in her own words

Rave reviews: Here are the states, schools, and programs that have gotten Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might not have ever worked in a school system or state education department, but she’s been getting up to speed fast on what they’ve been doing.

And unlike her boss, who issues insults so freely that people track his targets, DeVos talks a lot about the things she likes. In her speeches, she’s been citing program after program that she supports, often with remarkable specificity. Together, they offer a look at what issues — school choice! — and what parts of the country she is focused on first.

For your reference, we’ll be keeping a running list of the K-12 initiatives that get a public DeVos seal of approval here. Did we miss something? Let us know.

 CALIFORNIA’s support for career and technical education:

California has been forward-leaning in implementing career and technical education programs that deliver results: The state now offers more than 13,000 courses that meet the admissions requirements of the University of California system.

California has also invested in Linked Learning programs across the state that integrate industry-based learning at the college-prep level, allowing students to acquire the skills needed to begin a high-potential career right after graduation. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

CLEVELAND’s technology training:

Another example is Cleveland’s “Project Lead the Way.” Project Lead the Way connects students with engineering businesses and organizations in the community. Children learn relevant subjects such as coding, robotics, and in some cases, 3D printing. This type of hands-on experience encourages students to engage in ways the traditional classroom often does not, and it introduces them to skills and subject-areas with high-potential futures. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

DENVER’s student transportation efforts (more from Chalkbeat here):

In Denver, represented today by Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from underserved areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express,” as it’s called, is a great example of how LEAs are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

FLORIDA’s dual-enrollment programs:

I think dual-enrollment is a great option for high schoolers that want to earn college credit and get a jump on their college, their post-high school studies. And Valencia [College in Orlando] is clearly addressing that need in a meaningful and major way. It’s a model that can be replicated in many other communities. (March 24 interview with Orlando’s WFTV)

FLORIDA’s tax credit scholarship program:

One young lady, Denisha Merriweather, failed the third grade twice at her assigned traditional school in Florida. Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic. She appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of her brother and mother, who both dropped out of high school.

But Denisha’s godmother intervened, and, because of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Denisha was able to attend a school that better met her needs.

Now Denisha is not only the first in her family to graduate from high school, but she also graduated from college and, this May, she will receive her master’s degree in social work. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

FLORIDA’s St. Andrew Catholic School:

INDIANAPOLIS’s “innovation schools” initiative (more from Chalkbeat here):

These schools are under the governance of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, but they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students.

I want to bring School 15 to your attention as an example of new thinking. School 15 has struggled for years with low-test scores, and the state gave it an “F” in 2016.  But in recent months, parents and teachers in Indianapolis have come together to propose School 15 become a “neighborhood-run” school under the “innovation schools” program.

This isn’t a school run by an outside, third-party operator – this is a school where parents are in direct control. The community takes ownership of developing the school’s structure, staffing and performance. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

MICHIGAN’s program to help people with disabilities join the workforce:

In my home state of Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined forces with state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein to level the playing field for a group that’s consistently underrepresented in the overall workforce: people with disabilities.

The initiative, MI Hidden Talent, provides training and resources to help businesses adopt inclusive hiring practices. (March 15 speech to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

MICHIGAN’s The Potter’s House private school:

After visiting The Potter’s House, a small private school in my hometown that provides scholarships to low-income, mostly minority students, I saw the struggle of so many families who were just trying to access the same opportunities and choices for their children that my husband and I had for ours. Schools like The Potter’s House gave kids the chance to succeed and thrive, but for every student who got the chance to attend The Potter’s House, I knew there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs. (March 13 speech to the Council of the Great City Schools, and a number of other mentions)

MICHIGAN’s City High Middle School:

In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, City High Middle School is nationally recognized and is ranked the third-best school in the state. Forty-five percent are minority students, and 98 percent of all students are enrolled in IB programs.

In conversations with parents and students who are part of City High, it’s clear how much they appreciate and value the opportunity that school provides. (Feb. 15, speaking to Magnet Schools of America national conference)

MILWAUKEE’s school choice program:

The longest-running program in the country, Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, is located in Lt. Gov. Kleefisch’s state of Wisconsin.

