The States In A State

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What’s happening in the world of education over the pond?

As global, connected and outward looking educators it’s good to know what’s what and who’s who elsewhere.

We’ve got Justine Greening but who is her counterpart in the US? Meet billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s newly confirmed education secretary and she wants to make American education great again. Problem: she is not a popular pick.

Heavens to Betsy!

Labour unions, rights groups and teaching organisations have all spoken out against the appointment of Elisabeth Dee “Betsy” DeVos as the 11th United States Secretary of Education. She is the most controversial education secretary ever. Why? A few reasons are:

  1. She has never held a professional position as an educator

The last incumbent, Johnny King Jr, was a former teacher and public school administrator. Betsy DeVos has no such experience. Similar things happen elsewhere; the UK’s former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was a respected headteacher with 50 years experience in education yet his successor, Amanda Spielman, has no teaching experience.  Does this matter? Broader experience can add valuable insights and skill-sets outside education should be welcomed. Many disagree and say that DeVos lacks passion and doesn’t understand the breadth and scope of the role. DeVos has also been criticised because she no experience attending a public school or even sending her children to one.

  1. She has no IDEA

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, is a law that grants children with disabilities the right to attend public school and mandates that schools provide them with the services necessary to achieve success in that setting.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for DeVos, she appeared to be unfamiliar with the law at the most basic level. In response to  questions from Sen. Tim Kaine on the rights of students with disabilities under IDEA, DeVos stated,  “That is a matter that is best left to the states” and then went on to mention a Florida program that advocates parents of children with disabilities to sign away their IDEA rights in exchange for a voucher for a private school. DeVos was asked by Sen. Maggoe Hassan whether she knew that IDEA was federal law and that states were bound by it. DeVos then backpedalled, stating that she “may have confused” the law with something else. Many felt that DeVos was simply unaware that IDEA existed and were astounded by her lack of basic knowledge.

  1. She supports school vouchers

DeVos has said she wants every family to have “educational choice,” which is the umbrella term used to define efforts to privatize education by installing school voucher programs, which divert public funding to private and religious schools. DeVos has supported expanding charter schools and school vouchers, both as an advocate and as a philanthropist.

A Sad Day For Children?

Critics of voucher programs say they worsen existing inequalities and amount to an attempt to bring segregation back to the school system.

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, pulls no punches:

“DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives; and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school…DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation.”

Similarly, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said, “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities,”

So much for Trump’s promise to drain the swamp then.

Leader, Innovator, Disruptor

Starting out as an unpopular education secretary makes climbing Mount Everest look easy.  DeVos is facing vociferous opposition and is being called a monstrous mistake by teachers. When asked at her confirmation hearing whether she preferred using growth or proficiency to measure student achievement, she appeared confused and scrambled, conflating the two approaches and asked for clarification. DeVos is feeding the torch and pitchfork crowds with every word.

To be a respected education secretary you have to be credible. It helps enormously if you have educational experience but it isn’t always necessary. What matters is that you know the basics, know the facts and work in the best interests of children and teachers.

To be the most jeered and most feared education secretary in history means DeVos will fit perfectly into the Trump cabinet.

And we thought we had it bad with Michael Gove?  He was the most unpopular politician in Parliament at one time with a net likeability rating of minus 32. What rating would DeVos get I wonder?


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