the 1960s.

Some advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Education to play a stronger role in desegregating schools. DeVos’s comments suggest her worldview is one in which the major fights over civil rights in American education have already been fought and won, and almost all remaining issues can be addressed best by states and local districts.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a conservative news site, DeVos was also quick to offer her ideas about why teachers struggle — and criticize some of the first public school teachers she encountered on the job. (Cue her critics, who are concerned that she does not have any experience as an educator or working in schools.)

Here’s how she described the discussion she had during her one of her first school visits in Washington, D.C.:

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success[ful] from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

In the same interview, DeVos signaled interest in a tactic more commonly used by activists than agency leaders.

She was asked,

Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

She recalled a march in Florida that drew thousands to protest a lawsuit meant to block a voucher program that she supported. “I think that is an idea worthy of consideration,” she said.

Update: Jefferson Academy Middle School, the DeVos made the “receive mode” comments about, hit back on Twitter late Friday — as did the current and former chancellors of the D.C. school systems. Read what they had to say.