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

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.