That program started in 1990, and is now one of four private choice programs in Wisconsin, serving more than 33,000 students in that state. If you add to that the population attending the state’s public charter schools, more than 76,000 students in Wisconsin are able to attend a school of their parents’ choosing.

One of these schools is St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, which serves almost exclusively students from low-income families.

One of those students, Jeffrey, described his education experience prior to attending St. Marcus as “setting him up to fail.” His traditional schools simply didn’t meet his academic needs.

When he enrolled at St. Marcus everything changed for him.

Jeffrey’s teachers took special interest in him, and today he’s a college graduate and works as an architectural designer. And he credits his success to the support of his family and his teachers at St. Marcus. (March 15, speaking to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

NEVADA’s turnaround school district:

One of those 25 programs is the Nevada Achievement School District, which was launched this year. The state identified the schools that were persistently underperforming, and has instructed the achievement school district to provide the families attending those schools with up to six high-quality, local options.

This is but the first step in helping more than 57,000 children attending Nevada’s underperforming schools, but it is a step in the right direction. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

WASHINGTON state’s support for virtual schools:

Another student I met, Sandeep Thomas, grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India with absent and neglectful parents. Sandeep was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey but continued to suffer from the experiences of his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington state, where Sandeep was able to join a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the comfort of his own home and develop at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, and also having earned 39 hours of college credit. Today, he’s working in the finance industry and is a public advocate for increased school options that allow students like him a chance to succeed. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

choice challenge

A Betsy DeVos-approved tax change is meant to make private school more affordable. Here’s why it might not work

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The just-passed tax law includes a big perk for families who send their children to private school: the ability to use certain tax-advantaged savings accounts, which until now could only be used to save for higher education, to pay for K-12 school, too.

That’s led to criticism from those who note that the wealthy stand to benefit the most and that local public school budgets could take a hit, and support from school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos, who argue it will expand access to private schools.

But there’s reason to believe that the move won’t make private school feasible for any more families — and that private schools are likely to raise tuition in response.

Here’s why: All families are eligible to use the saving accounts, known as 529s. That means unlike a lot of state programs that offer private school vouchers or tax credits, the 529s aren’t targeted at poor students, those with a disability, or other specific groups.

In a peer-reviewed 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of these two types of choice programs: those that are restricted to certain populations and those available to all. The latter group — that is, programs like 529s — didn’t lead to any increase in students attending private school, but did cause a sharp hike in school tuition.

This suggests these programs don’t function the way some advocates want them to. Instead of adding choices for families, they offer a windfall to schools. (Keep in mind that students could still benefit if private schools use that extra money to improve the quality of education they offer.)

There is one important reason why private schools may not react to this change in the same way. Although all families will technically be able to use the new 529 rules to save for private school, in practice, only families with enough money to put extra into one of the accounts will be able to participate. In that sense, it could function more like a targeted program, and those have been found to boost private school attendance.

In praising the initiative on Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged the fact that the program is unlikely to benefit poor families.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes and doesn’t empower them in significant ways.”

devos watch

Four takeaways from Betsy DeVos’s summit on innovation in K-12 education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos used her bully pulpit on Tuesday to again call for more school innovation, especially technology-infused “personalized learning.”

“Washington, D.C. does not have all the answers,” DeVos said at the Department of Education’s K-12 focused “Rethink Schools Summit.” “But government can be good at bringing people together to highlight their creative thinking and new approaches.”

It’s a familiar tactic for DeVos, who has been largely stymied in pushing school choice policies but has repeatedly put the spotlight on specific schools she finds innovative. Charter and private schools were well represented at the Tuesday meeting, which also included a number of district leaders and an array of others, including arts-education, homeschooling, and community-schools advocates.

Here are a few takeaways from the event:

Generalities outnumbered policy specifics.

There appeared to be broad agreement in the room on several general notions: Teachers are important, technology needs to be used, but used wisely, and schools must change to prepare students for a changing world.

