Learning Stuff

It’s personal. As a baby-boomer product of a well-funded and quite competent suburban public school system, and having taught for years at a private for-profit prep school for the kids of old money, and the kids of young professionals who just become relatively rich, with a few minority scholarship students tossed in for a bit of token diversity, it was easy to see that that education in America is a bit of a mish-mash. Those of us in the business, if it is a business, liked to watch Inherit the Wind now and then – about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial – because Spencer Tracey made a fine Clarence Darrow, defending the idea that schools shouldn’t teach biblical stuff as if it were science. Keep the two separate, but that young teacher, John Thomas Scopes, was convicted of teaching science, even if he was only fined a hundred bucks and the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. He still lost. Clarence Darrow couldn’t pull that rabbit out of that hat.

That battle is still being fought. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – Pastafarianism – was offered in 2005 as a mocking response to the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes there. There are complex designs in nature. That implies intelligent design. Intelligent design implies an intelligent being at work. That implies God. Science arrogantly denies that possibility. God did it. Praise Jesus – but that’s too narrow, and there’s that freedom of religion thing. Teach about the Flying Spaghetti Monster too. He (or she) did it. That’s equally valid.

Needless to say, humor didn’t work either, and no national problem was being solved anyway. Individual states mandate public school curriculum for individual states. Local school boards often disagree with the state curriculum and teach what they see fit to teach, and what not to teach. They like to ban books now and then. Sometimes it’s Harry Potter. Sometimes it’s Huckleberry Finn. Now it’s books that explain Islam, or yoga, or books that seem a little too un-American. There’s an amusing scene of that sort of thing in Field of Dreams. It’s actually quite realistic. America makes up its educational system as it goes along – at the state and local level.

That’s why Common Core was doomed – the “initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that seeks to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce.”

That was a fine idea. The states would compare notes and decide on what the basics would be for the nation. All the other nations of the world had been eating our lunch. We often ranked between twentieth and thirtieth in science and math and reading and whatnot. Denmark was often at the top. Finland was often at the top. So was Singapore. We sucked at this education thing but we could fix this. Cool – but more than half of the states are now in Republican control so this became a big-government states’ rights issue. The damned federal government should butt out – there’s nothing in the Constitution about this – and there was Jesus too. States had jumped in – then they jumped out. Common Core is pretty much dead now.

Common Core was a miscalculation based on a misunderstanding. We don’t have a national education system, even if we have a federal Department of Education headed by an actual Secretary of Education.

That’s not what it seems. That’s an advisory board with a chairman – to suggest policy, which can be ignored, and to make a few grants. That’s it. The federal government accounts for about ten percent of what we spend on education. States and local governments foot the bill – and they want their say. The federal government nudges. In the Bush years there was No Child Left Behind – mostly about endless mandatory testing, by law, and punishment for school systems that didn’t come up to snuff, by law, followed by a lot of fudging the test results to avoid punishment. That didn’t work out. In the Obama years there was the more informal Race to the Top – reversing the incentives – carrots not sticks – but both were playing around the edges. Neither was national education policy. We don’t have one. We only pretend to have one.

Another way to say that is that all we have is national policy, with no means to implement it. The Department of Education and its actual Secretary of Education exist to say how things should be, and that matters. They have little financial leverage to change things, but they have some – and they can shame and praise in significant ways. They can set direction, and now it’s time, with a new administration, to have a new secretary of education who will explain how we’ll save education in America from itself, even if others do the work, if they choose to do the work. The job is to say “this” is how it will be, or should be. The job is to provide statements of values.

That is Donald Trump’s new job too, even if his values range from questionable to laughable to despicable – but we’re not talking about grabbing pussy here. This is about Betsy DeVos, his nominee to become the next actual secretary of education:

Since her nomination, DeVos hasn’t said much publicly about her views on education – or whether she plans to defend the separation of church and state in public schools. However, in a 2001 interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, she and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on philanthropic dollars – rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers – Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education [versus] what is currently being spent every year on education in this country… Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Somehow it’s 1925 again and of course her nomination hearing did not go well:

Democrats attacked Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education nominee, calling her unfit for the job during a contentious confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, while Republicans defended her as a bold reformer who would disrupt the status quo in U.S. education.

