Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took to task previous administrations – both Democratic and Republican – for taking too heavy-handed an approach in driving education policy, resulting in stagnant academic achievement despite billions of federal dollars spent.
DeVos Hits Bush, Obama on Education Policy
The education secretary reiterated her belief that the federal government has been too heavy-handed in its approach to education.
“Politicians from both parties just can’t help themselves,” she said. “They have talked about painting education in new colors and even broader strokes. But each time, reform has not fundamentally changed the system. Each attempt has really just been a new coat of paint on the same old wall.”
The secretary spoke Tuesday at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where panels of education policy experts explored the similarities between the Bush and Obama administrations’ use of federal authority to prod – and in some cases, require – states and school districts to adopt a host of education reform policies.
“Let me be clear that I’m not here to impugn anyone’s motives,” DeVos said. “We won’t solve any problems through finger-pointing. I also don’t intend to criticize the goals of previous administrations’ education initiatives.”
She then went on to do exactly that, criticizing everything from the heavy-handed accountability system included in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law to the billions of dollars in competitive education grants that the Obama administration relied on to persuade states to adopt its policy preferences.
“We saw two presidents from different political parties and philosophies take two different approaches,” she said. “All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem. Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”
She continued: “Perhaps the lesson lies not in what made the approaches different but in what made them the same: the federal government.”
But DeVos rejected that there was anything positive to come out of the past 16 years of federal education policymaking, with the exception of the expansion of charter schools.
“I don’t think there is much we can hold on to from a federal level,” she said. “From a federal policy perspective, there is not much you can embrace as having been successful.”
To be sure, research on the effectiveness of the policies driven by the Bush and Obama administrations isn’t conclusive, with some policies resulting in improvements in some states and districts and others barely moving the needle. One of the more oft-cited investments – and one that DeVos wasted no time noting – is $7 billion in federal funding aimed at turning around the country’s poorest performing schools, which yielded few positive impacts outside of Massachusetts and California.
But the dozens of panelists who spoke Tuesday agreed that, taken cumulatively, the prodding of the past two administrations has reinvigorated the states’ role in taking charge of their education systems, which they said was undoubtedly a positive development.
The secretary’s remarks highlight the quandary administrations, including the current one, face in not overstepping their authority while at the same time outlining a set of preferred policy priorities and holding accountable states and school districts to various federal laws.
Case in point: While DeVos used the majority of her remarks to rebuke the federal role in education, she also pitched a radical rethinking of the nation’s school system – one that empowers parents with, among other things, more educational choices for their children and one that reorganizes K-12 schools entirely.
“We need a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation,” she said. “Why do we group students by age? Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address?”
One way she hopes states and school districts take on those challenges and more, she said, is through the education plans states are currently cementing under the federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“Under ESSA, school leaders, educators and parents have the latitude and freedom to try new approaches to serve individual students,” she said. “My message to them is simple: Do it. Embrace the imperative to do something truly bold, to challenge the status quo, to break the mold.”
Under the law, which gives states new flexibility to create accountability systems that suit their unique needs, the Education Department must vet and clear those plans. That process is ongoing and generating some concern about states’ commitment to following the law, their proposals to ensure historically disadvantaged students have access to quality education, and the department’s capacity – and in some cases, lack of desire – to police it all.
“Those words on paper mean very little if state and local leaders don’t seize the opportunity to truly transform education,” she said.