Monday, November 28, 2016

Heroes Who Don't Fight: America's School Reformers (Betsy DeVos Edition)

Back in 2011, when I first began working on this blog, I complained about school reformers who talked and talked about leading a battle to fix the nation’s schools but never seemed to join the actual fight.

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

In fact, the may end up being the worst choice yet. And when it comes to ineptitude in the field of education, she has some stiff competition to beat.


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

This is a beautiful country; get out there and see it.

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. 

We need to do more to weed the dandelions in our classrooms. 

When I started researching a book about education, however, I was stunned to find how little time our nation’s “leading” reformers have spent in 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 teaching experience than the Secretary of Education. In fact, I had her beat by four years, two months. Hufstedler never taught a minute. She probably knew as much about teaching as the average American did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway or playing concert piano with the Chicago Symphony. 

Mr. Carter plucked her from the federal bench. 

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

So: Go Terrel Bell!!

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 immediately started lecturing teachers about their many egregious failings. Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue” for adults.

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

Later still, 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 level 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” his state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was just another K-12 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 zerodropouts. Clearly, Mr. Paige was a genius. President Bush tapped him to be Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in real classrooms miracles are in short supply. The “Houston Miracle” turned out to be completely bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school reduced dropouts to zero simply 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 Pluto, 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 might say. 

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to imagine education policy could get worse. When President Obama took office you could only 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 kidding…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 soon proved so badly flawed they were discontinued—and pushed hard for Common Core despite the fact New York parents by tens of thousands started opting out of testing.

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

Congress, for various reasons, saw its approval rating fall below 30% in August 2009 and stay there. 
Congress dropped below the 20% mark in December 2011 and remains there to this day. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.)

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.

After a rocky confirmation hearing, Ms. DeVos was confirmed by the Senate only after Vice President Mike Pence broke a rare 50-50 tie. What we were left with, then, was a woman with zero teaching experience. She had zero experience as a school administrator. She never went to public schools when she was young. She never sent her children to public schools either. She was appointed by a man who went to private schools—a man who sent his children to private schools—and Mrs. DeVos was going to “lead” us all in battle. I suspect she knows about what most men and women who have held the post of U. S. 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 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!! 

If the next four years of “school reforms” prove as misguided as the last four decades maybe this time schools can at least stock up on Amway cleaning products.

Ms. DeVos might not know anything about the challenges public schools face or the lives of public school kids.

She does, however, know her Amway soaps.


  1. Timmiera Lawrence, one of my Facebook friends and a former colleague responded:

    I remember this post. It pissed me off then and it still does now. Like most of my colleagues, I work hard, juggle the bureaucratic balls of the month sent my way as best I can, do as much as I can to academically, socially, and emotionally grow every student who walks through my door, and try to help them feel loved and worthy. If the BS would stop and we could just TEACH at an appropriate social and emotional level, everyone would be so much better off. We have crammed the curriculum so far down the line that it is expected to master reading in kindergarten. This is a big reason we are "falling behind" and "in need of reform"- these babies are not ready for it. They need play and music and social interaction in which to build solid learning. But what do I know? I've only been in the business for 25 years and have so much more to learn.

  2. Kristen Williams, another friend and longtime educator replied, via Facebook:

    Education "reform" will never happen until the real problems are addressed- and no politician is willing to say what those problems are. We will never see significant improvement in student success until education is valued in the home. Teachers are in a perpetual lose-lose-lose situation. Many of the kids who attend failing schools are coming from home situations that are traumatic and full of chaos. ACE scores are NEVER discussed, which is a shame because the information from those are invaluable. Truly understanding how trauma affects the brain and learning how to combat it and give these kids strategies and work around a would be an efficacious approach. But, anything that makes logical sense is never implemented. The department of education is a joke.

  3. Erin Mauer, another Facebook friend replied:

    I want to thank anyone who has the courage to become a teacher. As a parent, I consider myself a partner to my educators. I augment what you can't teach because your time is limited and I put forth a united front. There are no excuses in this house. There is no, "My teacher hates me.", "they want me to fail.", "I didn't have time.", "I didn't know what to do.". You can only provide the tools, I'm there to drive home the nail. I couldn't have raised my kids without you. So thank you...even if they weren't in *your* class.