DeVos told skeptical senators that she looked forward to working with them to improve the nation’s schools. But she sidestepped several issues important to Democrats and their allies, declining to take a position on whether guns belong in schools or to commit to upholding the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to handling sexual assault on college campuses, and she called Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) ideas about free college “interesting.”

She was punting, but for good reason:

A Michigan billionaire, DeVos has lobbied for decades to expand charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools, but she has no professional experience in public schools, never attended public schools nor sent her own children to public schools. She also has not held public office.

That hurt:

DeVos’ inexperience in the realm of public education appeared at times to be a liability. During rapid-fire questioning by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), she seemed to demonstrate a lack of understanding of one of education’s major federal civil rights laws, which requires states that take federal funding to provide children with disabilities the services they need to benefit from a public education.

DeVos said states should decide whether schools should be required to meet those special-education requirements.

“So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?” Kaine said.

When Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) – who has a son with a disability – challenged DeVos to explain whether she understood that the law was a federal civil rights law, DeVos said she “may have confused it.”

Oops. But then they got to the good stuff:

DeVos also declined to say whether she believes that all schools receiving taxpayer funding – public, public charter, or private – should be held accountable to the same performance standards. She also declined to say whether such schools should be required to report suspensions and expulsions, and incidents of bullying and harassment, to the federal government.

States’ rights had to come up, but one strange old man had her back:

Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, introduced DeVos Tuesday and vouched for her leadership, arguing that her status as an outsider is an asset.

“She doesn’t come from within the education establishment. But honestly, I believe that today that’s one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job,” the former senator from Connecticut said. “We need a change agent.”

We need people who don’t know what they’re talking about? Isn’t Donald Trump enough for now? Some think so:

DeVos is an unusually polarizing nominee for education secretary; most of her recent predecessors have sailed through the confirmation process, winning Senate approval on voice votes. The strong feelings about DeVos were evident in the line of more than 100 people waiting to enter the Capitol Hill hearing room Tuesday evening, including supportive students in plaid uniforms and bright yellow scarves embroidered with “National School Choice Week,” and a large contingent of parents and teens from Detroit who came by bus to oppose DeVos’ nomination.

There will be no voice vote on this one, and there will be protesters, and this was about big government butting out of things:

GOP senators cheered DeVos’ nomination, saying they hope she will champion alternatives to the nation’s public schools and scale back the federal footprint in K-12 education.

“Betsy DeVos, in my opinion, is on our children’s side,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in his opening remarks Tuesday. “She’s devoted her life to helping mainly low-income children have access to better schools.”

If those are Jesus-schools not held accountable to the same performance standards as public schools, or any schools, so much the better, but Alexander wasn’t finished:

He restricted senators to one five-minute round of questions, saying he was adhering to committee precedent and the “golden rule,” treating Trump’s pick as the committee treated Obama’s nominees. Democrats were dismayed, arguing that the committee has never before cut off questions, and that they needed more time to examine DeVos’ record.

“I think we’re selling our kids short by not being able to ask follow up questions,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Franken had asked DeVos for her views on the debate – common in education circles – about whether standardized tests should measure the progress students make during a year, or their grade-level proficiency. He was unimpressed with what he said was her lack of familiarity with that debate.

“I’m surprised you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.

This was turning out to be a disaster, as many expected:

Teachers unions and civil rights groups have argued that DeVos’ support for a free-market approach to education has undermined public schools, which they see as a critical civic institution. DeVos’ opponents also point to the fact that she has no record on higher education or protecting children’s civil rights, two areas critical to the work of the department she aims to lead.

By the way, Denmark doesn’t take a free-market approach to education. Neither does Finland. Neither does Singapore. All other nations have a national education policy paid for and implemented by the national government. Arranging for random private parties, some deeply religious, to make a hefty profit educating their kids, if they can, didn’t seem like a good idea to them. No one else wants their children educated by the Invisible Hand – and there is that civil rights thing:

Asked about her relatives’ contributions to anti-LGBT groups, DeVos said she believes in equality: “I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination,” she said.

But she declined, under questioning from Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat, to say whether she plans to rein in the Office for Civil Rights, which investigates allegations of discrimination in schools.

It seems she hadn’t thought about that, and then Pocahontas pounced:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked questions about DeVos’ qualifications to run the trillion-dollar federal student loan program, with DeVos acknowledging that she has no experience running or managing anything near the size and complexity of the program. DeVos also acknowledged that she had never taken out a federal student loan for herself or her children.