“Technology is the not the answer,” said Tom Rooney, the superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District in California that has embraced a tech-infused approach that he calls customized learning. It’s “about using technology in transformational way to accelerate the learning.”

Rooney pointed to an effort to expand wireless Internet throughout the community, and to schools that group students by performance levels, rather than age or grade.

But DeVos’s request for participants describe “where impediments at any level of government are preventing you from achieving your mission” went largely unheeded. Two exceptions were concerns raised about state testing requirements and teacher certification rules.

Personalized learning was front and center, dovetailing with the goals of some big philanthropists.

The theme of the day was the notion of tailoring teaching to individual students — alternatively called personalized, customized, or student-centered learning.

This approach aligns with the agendas of several influential education foundations, namely the Emerson Collective, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. (Emerson and Gates are both funders of Chalkbeat.)

Among the speakers was Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit, a charter school network that also provides software to district schools to support tech-based personalized learning. Summit has been supported by the Gates Foundation, won an XQ prize from the Emerson Collective, and is backed by Chan-Zuckerberg.

Mark Zuckerberg specifically mentioned the group in a recent post describing his approach to charitable giving. “Our partnership with Summit Public Schools has helped encode their teaching philosophy in tools that will be used in more than 300 district, charter, and private schools this fall,” he wrote.

The leader of the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, which also won a $10 million XQ prize, was present, as was a representative of Leap Innovations, a nonprofit group that consults on personalized learning and has been praised by Bill Gates and Jim Shelton of Chan-Zuckerberg.

Some notable players weren’t present: prominent charters and virtual schools.

Those not at the summit included fully virtual charter school operators — like K12 or Connections Academy — who DeVos and some other school choice advocates have praised as innovative, but that research has found lead to large drops in student achievement.

Also missing: high-profile “no-excuses” charter networks, such as Achievement First, KIPP, or Success Academy, which have posted consistently high test scores.

There were bold claims of success, but little new evidence.

DeVos and other participants appeared confident that their focus on personalized learning will succeed, despite the limited evidence to date. Participants made big assertions, including district leaders saying that test scores and graduation rates had improved after moving to a different approach. But it’s difficult to say whether a more personalized approach deserves credit for these gains, and there was little reference to research evidence throughout the conference.

Summit, for instance, has not been the subject of much rigorous external study. The closest may be a recent report by Stanford’s CREDO, which only examined about 400 students in the Summit network. It found the schools had no statistically significant effect on reading test scores and small negative impacts in math. Summit has produced an internal analysis showing that students using its software made faster than average growth on a national test.

In general, personalized learning advocates highlight older research on the benefits of one-on-one tutoring, studies finding that specific math-focused computer programs can lead to gains, and a RAND report pointing to gains in schools that have adopted personalized learning. The RAND researchers, though, have urged caution.

“I worry that the positive results that have come out of our studies are generating a bit too much enthusiasm,” RAND researcher John Pane told Education Week in November. “I think people see the headlines, but they don’t see the limitations of the research that’s happened so far.”

Here’s the full list of participants:

  • Mashea Ashton of Digital Pioneers Academy
  • Nicole Assisi of Thrive Charter Schools
  • Carol Becker of Homeschool Cooperative
  • Beth Blaufuss of Archbishop Carroll High School
  • Michael Bolling of CodeRVA
  • Patricia Brantley of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • Jean-Paul Cadet of Prince George’s County Public Schools
  • Heather Clawson of Communities in Schools
  • Elizabeth Goettl of Cristo Rey Network
  • Kamal Hamdan of California State University and STEM Lab School
  • Christopher Hanks of Grand Rapids Public Museum School
  • Andrew Hart of The Oaks Academy
  • Chris Liang-Vergara of Leap Innovations
  • Stephen Mauney of Mooresville Graded School District
  • Carol Morgan of ArtsConnection
  • Tom Rooney of Lindsay Unified School District
  • Vielka Scott-Marcus of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • John Swoyer III of MaST Community Charter School
  • Diane Tavenner of Summit Learning
  • Ken Wagner of Rhode Island Department of Education
  • Travis Works of Cornville Regional Charter School
  • Doug Wright of Carroll County Schools