DeVos and Detroit

Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Donald Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s next secretary of education doesn’t live in Detroit. She doesn’t routinely work in Detroit, either.

But Detroit is nonetheless sure to be on the agenda when billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos sits down Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee for the start of her confirmation hearings.

That’s because DeVos, who lives in western Michigan, has been a leading architect of the free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that many Detroit school supporters blame for the dire state of Detroit schools.

Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.

DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.

But this much is clear: When the DeVos hearing starts at 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, viewers are bound to hear arguments from both detractors and defenders that are driven more by ideology than fact.

With that in mind, here are answers to some key questions that could come up about Detroit and DeVos:

Are Detroit schools really that bad?

Well, yes, at least if you believe the test scores. Detroit students scored far below kids in other struggling urban districts on a national exam. And though Detroit families have a lot of “school choice” options including district schools, charter schools and suburban schools that take kids from other districts, most schools in the city are low performing. Of more than 200 schools in Detroit — roughly half of which are charter schools — the vast majority were near the bottom on the state’s last top-to-bottom school ranking based on test scores. Just ten schools — six selective district schools and four charters — were in the top half.

 

Has Betsy DeVos called for improvements for the Detroit Public Schools?

Not quite. Last winter, as the Michigan state legislature pondered a massive financial rescue plan designed to prevent the state’s largest school district from falling into bankruptcy, DeVos urged the state to abolish the district. “We must acknowledge the simple fact that DPS has failed academically and financially – for decades,” she wrote in an op/ed in the Detroit News.

Dissolving a school district is not unheard of in Michigan where several smaller districts including Highland Park, which is wholly surrounded by Detroit, have been essentially turned over to charter school operators.

Detroit schools were turned over to a series of state-appointed emergency managers starting in 2009 but DeVos asserted that district is too far gone to fix. Her political organization took to Twitter with the hashtag #EndDPS.

 

Are Detroit charter schools any better than district schools?

Some are. Some not so much. A major study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that Detroit charter school students do score better on average on state exams. The researchers matched charter school students with district school students who had the same demographic profiles, then looked to see who scored better. The study found that 8 percent of kids in charter schools did worse than their district peers while 60 percent of charter school kids bested the district kids.

That’s not saying much, given the rock-bottom scores in Detroit’s district schools, said James Woodworth, a senior research analyst for CREDO. But, he said, charters are providing a stronger option.

“People are very correct in saying that the academic performance of charter schools in Detroit is still lower than the national average but it’s better than the non-charter schools,” Woodworth said.

 

So what makes Michigan charter school policies so controversial?

Michigan has a charter school law that puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open. The state does have the ability to close schools for poor performance, but it generally has not done so (though that is likely to change soon). The setup has created an environment in which Detroit has more schools than kids — an estimated 30,000 classroom seats sitting empty. That has forced district and charter schools to aggressively compete with each other for students, then slash programs or increase class sizes when too-few kids lead to tighter budgets.

“Detroit is the foremost example of the adverse consequences of a poorly regulated education market,” said Michigan State University professor David Arsen. “I say this as an advocate for school choice. Choice is good but  … in Detroit you have a system that is chaotic.”

 

Has Betsy DeVos supported this ‘chaotic’ environment?

DeVos supporters note that she’s a strong advocate for school accountability. She’s pushed for an A-F letter grade system and for strong consequences for schools that earn low marks, including both district and charter schools. But her critics say she has blocked serious attempts to bring order to the chaos.

Notably, last year, when a broad coalition of Detroit schools advocates pushed for a mayoral commission that would oversee the opening of new district and charter schools and would be able to coordinate things like enrollment and transportation, DeVos and her allies saw the effort as an attack on charter schools and moved to block it. Members of the DeVos family spent $1.45 million in June and July — $25,000 a day for seven weeks — supporting lawmakers who voted against the commission.

DeVos supporters, however, note that though the final bill passed along party lines without support from Detroit lawmakers, it did provide $617 million for the main Detroit school district and did include some measures to improve quality. Among them: a new requirement that the universities that authorize charter schools become accredited. The law also included a requirement that all district and charter schools in Detroit be shuttered after repeated years of failing test scores.

 

Fact check

Why the school spending graph Betsy DeVos is sharing doesn’t mean what she says it does

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s message at an event on Thursday was clear: education leaders have been throwing good money after bad policy.