There was a deer in the headlights, and then there was this:

DeVos declined to take a stand on whether guns belong in schools, saying that decision should be left to local and state officials. She pointed to a rural Wyoming school that is surrounded by a fence to keep bears out: “I would imagine there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Asked by gun control advocate Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – whose constituents include parents who lost children in the mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – whether she would support Trump if he moves forward with his proposal to ban gun-free school zones, she said she would “support what the president-elect does.”

Yeah, she’s easy, and then there was this:

The hearing went forward Tuesday evening over the objections of Democrats, who are concerned that the Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for vetting presidential nominees for potential conflicts of interest, has not finished its review of DeVos’ vast wealth and financial investments.

She may not survive that, and she may not survive this guy:

During her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, if she was sitting in front of him due to the hefty contributions she has made to the GOP.

DeVos, whose father founded a manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion and whose father-in-law co-founded Amway, wasn’t able to recall how much money her family has contributed to the Republican Party over time, but said it was “possible” they donated $200 million. “I don’t mean to be rude, but do you think if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, you would be here today?”

That wasn’t very nice, but that was a good question, as was this:

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, avoided questions Tuesday evening about whether she would uphold the current guidelines and standard of evidence used to combat sexual assault on college campuses if confirmed to the position.

“Would you agree with me that the problem, and that’s an understatement in my judgment, but the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is a significant problem that we should take action on?” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) asked DeVos during her confirmation hearing.

“I agree with you that sexual assault in any form or in any place is a problem and no disagreement there,” DeVos replied.

“Would you uphold that 2011 Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault on campus?” Casey asked.

Oh shit. It was time to punt again:

“I know that there are a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance,” DeVos said. “If confirmed, I would look forward to working with you and your colleagues and understand the range of opinions and understand the issues from the higher ed institutions that are charged with resolving these and addressing them and I would look forward to working together to find some resolutions.”

What was she saying? Teach me my job? Perhaps she was, so Casey did just that:

“We have a long way to go to addressing this problem. We took some good action on this issue, as part of the Violence Against Women Act,” Casey said.

“There’s an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. They support a bill that would totally change that. They would force a victim to go to police departments to report and they would change the standard of evidence,” he continued. “Would you commit, as secretary of education, to retaining the standard of evidence that is currently the law?”

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation better and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victims, as well as those who are accused as well and that the institutions-” DeVos began.

“I’m out of time,” Casey interrupted. “The organization that has that position, which is contrary to the law, current law, and contrary to the spirit of what we try to do in that piece of legislation, is the recipient of donations from you totaling about 25,000 bucks over four years.”

That wasn’t very nice either, but then none of this is nice, but then none of this matters very much. The job is to say “this” is how education in America will be, or should be. No one has to do much of anything to that end, and this woman doesn’t seem to be clear about how she thinks things should be anyway. There are those pesky details. She’ll look into them. The job is to provide statements of values. She wants to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom – but we’ve been there before too.

It looks like America does make up its educational system as it goes along. It would be nice to make America great again, but to do that you have to have been there in the first place. It would be nice to know what that looks like. At this rate we may never know.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Learning Stuff

  1. My entire life, literally, has been in public education. My parents began as one room country school teachers in the 1920s, then were career teachers in tiny schools in North Dakota (which meant that my siblings and I all attended tiny public schools – one with two seniors). I went to teachers college and taught junior high school in a large suburban school district in the 1960s and early 70s, then represented teachers for the state affiliate of the National Education Association in Minnesota; now I’ve had nine grandkids in public schools, eight of them at various levels at this moment in suburban St. Paul; one daughter has been a public school Principal for a long while; another took a term as a school board member.
    I’ve watched public education very closely for a long, long time.
    Public education is the opportunity up and out for children without means…It is imperfect because its clients are imperfect. It is where imperfect individuals learn how to be part of a larger social system: their neighborhood, their town, their state, their country. Even when it is impoverished, it represents an opportunity to succeed against sometimes incredible odds.
    For years, Betsy DeVos and her ilk have been about tearing down this system, so their children can (they think) be separated from the rabble of the ordinary and the imperfect.
    They had best start praying that they don’t succeed.
    Among many very bad choices for Trumps Cabinet, Betsy DeVos is probably the worst ever.

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