Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Is DeVos Really Handing Out "Tough Love" or Finally Realizing How Little Power She Has? She's Confusing the Rest of Us

A year into her job, Betsy DeVos is finally getting some perspective on the Every Student Succeeds Act and her job.  The problem is that is comes about a year too late and she does not like what she is discovering.  And no amount of spin can fix it.  She did make headlines with her supposed "tough love" talk, but when examined closely, it is mostly bluster and confusing.  

Before get into that, let's back up a bit to see how far she has come.  When she was riding high shortly after her nomination, I wrote that if she really understood the job she wouldn't want it.  The job she said she was coming to DC to do had already been done.  Well, its hard to admit ignorance and even harder to turn down a job as Secretary of Education, so she pressed on.

In December 2016, she said:  “It’s time to make education great again in this country. . . . This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core. . . . The answer isn’t bigger government — it’s local control, it’s listening to parents, and it’s giving more choices.”  What she didn't seem to know was that Congress had already gutted the Common Core and shifted enormous control back to states and districts.  For instance, the Every Student Succeeds Act bars the Department of Education from requiring or even suggesting that a state use the Common Core.  The Act is so anti-Common Core and anti-federal standards that DeVos and her staffers would get in trouble if they even brought the subject up.  The state accountability requirements, likewise, leave little room for the Secretary to object.  States have to include a few things like tests scores and graduation rates, but the scores they use, the amount of weight they assign those scores and the limitless number of other factors they consider is up to the states.

DeVos does not like what states produced under this system and now she is claiming to hand out "tough love."  A better description is talking tough because no one is listening.  Or making up boogeymen to see if anyone is scared.

Yesterday in her speech to State Education Chiefs, she said:

Just because a plan complies with the law doesn't mean it does what's best for students. Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won't pass muster around kitchen tables. . . . Some of your own governors–"Republicans and Democrats -- didn't like your plans either and refused to sign off on them. … [One] warned his state's superintendent that ‘adding layers of bureaucratic paperwork does little to help low-performing schools." … [A]nother governor lamented that his state's plan ‘stymies any attempt to hold schools accountable for student performance and includes provisions aimed at preserving the status quo in failing schools. . . .

For too long, many of you have operated – and in many cases, been forced to operate -- as if your work was only accountable to folks in my office. As if all that mattered in education was a sign-off from Washington… My predecessors, from both parties, often fell into the trap of a top-down approach.

Let's put this into perspective and  break it down.  First, ESSA returned discretion to states and said the bar for federal accountability was very low.  States, acting rationally, exercised that discretion and did as little as possible to comply with the law.  This doesn't mean they lowered the quality of education, but they stopped worrying about Washington.

Second, this is exactly what DeVos claimed she wanted before she took (and understood) the job as Secretary.

Third, DeVos is now realizing she doesn't like her job and how little power she has.  She cannot reject these state plans.  She can't demand higher expectations, more equity, or more adequacy any more than she can demand more choice.  So she signed off on them just like the law dictates she must.  

Fourth, you know who does have plenty of power?  The states.  She said it herself: "some of your own governors . . . refused to sign off on" the plans.  So ESSA worked just how it was intended.  States make the decisions and the Secretary will rubber stamp them.

Fifth, the truth is that DeVos probably doesn't like being a powerless Secretary any more than any of those who preceded her.  So she has to try something and she is doing the only things she can.  She is complaining and begging states to do better.  She is even trying to find a boogeyman to motivate them, since she lacks the power herself. 

But I can't figure out who the boogeyman is: is it accountability or non-accountability?  On the one hand, she says the problem is that states have too long been accountable to the feds.  That was a problem.  Now that they aren't accountable anymore, she says that is problem too.  It is a problem because they are not taking their freedom far enough.  Wait, maybe they did exactly what they wanted to do--as little as possible--and now they have the Secretary of Education telling them to do more--or rather begging them.  Seems a little contradictory and patronizing.


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