Opinion: How will Trump’s education pick affect your school?
January 17, 2017
As Inauguration Day approaches, the press has focused much attention on Donald Trump's picks for cabinet posts, including Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. At a time like this, it's worth reflecting on the past trends in public education and then asking: What will the new secretary (if approved) bring to the table?
First, remember we came into Barack Obama's presidency with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in full swing. This re-authorization of an earlier federal education law was a bi-partisan effort, started under Bill Clinton and passed under George W. Bush, that emphasized school accountability. The idea that we hold schools accountable for public money has been politically persuasive over time: Make sure that taxpayers get their money's worth in public education.
To do this, law has focused on making sure that all kids are able to have highly qualified teachers, states build and maintain academic standards and tests of those standards, and emphasizes quantifiable outcomes in the form of test scores and graduation rates in order to track school performance.
Note that this argument has always been hard for educators to embrace since the idea that test scores reflect the real work of teaching and learning is really flawed.
During most of Obama's two terms, his secretaries of education focused on other means to make the same things happen. They put pressure on states to (1) adopt common "fewer, clearer, higher" curriculum standards, which took the form of the Common Core Standards, and (2) then test students to see if they have achieved those standards.
The idea here was that if we focus on "better" standards and we ask states to "work together" to build much better tests, we will do a better job at the NCLB goals. Arne Duncan rewarded states that used test scores to track student performance and then evaluate teachers with those scores. Again, educators balked, saying how could test scores for math and reading in third grade evaluate our second grade teachers, or gym teachers? (Good point, right?) Besides, do we even know how to measure student growth in achievement? Not reliably, the research shows convincingly.
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This leads us to today. We are facing new Washington leadership, including at the Department of Education. Betsy DeVos comes from Michigan where she has been a vocal and influential voice for school choice and the privatization of education. She herself is a product of Christian, private schools and was the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an organization that, according to its website, is devoted to supporting all efforts to increase school choice.
DeVos believes that allowing parents choices in how they educate their children benefits the system as a whole and helps the individual child. She believes that competition between schools also helps provide better educational settings for everybody.
So in many ways, DeVos continues the trend toward holding schools accountable to public money, and (since NCLB was reauthorized into the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015) she will still have to use graduation rates, teacher quality and test scores as a means to understanding what good schools are.
However, she will bring a different set of solutions to the entrenched problems, namely school choice. By doing this, she will likely use what power and funding she can to encourage school options and parent choice in those options.
Critics have cried out that DeVos is keen on diverting funding from public schools already strapped for resources to help fund private or religious schools. Also, critics rightly cite evidence that the success of school choice depends on the quality of options. Without "good enough" options, there will continue to be disparities in student experience, disadvantaging those kids who have the least power in the system. There is the issue of separation of church and state, too. Should public funding really go to religious schools?
School choice can work. I would argue that elementary schools in South Lake Tahoe are evidence of this possibility. The fact that parents can pick a school program is appealing to many parents in town. Choice allows parents to take responsibility for their children's direction and gives families investment and even identity in the schools they pick.
School choice also gives a different locus of accountability — from the government to the parents. By doing this, parents may have more reason to be involved. And parent involvement is known to be a huge predictor of student and school success.
All that said, I remain concerned about the relative success of all four elementary programs in town. The disparity in test sores between them does raise questions about whether programs are all getting what they each need uniquely to provide equitable opportunities for all our children.
When we have school choice, it doesn't mean that any parent can pick any school — there are limits in enrollment and programming that will force some decisions.
DeVos will make the argument that we need good options for every child. It's hard to argue with that. What's worth questioning is: How do we make sure every option is "good enough," especially when they all receive funding from taxpayers?
Annie Davidson, Ed.D., is the parent of two young children in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District. Her work in education has spanned the elementary classroom, testing industry and higher education. She currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and volunteers as much as she can. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.