Parents should still be concerned about Betsy DeVos
© Greg Nash

We all know that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos supports school choice, and that the organizations she funded, or in some cases founded, actively defended the Common Core national standards.

Now she’s offering more insight into her general philosophy of education — and parents should be concerned.

DeVos seems to be endorsing the concept of competency-based education (CBE). We’ve recently written about the myriad dangers of CBE, which in practice will prop children in front of computers every day and have them demonstrate their “mastery” of “skills” (frequently psycho-social rather than academic) that the government deems necessary for participating in the managed economy.

Students can do this at their own pace; so-called “seat time” will become less relevant. The sophisticated software will create algorithms that essentially map each child’s mind and determine the best place to slot him or her into higher education or employment.

It will inevitably be government-controlled training by machine, not education by human beings.


At an event called the Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Summit in Utah recently, DeVos spoke about the concept without using the phrase “competency-based education” or “CBE“: “[If you were starting from scratch,] I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.”


This terminology — “inputs,” “outputs,” “seat-time,” “mastery” — is right out of the CBE glossary. It’s fair to say DeVos supports CBE.

The spread of CBE also threatens not only public education but private education and homeschooling. As we’ve explained, CBE’ers want to have every student earn a digital “badge” or “certification” for every skill over which he demonstrates “mastery.” Institutions of higher learning, and employers, could then require applicants to produce these badges to be accepted for entrance or employment.

Homeschooling parents teaching a classical curriculum will have to get with the program if they don’t want to handicap their children’s prospects in the all-important workforce.

It’s significant in itself that DeVos chose to speak at this particular event. Funded by the usual suspects such as the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, the summit claims to be “an annual conference for everyone who matters in the learning and talent innovation community.”

The goal is to explore the “$76B global market” for “education and talent technology.” This year’s edition offered a cornucopia of 21st-century, progressive-education, workforce-development, machine-training Brave New World-ism. Presentations included “Connecting Ed and Tech: Partnering to Drive Student Outcomes,” “Industry as Educator: The Role of Enterprises in Teaching Future Skills,” and “Transform Any Teacher Into a Confident Coding Instructor.”

And of course, no CBE, digital-learning seminar would be complete without discussion of social-emotional learning (SEL) — which will be the dominant aspect of 21st-century public education. 

Proof that the foundation of this summit is straight CBE came from remarks by Arizona State president Michael Crow and other speakers, to the effect that any person can learn anything under the right conditions.

This, of course, is poppycock. It can be true only if we’re talking not about genuine education with real academic content, but about behavioral training. Not everyone can learn electrical engineering (this writer couldn’t), but virtually anyone can be trained through repetition, penalties, and rewards to demonstrate behaviors acceptable to the trainer. 

That’s CBE. 

It’s also worth noting that ASU is in some respects base camp for implementing this disturbing mechanization of education. ASU is closely tied to Knewton, the mind-mapping company whose founder, Jose Ferreira, brags of collecting billions of data points on students. This data-vacuuming enables the Knewton software to know not only what the student can do, but predict what he will do. Even Ferreira harbors the occasional worry about implications of this type of data-mining. 

In any event, DeVos is apparently on board with this new paradigm for public education. Combined with her leadership role at Jeb Bush’s pro-CBE Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), her summit speech clarifies that she’s sold on CBE.

The danger is that she’ll use her federal role to advance it, despite absence of any constitutional authority. She promised at the end of the speech “to get the federal government out of the way so that you can do your jobs.”

Let’s hope she’s serious about that.


Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins are senior fellows at American Principles Project, a 501(c)(4) organization that works to advance human dignity through public policy.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.