Betsy DeVos Has No Business Being Secretary Of Education

She couldn’t speak on proficiency vs. growth. This alone should disqualify her.
01/18/2017 02:28 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2017
Art by Jesse Mechanic

She couldn’t speak on proficiency vs. growth. This alone should disqualify her.

Betsy DeVos had a rough go of it yesterday during her confirmation hearing. She was hit hard by Tim Kaine, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, Bob Casey and Maggie Hassan and stammered through unspecific answers that showed her brazen lack of experience.  DeVos admitted that neither she, nor anyone else in her family has attended public schools, or worked in them, or has ever taken out a student loan.  She also once called the public school system a “dead-end.”

DeVos is a billionaire philanthropist who has spent decades working to expand access and funding for religious and charter schools and has lobbied for increased federal funding for school vouchers. She once stated, in response to a question about federal funding for religious schools, that her “desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”  She claims to believe in the separation of church and state, but this statement speaks to the contrary.  During the hearing, she said protections for disabled students should be left up to the states and refused to take a stand on whether or not guns should be allowed on school grounds, citing “potential grizzlies” in Wyoming. She also would not commit to continuing Obama-era safeguards which hold schools accountable for protecting trans students and actively fighting sexual assault.

All of these answers are concerning to be sure, but none are as concerning as her lack of understanding when it comes to one of the most basic issues regarding our educational system: proficiency vs. growth. Minnesota Senator Al Franken asked DeVos what her stance was on this issue.

Here’s the whole exchange which includes a bit at the end about DeVos donating money to orgs pushing gay conversion therapy:

It’s clear from her rambling response and her attempt to gain clarification that she had never heard of the proficiency vs. growth argument before.  This is astounding.  Or, rather, it should be astounding ― as Franken noted.  DeVos has zero experience and clearly hasn’t even bothered to do her homework and develop stances on issues central to her very important full-time job as the highest-ranking education official in the United States.  This is basic stuff.  This is one of the most popular, surface-level arguments one can have on educational policy.

The idea of proficiency vs. growth is rather simple. If an educational system chooses to assess students, and by extension teachers, success based solely on proficiency, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program did, it means that all students, regardless of their current level, their progress throughout the year, or the state of their school, are held to the same standards. Research by the AIR has shown that this approach can lead to the top and bottom performers receiving less attention from educators.  For the best students, there’s often an educational ceiling, which is never a good thing. And the students on the other end, the ones with no realistic shot of meeting the standards, can be ― ironically ― left behind. Proficiency-only systems are far too narrow to be broadly successful.

An example: A second grade student is a grade level behind in math.  Using a proficiency model, said student’s overall success would be based solely upon if he/she met the third grade federal standard at the end of the year.  Of course, this model entirely ignores the student’s abilities going into the year, and the amount of progress the student made overall. Perhaps at the end of the year, this student went from being a poor math student on a low first grade level to a solid student who falls just below the third grade standards.  Should this student’s progress and the work of his/her teacher throughout the year be seen as a failure? Certainly not.

The issues with proficiency models led to growth being factored into overall performance.  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed in 2015 and helped to decentralize standards, opening the door for student growth to become a quantitative, measured assessment.

Now some claim that rigorous country-wide standards are the only way to ensure students graduate with an appropriate level of education.  The counter-argument to growth-based models is that if we create standards tied too closely to growth, students may end up too far behind to succeed in college and beyond.

There are numerous improvement models, growth models, proficiency models and growth to proficiency models, and the bottom line here is that our secretary of education needs to be able to speak in depth on them.  He/She absolutely must have a deep understanding of our system and its deficiencies.

This wasn’t a gaffe; it wasn’t a lapse in judgment, it was a stunning display that proved Betsy DeVos has no business being anywhere near this office.

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