Betsy DeVos' New Hype; Same as the Corporate School Reformers' Old Hype

01/03/2018 12:41 pm ET

As usual, I turned on C-SPAN when washing the dishes, and was surprised to learn that an Education Innovation Summit was being broadcast. However, its rhetoric wasn’t surprising. It was déjà vu all over again.

The innovators proclaimed the transformational gains that occur when High Expectations! replace “Excuses,” and the “status quo” is disrupted. When teacher-directed instruction is replaced with “student-centered learning,” schools can guarantee that their curriculum is mastered by all, while nurturing “life-long learning.” The participants in the discussion explained the implausible hypothesis that the aligning of incentives can produce measurable gains while not treating children as test scores.

Superintendents of two of the nation’s biggest school systems and some of the largest charter school chains, including virtual schools, said that they have moved beyond compliant to collaborative cultures. Their graphs showed dramatic increases in the numbers of students they have taught to be college-ready. When “paradigm shifts” like the portfolio model are embraced, they claimed huge gains for all kids can be sustained.

Okay, I’m joking. The words of the panelists in Betsy DeVos’ Education Innovation Summit were interchangeable with those of education reformers of the last 15-20 years, but the panel was completely different. The participating superintendents lead districts that barely have more than ten thousand students, combined. Even though private schools and home schoolers were well represented, the major charter providers, and the largest virtual schools were missing. No evidence was provided that successes in these small systems can be scaled up.

Also, their words were kinder and gentler than those of innovators showcased by the Bush and Obama administrations; the teacher-bashing of the past was conspicuously absent. Panelists were restrained in discussing the question which DeVos asked them. It was explained that reformers are treated like “intruders” for challenging “system entitlement.” But, when the “hubris” of reformers who have been vocal in proclaiming their enormous gains in student performance (in comparison to traditional public schools who don’t “put students first”) is checked, all types of schools can stop being defensive and borrow their “best practices.”

At this point, I want to thank the reform leaders who didn’t attend and express my sincere hope that we can end our education civil war and unite against Trumpism. But I also must make a point that will anger school reformers.

Matt Barnum used to write for the anti-union reform organization, The 74, but now his reporting for Chalkbeat is fair and objective. Barnum notes that the DeVos panel’s personalized education “approach aligns with the agendas of several influential education foundations, namely the Emerson Collective, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.”

One speaker was Diane Tavenner, the founder of the Summit charter school which is supported by Gates and Chan-Zuckerberg. However, high-profile “no-excuses” charters such as Achievement First, KIPP, or Success Academy were not represented. Moreover:

Those not at the summit included fully virtual charter school operators — like K12 or Connections Academy — who DeVos and some other school choice advocates have praised as innovative, but that research has found lead to large drops in student achievement.

Barnum reviewed the panel discussion, noting that “participants made big assertions,” but “generalities outnumbered policy specifics.” He heard “bold claims of success, but little new evidence.” Barnum explained that despite DeVos’ and other participants’ confidence in personalized learning, there is “limited evidence to date.” He writes:

Summit, for instance, has not been the subject of much rigorous external study. The closest may be a recent report by Stanford’s CREDO, which only examined about 400 students in the Summit network. It found the schools had no statistically significant effect on reading test scores and small negative impacts in math. Summit has produced an internal analysis showing that students using its software made faster than average growth on a national test.

I hope school reformers will remember Barnum’s analysis when asking themselves whether they will collaborate with the Trump administration. But I also hope they’ll remember the difference between the facts he cites and the hype funded by Gates and Chan-Zuckerberg. When reformers ridicule the public relations spin of DeVos and company, they should also take the edu-philanthropists’ sales pitch with a grain of salt.

Secondly, rather than just laugh at the scripted soundbites featured by DeVos’s panel, I’d ask reformers to consider what we teachers felt when they attacked us, and our complex education system, in the same simplistic way. Back then, the theory was that public schools were so badly broken that there was no time for research-based, planned interventions. Noneducators felt that the system couldn’t get worse, so why not try the Billionaires Boys Club’s hunches? When educators balked at their silver bullets, we were targeted by Waiting for Superman and the rest of their teacher-bashing campaign.

Whether we do it separately or together, advocates of traditional school improvement and charter-driven, test-driven reformers must fight Trumpism. I expect that almost all of us can agree that the DeVos sales pitch for personalized learning as a means to scale up school improvement is not trustworthy. I’d hope that reformers would remember their equally simplistic claims before Trump took office, and understand why we practitioners couldn’t trust their silver bullets.

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