Donald Trump's Cabinet picks are an interesting lot. They range from people openly hostile to the agencies they are being asked to run (Andrew Puzder and Scott Pruitt), to those who have no background or expertise in the job they are being asked to do (Ben Carson ). But out of all of his picks, the absolute worst has to be his nominee to run the federal Department Of Education, Betsy DeVos.
No one will dispute the claim that there are serious problems with American public education. There is a terrible inequity in school funding that keeps economically disadvantaged students in underfunded schools. There are concerns that American students are seriously behind other western countries in math and science performance. There are many schools that struggle with funding for arts programs and other "frills" that are the first things to be cut when money gets tight. And there is the ongoing discussion about high stakes testing. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos proved that she has little knowledge of those, or any other, issues currently facing public schools and their students, staff, and administration.
DeVos's interest in public education has been largely in an attempt to destroy it. She and her family foundation have been beating the drum for two of the right's favorite school issues for a number of years: school choice and vouchers.
Education professionals in DeVos's home state of Michigan know her well. Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook had this to say about her in November, shortly after Trump tapped her to join his Cabinet:
In Michigan, we know firsthand how disastrous DeVos' ideology is, as she has spent decades wielding her family's money and influence to destroy public education and turn our schools and students over to for-profit corporations.
DeVos's confirmation hearing made headlines thanks to her nonsensical comments about allowing guns in schools. She seems to think the country has a serious problem with grizzly bears eating children, making guns a necessity in some areas. But by focusing on that issue, the media is missing something that we all should be much more concerned about.
Since the creation of George W. Bush's signature piece of education legislation, "No Child Left Behind," states and public school systems have been grappling with high stakes testing. In many locales it is the single most contentious issue in education. And DeVos proved she is completely clueless about it.
Senator Al Franken asked DeVos a question about how testing should be used. Specifically, he wanted to know whether DeVos thinks test scores should measure student proficiency or growth -- an important question that has been the topic of much discussion in recent years. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard that deals with whether or not a student has mastered certain (still arbitrary) objectives. Growth is a measure of the progress the student has made between assessments. DeVos didn't have a clue what Franken was talking about.
In her reply, DeVos thought she was talking about proficiency. But she was talking about growth. She said,
I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.
Franken corrected her, explaining,
Well, that's growth. That's not proficiency.
As Franken explained the terms to DeVos, she made it clear she still had no understanding of the terms "proficiency" and "growth." When Franken referred to proficiency, DeVos interjected "you're looking backwards." Once again, she gave a definition of growth. The problem with using proficiency as a standard is that there's no interest in what a student has done in the past. The only concern is what the student knows at the moment he or she is tested. It's an important distinction and DeVos seemed incapable of grasping it.
Many proponents of school choice say they want to help get students out of "failing schools." And they often use test scores as a means to determine which schools they believe are failing. Defining failure by lack of student proficiency is a far different thing than defining it by lack of student growth. And getting all students to meet arbitrary proficiency standards is a different challenge than growing their knowledge and skills. DeVos should know that, but apparently she doesn't.
Fortunately for the country's public school students, most education matters are handled at the state, not the federal level. The federal Department Of Education is responsible for enforcing non-discrimination laws and overseeing things that concern the education of mentally and physically handicapped children. It also sets the tone for education policy, and enforces statutes such as "No Child Left Behind." But it has basically no control over things like curriculum development or what programs are offered to students.
That's not to say that Betsy DeVos as the head of the Education Department won't have serious impacts on public education, particularly if Trump manages to sell Congress on some sort of voucher program. But in this case, local control may be the thing that guarantees we'll still have a public education system when she and Trump are gone.