Experience Matters

The new Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, is receiving quite a bit of slack for this recent interview. Although the interview covers a variety of education-related topics, I want to focus solely on the question and answer regarding her visit to Jefferson Academy Middle School, in Washington, D.C. Full disclosure, I have the privilege of working at this school and alongside a talented group of school leaders and teachers. Now, as much as I can take offense to her unfounded critiques of my colleagues, I rather focus my attention on the question and response, itself, through the lens of a five-year, public middle school teacher.

Before I analyze her response, I want to first evaluate and unpack the interviewer’s question.

Question: “There have been many programs to improve public education through Democrat and Republican administrations. And yet American students continue to lag behind in areas like math and science. Why haven’t those programs worked? What has been the missing piece in these noble and sometimes very expensive efforts?”

This question is dependent on the following assumption: there is a single missing piece or simple solution to “fix” the American public education system. Unfortunately, the interviewer is not the only person who suffers from this logical fallacy. In my professional opinion, both political parties fall victim to the silver bullet narrative in education reform. For liberal leaning education reformers, this assumption is often promoted by the “teacher as savior or superhero” narrative, where we (wrongly) celebrate the teacher who works 100 hours a week or until they “burn out” and leave the profession, altogether.

For conservative leaning education reformers, this fallacy is used to promote the idea and policy of school vouchers and/or school choice. Even though this policy makes for great campaign rhetoric and talking points, school vouchers and/or choice, albeit a parent’s right, is not a strategy for “improving” public education. Think of this policy “solution” as more of an “out,” than a evidenced-based approach to improving a “failing” public school. In fact, this approach feeds off the following narrative: if a school is failing then it must be due to bad leaders, teachers, unions, etc. This rationale is either too disconnected from reality or too simplistic in scope…or a combination of both.

But, this is a discussion for another day.

For now, let’s turn our attention to the Secretary’s response.

Response: “Because top-down solutions never work in anything. I think the more states and locales are empowered to innovate and create and are unencumbered by unnecessary regulations and sort of beaten into a compliance mentality vs. a can-do and results oriented mentality …(the more what?) It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that any type of top-down solution, no matter where you try to employ it in government, it’s not successful. This department just invested $7 billion trying to improve failing schools and there were literally no results to show for it. I need to stress that I could not be more supportive of great teachers and great teaching, no matter what kind of delivery vehicle they are teaching through. We have to support great teachers. They just have to be freed-up to do what they do best. I think in many cases they are limited by the top-down, one size fits all approaches, either at the school level, the district level, the state level, or in all too many cases, the federal decree.”

Believe it or not, I agree with the Secretary’s opening statement, i.e. top-down solutions can be counter-productive. As an experienced classroom teacher, I’m all-too-familiar with how often last school year’s “hottest” district-wide initiative is replaced by this school year’s “shiniest” one.

That said, I’m not sure what the Secretary means when she says teachers “have to be freed-up to do what they do best?” In my opinion, this statement needs more unpacking. Does it mean we should do away with teacher and/or school accountability? It’s important to note that school and teacher accountability, in principle, is welcomed by school leaders and teachers. The “accountability” debate isn’t a matter of semantics, but an issue of implementation. That distinction is missing in the Secretary’s response, and is critical to understanding the current education reform (national) debate/discourse surrounding school and teacher accountability systems.

For example, teacher accountability is generally welcomed by school leaders and teachers so long as it’s reasonable and holistic, in design and implementation, and not heavily-based on standardized tests results. As far as I’m concerned, neither political party holds a monopoly on how to “fix” our public schools or create a fair school and teacher accountability system. In my professional opinion, what needs “freeing up” is education policy from the political/campaign arena – a sort of separation between campaign season and everyday classrooms, if you will.

But, I digress. Let’s return to the Secretary’s response…

“I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”

I’m not sure how the Secretary can draw this level of analysis based on a brief conversation with a select number of teachers. For me, this represents an example of searching for “evidence” to confirm one’s original bias. As a teacher at Jefferson Academy Middle School, I can attest that we have some of the most dedicated and talented leaders, teachers, and support personnel on planet Earth, let alone within the U.S. Sure, one can view our standardized test-based “numbers” and, illogically, infer that the we – as a community of educators – are not holding our weight. But, if you solely depend on this data point to base your evaluation, then your approach and analysis is flawed from the start.

Although I’m sure the new Secretary of Education means well, her narrative – or her view of public schools – is severely flawed and simplistic, at least as evidence by this response. However, I’m not surprised that the new Secretary of Education demonstrates a disconnect from the realities “in the classroom.” And, to be fair, Betsy Devos is not an exception to the rule. In fact, since 1980, there have been four of twelve Secretaries of Education that have experience as a school leader or classroom teacher. With such a dismal track record for selecting experienced leaders, why do we expect anything more from this new Secretary of Education? Ladies and gentlemen, experience matters across all careers and industries. If we want an effective Secretary of Education then we must insist that experience, and not political contributions or connections or abstract buzzwords, matters most for this post. Anything else will produce the same mediocre results and disconnected narratives. We can and must do better!

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