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Betsy DeVos’ Scary Story

October 31, 2020

It’s Halloween, and I’d like to tell you a scary story. Actually, I’d like to allow US ed sec Betsy DeVos tell a story scary for its lack of details and ultimately intended to drive her readers toward her pet goal of school choice, particularly private school choice.

I call it, “Did You Really Mean to Implicate This Parent?”

Put yourself in the shoes of the father whose son, a recent high school graduate, was honored in the local newspaper. Dad’s pride turns to dismay as he discovers his son can’t read or comprehend the article about himself. Dad marches over to the high school principal’s office, his son and the newspaper in tow, and asks his son to read the article to the principal. He, of course, can’t. The father pointedly asks the principal how he could’ve graduated his son—or anyone else—who can’t read. There is no defensible answer.

DeVos doesn’t say whether the high school in question is a traditional public high school, or a charter high school, or even a private high school for that matter, but let’s assume that she means to point her “government schools” finger at traditional public high schools. However, she is clear in her intent to blame the school for graduating someone who cannot “read or comprehend the article.”

So, here’s the scary part for DeVos’ message of parents knowing what is best: DeVos just implicated the parent. Of course, she did not mean to do so. She meant to place all blame for unnamed graduate not being able to “read or comprehend” a news article on the unidentified school. She meant for readers to identify with the unnamed father’s “dismay” at just learning that his son could not read (or “comprehend”). She meant for readers to have “no defensible answer” for that unidentified principal or the principal’s school.

That is what she meant.

But here’s what her story reveals– and what she does not question at all:

How is it possible that the father had no idea his son could not read– or comprehend– until that moment? Is it possible that the father never, ever asked his son to read until that one instance after the son graduated high school?

No asking the son to read aloud when the child was six? Ten? Twelve? 

No asking the son to read aloud at any other point in the child’s development?

No marching over to the school when the son was eight? Eleven? No parent-teacher conference? No request that the son be tested for vision problems? Dyslexia? Reading comprehension issues?

No modeling of reading at home? No father-son library visits? No asking the child, “What books are you reading in school?” and following up with, “Let’s read some together”?

Literacy should happen at school, but literacy does not begin at school. Literacy begins at home.

In a speech intended to show how to “fix education” by “embracing the family as the sovereign sphere that it is,” DeVos was so caught up in her school blame game that she unwittingly let that “sovereign sphere” completely off of the hook when is came to the alleged illiteracy of one member of that sphere going completely unnoticed by another member for an entire K12 school career. 

I teach high school, and I have noticed that students can be quite creative in concealing their learning deficits. They can pretend to not care. They can develop and refine the habit of copying off of classmates. They can conceal visual deficits by sharpening audio, memorization, and mimicking skills. They can try to charm their way out of deficit-revealing situations by negotiation and deflection. The list is long.

As a teacher, however, I need to get to the bottom of the situation as best as possible. For example, a student might try to avoid reading a speech assignment by just taking a zero, or by lying and saying “I forgot to do the assignment,” or by trying to get partial credit for writing the speech without reading it, or by speaking “off the cuff” with no written draft. But I must hear my students read. I must know if they can, and how well they can. And even though they are seniors in high school, I must keep my eye open for reading issues, including vision and processing issues and work with colleagues and parents to resolve such issues.

As a teacher, of course I rely on parents to help me help their children. I cannot do this alone, and the likes of DeVos should not expect for school responsibility and parental responsibility to travel separate paths. These two paths must intersect.

It’s not “school vs. parents.” It’s school and parents, both responsible, working together, to benefit children.

To believe otherwise– and to follow someone who actively promotes otherwise– now, that is scary.

Betsy DeVos


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  1. Laura H.Chapman permalink

    Betsy is like Trump. She will make up a story to justify what she wants to advance as an agenda. The story is perfect for the ultra-conservative audience at Hillsdale College, one that refuses to take any “govment” money and is entirely funded by private dollars. Bill Barr was a recent speaker at Hillsdale College. His speech was also scary Halloween worthy, as is the all-government-is-bad College itself. I do wonder if all roadways that get you there are also private and if they have their own weather service. I assume that they never use the govment-funded internet and so on.

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