devos talks

What is Betsy DeVos’s ‘rethink school’ initiative all about? Her Wyoming speech offers clues

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting Ashland Elementary School in April.

According to Betsy DeVos, American education embodies that quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The U.S. education secretary kicked off her “Rethink School” tour in Casper, Wyoming, encouraging schools to be more innovative — and to help students avoid the boredom she once felt as a student.

DeVos’s speech to students at Woods Learning Center included familiar digs at “the education system” and Washington bureaucrats. It also sketched out her own vision for education in more detail than we’ve heard in a while, after a summer where DeVos made few public appearances.

That vision is all about parents having lots of options for where to send their students — and for many of those options to serve one slice of students well, rather than trying to educate students with different needs.

Here are a few key takeaways:

DeVos is convinced that school hasn’t changed in 100 years.

From today’s remarks: “For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that. That means your parents’ parents’ parents.

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine – just waiting to be saved by the bell. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.”

This claim has gotten lots of attention recently — it is an idea central to last week’s primetime “XQ Super School Live” special on innovative high schools. (XQ, the initiative behind that broadcast, even shares most of a slogan with DeVos’s effort.)

Education historians say DeVos has a point in some respects, such as how school days are structured. But in other ways, schools have changed substantially — especially in how they now see themselves as an institution for all students, not a chosen few.

Her vision comes back to school choice …

“Your school leaders recognize this and say, as it says on your website: ‘We also know that families have many reasons for choosing various schools. Some want to send kids to the school down the street, while others select schools based on proximity of daycare or work … Open enrollment gives families the opportunities to find the schools that are best for them and their children.’

School choice is the issue that brought DeVos, a longtime school voucher proponent, into the public sphere. On Tuesday, DeVos’s praise for Woods Learning Center’s district centered on its willingness to let parents choose a school for their children.

After the speech, a Woods Learning Center student asked DeVos what kind of changes she wants schools to make.

“Starting with the opportunity for every kid, every child to go to a school that is going to fit their kind of personality,” she replied.

… And personalized learning.

From today’s remarks: “Here at Woods, you know that well. Your personalized learning program rethinks school because it’s structured around you. Each of your learning plans is developed for each of you, recognizing that each of you is different, and that you learn at your own pace and in your own way.

Your success here at Woods is determined by what each of you are learning and mastering. Not by how long you sit at your desks.

That is awesome, by the way. If I had that opportunity when I was in school, many many many years ago, I think I would not have been nearly as bored as I was.”

This focus on personalization is why DeVos wanted to highlight Woods Learning Center, she said. It’s also a focus of her former advocacy group, the American Federation for Children.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, an AFC board member, said at the group’s convening in May. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

The research evidence for those blended or personalized learning models is mixed. Results are worse for fully virtual schools, which DeVos did not mention.

Watch DeVos’s full speech here:

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.