Monday, November 28, 2016

Heroes Who Never Fight: U. S. Secretaries of Education (Betsy DeVos Edition)

Back in 2011, when I first started this blog, I complained about school reformers who talked and talked about leading a battle to fix the nation’s schools but didn’t ever seem to do any of the actual fighting.

Now, with Betsy DeVos the latest choice to lead the U. S. Department of Education I can almost recycle the article whole.

(I have also blogged about bicycling across the United States to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.)

It's a beautiful country. Get out there and see it.
(Grand Teton National Park.)

Anyway, here’s what I said six years ago. Almost every syllable still applies:

I TAUGHT FOR 33 YEARS, SO I INTEND TO USE MY BLOG to defend good public school teachers whenever possible. 

Still, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to know there are bad teachers. We used to joke of a colleague at my school that you could replace him with a cardboard cutout and students wouldn’t notice a difference. 

So, yeah, we need to do more to weed the dandelions in the classroom. 

When I started researching a book about education, however, I was stunned to find how little time our nation’s “leading” school reformers have devoted to the classroom. On November 30, 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler first United States Secretary of Education. It was the start of a bizarre trend.  

Hufstedler was charged with saving U.S. education. But in 1979, starting my fifth year in a classroom, I had more experience than the Secretary of Education. I had her beat by four years, two months. Hufstedler never taught a minute. She probably knew as much about teaching as I did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway or playing concert piano with the London Symphony. 

Mr. Carter plucked her from the federal bench. 

Terrel Bell, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, came next. Bell was actually tasked with dismantling the Department of Education, an idea most teachers might support today. Bell, at least, had tried his hand at teaching. He later became a principal and a superintendent in the Idaho and Utah public schools. 

William Bennett, Reagan’s second appointee and third to hold the position of Education Czar was another teaching virgin. Big Bill didn’t come out of any classroom. He came striding out of a think tank and started lecturing teachers about their failings. Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue” for adults.

Then he wrote a thinner volume: The Children’s Book of Virtues.  

Last but not least, he admitted a serious gambling addiction and blowing eight million dollars in Las Vegas. 

Lauro Cavazos Jr. was fourth in line, coming to the Department of Education straight from the university level, having never spent a day in his life working with K-12 students. He didn’t last long either. Cavazos was forced to resign after an investigation into misuse of frequent flier miles. 

Lamar Alexander was fifth. His first taste of Washington, D. C. life had not come working in a public school—of course not—but as legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker. Alexander did meet his wife during a softball game for Senate staffers. So that was kind of cool. Later, as governor of Tennessee, he won fame and got his face on a Time magazine cover for “reforming” that state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was just another virgin. Based on “his” success in Tennessee, however, Alexander was elevated to the cabinet post by President George H. W. Bush.  

President Clinton had the next crack at the problem and reached deep down into the classroom …no, no, no, we’re joking! He chose Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina as his U. S. Secretary of Education. Riley’s time in a classroom: 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes. 


George W. Bush had two chances to get it right and blew them both, turning first to Rod Paige and later Margaret Spellings. Paige, at least, taught and coached at the college level; but his real claim to fame was the “Houston Miracle” which supposedly occurred while he was in charge of that city’s public schools...In no time at all, Paige had inner-city high schools whipped into shape and principals were reporting zero dropouts. Mr. Paige was a genius and President Bush tapped him to work his magic as Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in real classrooms miracles are in short supply; and the “Houston Miracle” turned out to be completely bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school had reduced dropouts to zero by classifying all 462 students who left school during the year as “transfers.” 

Where they might have “transferred” to, whether another high school, or a nunnery, or another planet, was a mystery. 

Meanwhile, Secretary Paige huffed and puffed and couldn’t make No Child Left Behind work. True: states initially reported stunning test-score gains. On closer examination almost all the gains proved to have been achieved through sleight of hand. Most states simply made their standardized tests easier to insure higher passing rates and avoid penalties under new federal regulations. 

Paige eventually gave way to Margaret Spellings, who came to understand the processes of education not by working in a classroom but by serving on an education reform commission down in Texas. 

Spellings did her fighting for children from the safe distance of the rear. She fought for kids in spirit, you could say. 

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to believe education policy could get worse. When President Obama took office you could hope wisdom might prevail. 

Instead, we found ourselves saddled with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan was the hero who “reformed” the Chicago Public Schools, a man who once, ha, ha, just joking again…who got his start in education in administration and kept clambering up the bureaucratic ladder.

So you figure he learned everything there was to know about the challenges faced by real teachers.

Back in 2011, I made fun of several other “leaders” in the field of school reform. 
I will skip that part.

This will bring us up to date:

President Obama had a second chance to get it right, selecting John B. King Jr. to serve as tenth Secretary of Education. Mr. King did teach three years, two in a charter school, and did serve as charter school administrator for five more. So he wasn’t devoid of firsthand knowledge. Sadly, as New York State Education Commissioner, he pushed several misguided policies and was politely asked to leave. King wanted to link teacher pay to standardized test scores—ironically, on tests that later proved so badly flawed they were discontinued. He also pushed hard for Common Core despite the fact New York parents by the tens of thousands started opting out of all the tests.

In the meantime, Congress was supposed to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but failed to do so for eight long years, also failing to remedy flaws in the legislation. Duncan pushed a Race to the Top  initiative but his plan seemed to lead the children nowhere. Front line educators rightly came to suspect that  neither Mr. Duncan nor their representatives in Congress knew what they were doing.

Eventually, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Child Succeeds Act, which, for all we know, may be replaced by the Make Every Child Great Again Act under President Donald J. Trump.

If Betsy DeVos passes Senate muster, we will be adding a woman with zero teaching experience—with zero experience as a school administrator—who never went to public schools—who never sent her children to public schools—appointed by a man who went to private schools—a man who sent his children to private schools—and Mrs. DeVos will “lead” us to battle. I suspect she knows what most men and women who have held the post of Secretary of Education have known about working with America’s children. 

Next to nothing.

What she does understand perfectly is how to collect great wads of cash and then donate same to wily politicians. DeVos knows how to block laws she and her husband don’t want passed by skillful lobbying. She’s rich because her father-in-law founded Amway and her husband runs the company. 

In other words, everything in education is going to be great!! 

And, if the next set of “school reforms” proves as misguided as the last, or the last before that, or before that, or even before that, maybe this time schools can at least stock up on Amway soaps and cleaning products.

Because DeVos might not know kids; but she really, really knows her Amway.

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