Why I worry about Now-Secretary DeVos

We all know the litany of talking points. She’s bought her seat with donations to Trump’s campaign and many Republican legislators. She’s never been in a public education classroom, not as a student, parent, or professional. She wants to have religious [Christian] education in public schools and use tax money to fund Christian/Catholic schools (remember the whole not-respecting-a-religion, thing, Constitutional close-readers?). And of course, she failed miserably to testify with reasonable responses in front of the HELP committee (biggest threat to schools -> bears -> arm the teachers!).

That should be enough to horrify anyone, but it apparently was not, considering Ms. DeVos was confirmed with a tie vote, broken by Vice President Pence, earlier today, in the least surprising action of this administration thus far.

I overheard some of my coworkers speaking today, trying to convince a colleague of why DeVos is a bad choice, and it sparked a long chain of argument within myself leading to this post. They directed the colleague to her responses to the questions she was asked in her confirmation hearing, specifically the answer she gave to Sen. Al Franken on proficiency versus growth:

“I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area,”

This is a super vague answer, and it is concerning that she seems unfamiliar with the concept of measurement considering she has been involved in advocating for charter schools over public schools. (If you are arguing for one over the other, shouldn’t you have a metric for measuring how one is better…?)

Further, measurement is a core function of the Education Department. Legislation like No Child Left Behind and the recent update, Every Child Succeeds Act, require that states educate children to reach certain thresholds of achievement. How these thresholds are measured and should be measured is what Franken was asking: should they be measured by having every student achieve a certain level of proficiency (same standards for every student), or should schools be rewarded for accelerating student achievement from previous years’ levels as growth (working towards the same standards, but focusing more on decreasing the achievement gap).

There’s a lot of thought and argument around this, indeed a whole field of policy and research. It seems common sense that we want every child to succeed at the same level and get the same education (measurement of proficiency), but reality shows that it is much harder in practice. For a student with an unstable home life, who lacks food at home, whose parents do not speak English, who struggle with a learning disability, and so many more challenges, it is impossible to expect that these students succeed at the same level as students with every advantage in the world. However, if we can get these students closer to their advantaged peers, then we will be in a good place (measurement of growth).

But it’s not as simple as just deciding how to measure this. To make the laws have any bite, NCLB had carrots and sticks. Every state had to set benchmarks and standards, and administer yearly tests. Well-performing schools received money (carrot) while poor-performing schools had funding removed (stick), experienced staff layoffs and leadership control by the state (big stick) and sometimes were closed and replaced with private or charter schools (big, big stick). This has changed a bit over the years, but ESSA will continue the general trend.

This decision will effect local schools at the most granular level: is a school is making great strides in growth among their students and DeVos wants to measure proficiency, then tough cookies, the school will have money withdrawn and staff fired until the school is eventually closed. For areas that are already struggling, this is a terrible strategy for obvious reasons, especially bad if the school is in a rural area where students cannot access another school.

If that is not enough, many states are moving to have teacher assessments include student achievement data to measure efficacy, or if the teacher is a “value add” to the student experience, as opposed to a value loss (the student suffers under the teacher). While this in itself is not a bad idea, implementation can make or break it. If the formula is flawed, teachers may be inappropriately measured. What to do about students who join or leave halfway through the year? And so on. Teachers who do not make enough of a difference with their students can expect pay deductions or firing.

The base of these “value add” assessments is growth. If the DeVos ED decides to measure by proficiency instead… well, teachers will not fare well. It is rare to find a school with it’s classrooms hitting all targets (I have never seen one, and I’ve been involved in education in 4 districts across 3 states, and interned at ED in the Teacher Quality assessment team). If that becomes the goal, then expect nearly every teacher to be immediately put on notice.

If you love teachers, or benefited from public education, or your children benefit from public education, or if you are an employer who benefits from a well-educated workforce, or if you want to live in a country with educated citizens, you should be pissed that the head of education in our country is this oblivious to what basic questions represent, and that our president nominated her, and that the votes of our senators were purchased.


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