Betsy DeVos vs. the Educational Industry

There has been a good deal of hammering going on in the world of education ever since American businesswoman and education activist Betsy DeVos was named Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. So far, DeVos has taken this relentless pounding with grace. Perhaps this is because she’s lived long enough to know that when you study an issue for decades and don’t care about those wielding the hammer, you can move forward with new ideas and innovations gravely needed in the American education system.

Why is this overhaul of public education necessary? Every year I serve on a panel of judges for a national essay contest. Students send in their composition to vie for a series of cash prizes including a five thousand dollar grand prize. Their lone goal is to sling together no more than five hundred cogent words on a topic of American history. Aside from showcasing students' ability to write lucid sentences, the contest reveals the history knowledge (or lack thereof) of students between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.

If you think the education system in this country is fine and dandy, check this out:

The topic of the essay was how the U.S. Constitution leads public officials to make good decisions. Students were asked to read an article on the subject and comment. Here are a few gems from the 2016 contestants:

An example of one of these Events was when president Theodore Roosevelt has put Japanese Americans into internment camps

Almost a half-dozen students believed Teddy did the dastardly deed, including this one who confused the word “descent” with “decent” and ended the sentence mid-thought:

President Theodore Roosevelt's internment of Americans of Japanese decent.

In the continuing saga of essays and the quagmire of presidents and wars, there is this one:

This is exactly the kind of leadership that Harry S Truman illustrated when he made the decision for the United States to enter into World War I, (This was not a typo as World War I was repeatedly referenced throughout the essay.)

Then there are these beauties illustrating an inability to put one’s thoughts into a coherent sentence:

President Roosevelt did a few war preparing things during his term.

From President jefferson to current president barrack obama president have followed their duties given to them by the constitution but one that stands out among most is President Truman’s choice to use the atomic bomb on japan at the end of World War 2. (At least he got the right president with the correct war. Ding. Ding. Ding.)

The United States constitution is the overall law of the land that provides the government limitations on the government to protect the rights of the American Citizen

This one was bound and determined to sound intelligent:

History has prominently displayed that the actions of authoritative figures have widespread and influential effects of an extensive span of people.

Finally, there always seems to be one particular essay that comes out of left field. Here is this year’s winner:

Look, honestly I don't really want to do this essay or don't know what it is supposed to entail. However, my teacher is making me do this and I'm pretty sure he just wants the prize, and he doesn't really deserve it because we, as students, are forced to teach ourselves. Sorry for the waste of time.

This student was certainly able to make his thoughts known in writing. Sometimes young people have a way of articulating truth in a way that adults simply can't ignore. This last contestant complained that students “are forced to teach themselves,” which makes one wonder just what is or isn’t going on in that classroom. The essays would be funny if they weren’t so disheartening. And that bring us full circle back to Ms. DeVos.

In an unflattering piece in the Washington Post, DeVos was quoted with the following heretical views regarding the state of education in America:

It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry -- and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry -- we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.

DeVos outlined just what that Tesla might look like in an article in The New Yorker:

In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos expressed her ultimate goals in education reform, which she said she saw encompassing not just charter schools and voucher programs but also homeschooling and virtual education: “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the best opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”

Public school advocates consider DeVos’s unorthodox goals sacrilege. They point to the Detroit charter school program which she spearheaded. And they continually cite an analysis of that program conducted by the Detroit Free Press. Like many such studies, it is not without its champions or detractors. Not surprisingly, one critic was highlighted in The New Yorker:

After DeVos’s nomination, the editorial-page editor of the Free Press, Stephen Henderson -- whose own children attend a high-performing charter school  -- wrote a searing indictment of Detroit’s experiment. “This deeply dysfunctional education landscape -- where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children -- is no accident,” he wrote. “It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.” DeVos was at the center of that lobby; her lodestar, Henderson wrote, “has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it is not operated by government.”

On the other side, there is Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas who was incensed by a New York Times op-ed written by Doug Harris:

Several critics, including me, noted that the “well-regarded study” Harris cites actually finds that Detroit charter schools are producing significantly greater gains than traditional public school alternatives -- gains that are only slightly smaller than those in New Orleans and greater than in another high-regulation darling, Denver. 

Whichever side of the Detroit Free Press study one falls on, there is no doubt that an animated debate is currently underway about the state of American schools and how best to chart a new path forward. As excerpts from the essays in this article demonstrate, something must be done to help these students learn how to think and write – not to mention rudimentary factual information.

And while it may be true that Betsy DeVos never attended, taught or sent her children to a public school, one wonders if it isn’t high time for a change in the way the American education system is run from top to bottom.

In the words of that elegant wordsmith President Donald Trump, “What the hell do we have to lose?”

Leesa K. Donner is Editorial Director of and also writes commentary for CNS News.

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