Betsy DeVos had a rough start. But 6 steps can make her tenure bearable
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Secretary DeVos’s confirmation process and first visit to a Washington, D.C. public school were potent reminders that Americans have passionate views about their schools.

Her success now will depend in large part on her willingness to rethink her own deeply held opinions, in the light of evidence from decades of research and practical experience. I urge the secretary to try and boost public confidence in her leadership by focusing on six foundational lessons:

1. The most important goal of the agency is to help improve public schools.

Americans have voted with their feet: Even after 50 years of debate, advocacy, and research into mechanisms designed to privatize education, roughly 90 percent of our kids still attend traditional public schools.

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The secretary’s prior efforts notwithstanding, vouchers have not been taken up by large shares of the public, where they have been tried the results have been mixed at best and the American public and the high court remain uncomfortable with use of public funds to support religious education.

 

Given her need to set priorities she should focus on bettering public schools — a central institution in all our communities.

2. Innovation is a good thing.

But as Bill Gates once said, “an innovation without evaluation is just a fad.” The secretary is a big fan of charter schools, an experiment designed to bring relief from bureaucracy and empower families to choose schools that seem best for their children.

She needs to know what the research shows: effective charter schools depend on strong community involvement and flexibility — but also on adequate regulation and accountability; there is at least as much variability of quality within the charter sector as there is between charters and traditional schools; and charter systems can exacerbate rather than remedy racial and economic disparities.

Let’s avoid the false dichotomy of charters vs. regular schools and insist on objective information to guide improvement of all schools.

3. The Department’s central mission is to improve educational opportunities for all learners.

Ensuring that poor and minority children and those with special learning needs have a fair chance to succeed in school has been a major reason for a federal role in education.

Because income inequality has grown dramatically during the past four decades (a fact that was emphasized throughout the presidential campaign), and because racial and ethnic disparities continue to plague the system, the department needs to double down on its commitment to redress inequities and help children succeed regardless of their backgrounds or disabilities.

4. Public education serves civic as well as academic goals.  

The secretary must keep in mind the historical evidence: Public schools are the primary places where children from diverse backgrounds come together and prepare for productive citizenship in our vibrant and complex democracy.

Of course science and math are essential; but so are social and behavioral skills, teamwork, civil discourse, and creative thinking especially in our changing technological world.  As our society becomes more diverse, and as social divisions and political rhetoric become more contentious, we neglect the civic purposes of education at our peril.

5. Our system of higher education is still considered the most remarkable in the world.

Casual talk of “disruption” is not helpful. We need to ensure that our colleges and universities are affordable and accessible, that they continue to advance American and world science, and that a full range of postsecondary options are available and relevant in an era of rapidly changing skill demands.

The secretary should emphasize the importance of diversity in campus life, academics, and study options; strive to bolster capacity for research that yields knowledge for the public good; and honor and defend the basic principles of academic freedom that have made the system as great as it is.

6. Good data is essential.

If not for the federal investment in research, measurement, and assessment through the Institute for Education Sciences and National Center for Education Statistics, we would not know how well our students are achieving over time or in comparison with other nations, what trends are affecting the broader enterprise of education, and what interventions have the greatest chance of succeeding.

A high priority for the secretary should be acknowledging the role of credible scientifically-based research to guide education policy at all levels.

I offer these ideas in my own name, though I would not be surprised if many of my colleagues (at GW and in the National Academy of Education) agree. Even in an area as politicized as education, there are core issues for which a strong consensus is discernible.

I hope Secretary DeVos will consider my suggestions in the spirit of bringing some unity to a badly divided society on the issue that means the most to most people, namely the education of our children and adults.

Michael Feuer is Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, and president of the National Academy of Education. His new book, The Rising Price of Objectivity: Philanthropy, Government, and the Future of Education Research, was published by Harvard Education Press in November 2016. 


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