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DeVos Rebukes State Chiefs for “Bare Minimum” ESSA Plans

March 8, 2018

On March 05, 2018, US ed sec Betsy DeVos spoke at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). It is the longest DeVos speech I have seen to date, and I have read many of her speeches.

DeVos spends much of her speech rebuking state ed commissioners for aiming for the bare minimum in their state’s ESSA plans.

Sounds like an average American classroom to me. I often confront students for making “passing with as little effort as possible” their apparent goal.

It seems that DeVos is having to push state chiefs for that excellence she insists will rise to the top via *choice.* And yes, her overall point in her speech is that state chiefs should pursue courses of action that produce more *choice.*

She cites Louisiana as an example of how to take advantage of ESSA via using letter grades to grade school, and she even concludes that F schools have “pretty clear consequences… including making other choices possible….” However, she does not address failure of the options, and how many years those “choice” schools are allowed to fail. Also, she does not acknowledge that Louisiana’s voucher program– which her American Federation for Children (AFC) Growth Fund advertises as an opportunity to help children “trapped in low-performing schools” to “attend a private school for free– is primarily utilized in almost-all-charter-via-state-control New Orleans, a district where the highest concentration of students qualify for vouchers because so many schools are graded D or F. And the greatest irony is that Louisiana’s voucher program is a failure itself. (For some background, see here and here and here and here and here.)

DeVos likes Louisiana’s school letter grades, which are chiefly based on test scores, but in her speech she decries “teaching to the test”– a fear-based byproduct of the corporate ed reform grading of schools and the primary basis of labeling a school as “failing.”

DeVos refers to Louisiana’s F-graded schools as “those schools” from which students need “other options.” But, but, but, she is willing for states to use other “performance” assessments– just so long as the likes of *clear* school letter grades remain in place to *inform* parents.

DeVos also showcases Louisiana for its Course Choice program, which has a history of being inadequately monitored, including generous access to student data without parental consent, as well as being a potential source of free labor. Nevertheless, for Louisiana’s choice options, DeVos offers no hint of a possible downside.

So, state chiefs, DeVos isn’t here to tell you how to run your states, but since you aren’t taking advantage of the *choice* angle to her liking, she’s willing to help you to see it her way. Rest assured, however: She says she is not going to “Arne Duncan” you into it. But she is going to dangle some “competitive grant” bucks in front of you to try to entice you to pilot a portability-of-funding program.

Oh, DeVos also refers to DC’s graduation scandal as “fudging the rules.”

From her speech:

Everyone wants students to be prepared for successful careers and fulfilling lives. And the truth is: we need that to be the case.

Except too many folks believe they should pursue that good end by centralizing federal power and wielding it aggressively.

As a result, you were threatened with inquiries, audits and even fines if you didn’t comply with the politics of the day in this town.

I’m committed to a different approach.

We won’t weaponize waivers to compel you to adopt this administration’s politics. If we wanted to dictate from D.C., I’d claim the mantle of our nation’s “choice chief” and reject plans because they don’t give parents more quality choices. But I haven’t done that. And I won’t. The Department is not the national school board.

This administration is committed to our Nation’s founding idea of separation of powers. The Department of Education doesn’t write laws, it implements them. Congress did its job. We’re doing ours. And now, you get to do yours.

ESSA was enacted partially in response to the widespread calls from state school chiefs – including many in this room — to give you the flexibility and opportunity to address your state’s unique challenges. Well, this law gives you that chance.

The trouble is… I don’t see much evidence that you’ve yet seized it. …

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. And I’m not alone in this view.

Some of your own governors – Republicans and Democrats — didn’t like your plans either and refused to sign off on them. Some were vocal about it. …

[A] 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.”

And by the way, I agree. …

Let’s start with ESSA’s “Annual State Report Cards,” one of the law’s calls for transparency. Parents need to know – and have the right to know — what is and is not working about their children’s schools.

Some parents want to be equipped to make a different choice for their child, and others want to know where their child’s current school needs to get better. …

We must do better for parents. For students. For our country. Louisiana, for example, uses an understandable A through F grading system with some pretty clear consequences for “F” schools, including making other options available to parents whose children are assigned to those schools.

