devos talks

Here’s what Betsy DeVos had to say in Denver about DACA, student loans and opting out of state tests

PHOTO: Nic Garcia
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes her seat at the Firefly Autism center in Denver.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s first multi-state school tour of her tenure took her Wednesday to a private Denver autism center, where she encouraged schools and parents to work together to better educate students with special needs.

After delivering remarks, DeVos took questions from reporters on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s decision to end protections for young undocumented immigrants to her decision to reconsider guidance to colleges on sexual assault.

Chalkbeat also asked about the U.S. education department’s pushback on the state’s testing opt-out policy.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the question-and-answer session:

Fox 31: Denver Public Schools has invited you to visit its schools after you criticized them for a lack of choice options in a speech several months ago. Why not visit Denver Public Schools while you’re here? And what would you like to see them do to meet your full approval?

It’s a privilege to be here in Denver. And I expect I will be returning to Denver in the not-too-distant future.

We have started a tour, the “Rethink Schools” tour, in Casper, Wyo., yesterday, where I did visit the Woods Learning Center — a public school in Casper. It was a great visit. It was really meant to highlight innovative ways schools are meeting their students’ needs. It was a school that has been teacher-led for 25 years with personalized learning programs for each of their students. We’re going on from here to Omaha, to Missouri, to Kansas City — both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., Gary, Ind., and ending in Indianapolis.

We have a whole variety of schools we’re visiting over these four days. The purpose of our tour is really meant to highlight all the many different innovative ways schools are approaching meeting the needs of their kids.

Chalkbeat: You’re an adamant supporter of school choice, of parent choice. So is our State Board of Education. They have championed a policy of not holding schools accountable when parents opt out their students from state tests. But your department has pushed back on that policy, saying it does not comply with federal law. How would you like to see this disagreement resolved?

I’m looking forward to reading all the plans from 30-some states that are due next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the innovative ways states are going to address the needs of students in their states.

(Editor’s note: Colorado previously submitted its plan and is rewriting some sections based on the federal education department’s feedback.)

And everywhere I go, I encourage states and local communities — I think decisions are made best at the local source, and local location. And that comes right down to school buildings. I refer back to the one I visited yesterday where the teachers initiated, 25 years ago, a very different approach. And they are empowered to meet the needs of their students there directly. I think a lot more schools can take a lesson from what they’re doing in addressing the needs of their students in really unique ways.

Chalkbeat: In your speech yesterday, you called for far more individualization in education. Is there a place for the traditional school in the United States, or are you thinking they should be completely abolished?

Personalizing a child’s education is a direction many schools are looking to go. There have been lots of pilot programs and efforts around personalized learning. I think schools really need to take a close look at this: to keep students engaged, to make them look forward to their learning. And instead of continuing in a model that was started a century and a half ago, where it was based on time in seats, let’s reverse that and base it on what students are learning and allow them to move at their pace and as quickly as they can.

AP: Is your department issuing any guidance to colleges or universities on what to do with DACA students?

That issue is very much in the forefront. It’s really on Congress’s plate right now. I’ve said this on several occasions before: We’re a nation of laws. We’re also a very compassionate people. And as President Obama said when this was initially implemented, it was a temporary solution. Congress really needs to address this issue. And I believe they will do so. These students are here pursuing their learning and we owe it to them to make sure they know their future is clarified and defined.

AP: Your department is rewriting student loan forgiveness rules. Has the White House contacted you, or weighed in at all on that process?

This is an ongoing process. We have a new federal student aid director who is getting after a lot of issues that really are important to students — not only current students, but past students, as well. Our goal is to simplify both the application process and also the payment process. Repayment plans have been multiple, confusing — and we need to make sure that we put the students first. And students then become the customers in satisfying the repayment of student loans, that we are putting the customer first, and making sure we’re taking care of them from a customer service perspective that hasn’t been done in a really coherent way.

AP: Has there been any consultation with the White House on this? Have they reached out?

We work closely with the White House on every issue with which we’re involved.

Chalkbeat: Coming back to the Endrew F. court case, the Supreme Court stopped short of dictating what a higher standard looked like. Where is your department on issuing any sort of new guidance around that to public schools?

The department wants to be a resource to parents who are looking for further information and clarification. Obviously, the Supreme Court decision is very complicated. And there are a lot of issues in there, and a lot of terminology parents might have questions on. We set up an email address, [email protected], for any parent to contact us directly with questions. We want to be there to not provide guidance but support for and technical support for any of the issues they’re dealing with.

Chalkbeat: What do you want teachers across the country who work day in and day out with students with special needs in public schools to know about your position on the court case and what your department is doing to support them as well?

Teachers are critical in this whole subject and this whole area. Equally important are the parents. And the parents really know their child best. And they know what’s best for their child. And so it’s my encouragement that schools and parents work together to really address the needs of their kids. I think that we have a very clear mandate under federal law to do right by all students that are served, and particularly those who are navigating with disabilities. We can help flourish and help them be everything they are meant to be.

CPR: I’ve been looking into innovation a lot this past month. The truly innovative teachers tell me they need an administration that encourages risk-taking and failure. Principals often are consumed with test scores, and so it’s not happening on that level. For teachers who aren’t innovating, they say it’s the evaluation system. What are your thoughts on that?

I think there are a lot of ways over the last number of decades that we have stifled change and innovation in education. You couldn’t be more right in that the risk-adverse nature (exists).

I’d argue because of a top down approach, both at the federal level and at the state level as well. I think teachers need to be empowered much more. They are most close to their students. And good teachers are going to be able to get the best out of their students.

But if they’re not empowered to do that, it really does put a wet blanket over everything. So I think that change needs to come systemically. And it does need to be oriented around trying new things and engaging students in ways they haven’t been before. There are way too many students who by grades four, five or six are mentally checked out because their curiosity has died because they’ve been in a system that is much more regimented than it is creative and innovative.

We need to be helping them learn critical thinking skills, communication skills, to foster their creativity and to learn how to collaborate. That’s how we work in adult life and that’s how children need to be able to learn through their formative years.

Fox 31: On Title IX, what would you say to survivors who are worried that you want to dismantle everything that has happened during the last few years?

We are focused on doing what’s right for all students: survivors and everyone involved in the horrible case of sexual assaults. And we’re committed to doing what is right for all students.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.