Shooting the Grizzly
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s appointee for Education Secretary, achieved instant fame on January 17 when she told senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that public schools shouldn’t ban guns because they might need to defend their charges against “potential grizzlies.”
The next day, the staff of The Daily Showwith Trevor Noah called the school in Wapiti, Wyoming that DeVos referred to in her notorious comment and asked them whether they have a gun to defend against the ferocious wildlife surrounding their campus. “They said they don’t have a gun, because they have a fence and bear spray,” Noah informed his viewers.
If Trevor Noah was a student in my classroom, I would compliment him on exercising two vital 21st century skills: critical thinking and seeking evidence. I would also express admiration for Wapiti School for knowing that the best defense is usually just a good defense. “Thanks for taking the long view,” I would say, “and thinking about how your actions will play out down the road. That’s a real sign of maturity.”
I would point out these positive signs of development in my classroom because I, unlike teachers in many of our nation’s private and charter schools, have been trained to verbally reinforce student achievement so that everyone can learn from each other’s best efforts. And that’s not the only way I’ve been trained. My lesson plans have been pored over by education professors, peer mentors, department heads and administrators. I have been observed, written up, conferenced with, and evaluated. I have been exhorted to continually improve my instruction, constantly remind myself why I’m in this profession, and skillfully build relationships with parents, colleagues and most especially the kids.
I am a public school teacher.
At her hearing, DeVos said she “might have confused” the federal law determining how students with disabilities must be treated as a matter of their basic human rights (although she never mentioned what she might have confused the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with). My guess is that our likely Secretary of Education has never heard of another term drilled into the training program of every public school teacher: “differentiation.”
Well-trained teachers differentiate their instruction based on the learning needs of the students in the classroom at that moment. They include lots of pictures, diagrams and maybe videos for visual learners, read aloud or find educational rap music for those who learn best by listening, incorporate physical movement or “manipulables” for tactile learners, and so on. It’s not only parents who “no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child,” as DeVos said at her confirmation hearing: Teachers don’t believe that either, at least those of us who have the hard-earned education credentials required of every public school teacher in Ohio.
I don’t want to denigrate private and charter school teachers. I’ve taught at an Ohio private school, and the teachers there were excellent. And I know that many Cleveland-area charter schools hire only fully-licensed teachers. But the point is that they don’t have to, and in many cases neither the schools nor their faculty are held to the same standards of accountability that all public schools are held to.
That lack of accountability makes “school choice,” to which DeVos and her family have devoted tens of millions of dollars, a chimaera. Unless private schools and charters have to demonstrate results just like public schools do, there is no such thing as a well-informed choice because there is no data about academic success. Whoever puts on the best dog-and-pony show, or has the snazziest labs or the coolest computers, will collect your tax dollars. If it’s a charter or a private school, they’ll send those tax dollars to whoever is running the show - quite possibly a profit-driven corporation or a smooth-talking charlatan. They don’t have to invest in the most important and expensive aspect of schooling - professional, caring, utterly dedicated educators - at all.
It’s frightening that DeVos has zero personal experience with public schools, not even as a parent. But most plain old, non-billionaire parents know that you have to give your children consequences for problematic behavior. At her hearing, DeVos refused to commit herself to holding private and charter schools just as accountable as public schools for the tax dollars they would receive under her leadership as Education Secretary. That’s not just educational ignorance. It’s ignorance about the facts of life.
It’s shooting the grizzly, taking the quick way out that will lead to long-term negative consequences, instead of preventing problems from occurring in the first place.
There’s one more reason that DeVos is likely to be a historically terrible head of the Department of Education. According to The Washington Post, she or members of her family have made campaign contributions to almost half the Republican members of the H.E.L.P. committee. DeVos herself admitted to Sen. Bernie Sanders at her hearing that it might have been a total of around $200 million to the Republican Party.
As tens of millions of American schoolchildren know, to their sorrow and to many of their parents’ frustration, tests are meant to find out how much each student achieves when the chips are down. No smartphones are allowed in the testing area, and offering the teacher an apple (or even 200 million apples) isn’t supposed to change the outcome. In fact, there’s a word for offering the teacher a quid pro quo in a test situation. It’s called, “cheating.”
So our probable next Education Secretary not only failed to study for her test, confusing the inalienable civil rights of students with disabilities with . . . something or other. She also cribbed her answers, repeating “I support accountability” four times in a row to Senator Tim Kaine during her hearing, but finally admitting that she actually didn’t support equal accountability for charters and private schools when he slightly rephrased the question. Finally, she’s modeling the worst kind of academic dishonesty to 56 million K-12 students in this country, by greasing the palms of her test evaluators to give her a D- when she clearly deserves an F.
I hope that she at least knows what the word “modeling” means to real educators.