We also should be able to clearly gauge the progress of all our nation’s students. That, too, hasn’t been a simple task over the years. Previous efforts focused on a goal – such as higher graduation rates — and if you didn’t meet it, you’d face the ire of “Big Ed.”

While that goal might have been laudable, we’ve seen what happens. Just look at the ongoing scandal right here in our Nation’s capital, where school administrators fudged the rules and graduated kids who otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible – all in response to top-down pressure.

Under ESSA, states must measure students annually in reading and math, but the law invites you to determine the standards, determine the instruments and find solutions for the rest.

Parents and teachers alike agree that education should move away from simply “teaching to the test.” We all know we need new solutions.

I’ve heard many complaints about how inadequate current testing regimens are, but only four states have shown interest in applying for ESSA’s Innovative Assessment Pilot – inspired by New Hampshire’s performance-based assessment.

The Granite State reduced standardized testing and enhanced locally-developed common performance assessments. They were designed to support deeper learning and to be more integrated into students’ day-to-day work.

Assessing the average assesses no one. Because there is no average student.

New Hampshire’s is but one new approach, but there are many other approaches that have yielded promising results for students. So, explore them!

Title I, as you all know, was established to assist students who come from low-income families. These students need your creative thinking, but too many plans are short on creative solutions.

“Direct Student Services” is one vehicle you can use to better serve these students. You have the option to set aside up to three percent of Title I funds to provide students with learning opportunities that would otherwise not be available. We actually asked Congress to raise that to 5 percent in our 2019 budget proposal.

But to date, only two states – New Mexico and Louisiana – have sought that flexibility.

Louisiana will use its 3 percent — nearly 9 million dollars — to expand its course choice program, offering new options to students. I’m encouraged that Louisiana is doing something, but ESSA encourages all states to use Title I funds creatively. Because today too many students are told “no.”

A student is bored in her math class and would be more challenged in an AP course? “Sorry, we don’t have AP here,” the system says. A student wants to learn a skill like welding because she wants to work for the advanced manufacturer in town? “Nope,” the system tells the student, “we don’t have that available either.”
I’m not comfortable with settling for those answers. I hope you aren’t either.

Course choice is but one way a state can embrace the law’s flexibility in the interest of students. States could also use their 3 percent to incentivize enrollment in public schools of choice. …

But I’d encourage you to go even further. Why not show how much money is being spent on each student and why? Is that different from the school down the street? And if so, why?

The student-centered funding pilot takes us in that direction. This competitive grant enables money to follow children based on their needs – not buildings or systems.

So as I’ve pointed out, there are some bright spots among the plans. But even the best plan is short on the meaningful solutions that the law encourages. Even the best plan doesn’t take full advantage of the law’s built-in flexibility. …

Because there is much work to be done. We must all do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st century and beyond.

Students need learning environments that are agile, relevant and exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced and challenging life-long learning journey.

But when you picture most of today’s classrooms, does the word “agile” leap to mind? What about “customized”? “Relevant”?

What about “customized,” Betsy? And “relevant”? I spent much of the past three weeks meeting individually with my seniors about their work on a research paper that surely will equip them for the next step they have indicated they wish to take: four-year college.

And what experience does Betsy DeVos have with “most of today’s classrooms” except to criticize them for not being places from which students might escape to some nonexistent, *choice* utopia?

Near the end of her speech, DeVos tells her audience to “question everything.”

I await the speech in which she questions her unwavering allegiance to choice, including facing the fact that charter and voucher choice open wide the doors of exploitation.

I realize this speech might take some time in coming.

Take your time, Betsy. When you’re ready, you can find me in my classroom.

betsy-devos-10  Betsy DeVos


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Marc Severson permalink

    Betsy DeVos is only interested in making public education into a growth industry with no real concern for results! She is a leech on our education system.

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law.

    AS I recall she announced early that reviews of state plans would focus on the bare minimums required by the law. Maybe I am wrong, or maybe she has adopted the switcheroo mindset of Trump.

  3. “We must all do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st century and beyond.”

    Buzz, is that you Buzz???

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  1. Higher-End Private Schools Aren’t Buying Into Betsy DeVos’ Voucher Crusade | deutsch29

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