To make the point, she shared a graph that appears to show that school spending has risen dramatically over the last three decades as student outcomes barely budged.

“Scores [are] continuing to muddle along, unremarkable,” she told one of her predecessors, Bill Bennett, at a Reagan Institute event. “And yet look at the spending. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of.”

This visualization, which DeVos also shared on Twitter, has become a staple in some education policy circles. Even Bill Gates has offered a version of it. But the graph is misleading, and several recent studies have in fact shown that students gain — in higher test scores, graduation rates, and earnings as adults — when they attend schools that spend more money. And while DeVos highlighted scores in reading, gains in math have been fairly substantial over part of that period.

A spokesperson for DeVos did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

Here’s why it doesn’t really mean what DeVos says it does.

The biggest problem with the graphic is that it conflates correlation and causation.

Simply pointing to two trends that coincide doesn’t say anything about how one affects the other. It’s possible that if education spending hadn’t increased, test scores would have actually declined. Maybe the extra money actually stopped a dramatic deterioration in school quality, for example. There’s just no way to know based on this data.

Here’s another example: Over the past couple decades, charter schools and vouchers have expanded dramatically. By DeVos’s own logic, those would be failed reforms because they didn’t coincide with a sufficient increase in NAEP scores. But that would also be an unfair conclusion, since we don’t know what would have happened without the increase in choice programs.

The two trends are also put side-by-side in an arbitrary way.

This graph has two y axes: one based on school spending, and the other based on scale scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But these two variables are very different. Should an extra $1,000 correspond with 1 point on NAEP scores? Five points?

The decision is subjective, but it determines how large the spending changes look and how small the NAEP changes look, too.

Spending is up in education, but it’s up elsewhere too.

It’s true that in inflation-adjusted dollars, school spending has risen. The economy has also grown over that same time. That matters, because if spending were to hold steady in education while increasing in other areas of the economy, it might become increasingly hard to recruit and retain teachers of equal quality.

Indeed, while education spending has risen, teacher pay compared to similar professionals has fallen. (At the same time, the number of teachers and the number of non-teaching staff in schools has increased significantly, which some have argued illustrate bad spending priorities.)

The story would also look different for math scores.

NAEP scores have been relatively flat for the past decade, but in math they increased substantially the decade beforehand. In fact, a graph could be made showing a tight correspondence between math results and spending.

That’s exactly what Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson did. His approach was similar to DeVos’s, with a few changes. He compared NAEP scores in math to the cumulative spending on the average student in the years leading up to the test — the idea being that scores reflect not just the last year of schooling, but several years before that.

Source: Education Next

His graphs look quite different than DeVos’s, simply by tightening the range of scores, looking at math rather than reading, and tweaking the spending measure. (Jackson said that a similar pattern exists for reading, but that it’s less pronounced.)

Recent research has generally shown that school spending really does matter.

To be clear, Jackson’s graphs are also correlational, and like DeVos’s cannot prove cause and effect.

That’s why he and others have conducted sophisticated statistical analyses to isolate the impact of resources on schools. In one recent study, Jackson and colleagues compared states that made more spending cuts in the wake of Great Recession, and found that they did worse on NAEP as a result. In other words, there is a decent case that the recent stagnation in NAEP scores is due at least in part to spending cuts.

That jibes with a larger body of research. Other recent national studies have linked more spending to better NAEP scores, higher graduation rates, better economic outcomes, and greater social mobility. Studies in specific states including California, MassachusettsOhio, and New York have also found test score gains from spending increases.

Of course, none of that proves that the additional money spent over the past few decades have been well used. It doesn’t even prove that those extra dollars have been helpful — the above studies are of specific places or time periods, and their individual approaches could be disputed, too.

There is one recent study, which DeVos often cites, showing that a federal turnaround program that involved a substantial infusion of money for struggling schools didn’t make a noticeable difference.

Still, the graph that Devos offers is not, on its own, a strong case that resources for schools don’t make a difference. Available evidence suggests the opposite.

“If reduced spending contributed to the problem, it seems reasonable to conclude that increased spending may alleviate it,” said Jackson, the Northwestern researcher. “This is not to say that increased spending is some silver bullet, but rather that it should probably be part of a comprehensive set of policies to improve U.S schools.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Rep. Barbara Lee was from Texas; in fact, she represents a California congressional district.