WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said there has “not really been anything” from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative and President Obama’s changes to the law that the federal government should “embrace” going forward, calling for a “new approach” to public education policy.
“The bottom line is simple: Federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped – that’s not a point I make lightly or joyfully. Yes, there have been some minor improvements in a few areas but we’re far from where we need to be. We need to be honest with ourselves,” she said during an event on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, “Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned.”
“It said that schools had to meet ambitious goals or else. Lawmakers mandated that 100 percent of students attain proficiency by 2014. This approach would keep schools accountable and ultimately graduate more and better-educated students, they believed. Turns out, it didn’t. Indeed, as has been detailed today, NCLB did little to spark higher scores,” she added.
Devos said universal proficiency, which NCLB supporters “touted at the law’s passage, was not achieved.”
“As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects; others simply inflated scores or lowered standards. The trend line remains troubling today,” she said.
“According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress data, two-thirds of American fourth-graders still can’t read at the level they should, and since 2013 our 8th-grade reading scores have declined.”
DeVos said the Obama administration’s education policies did not yield better results.
“The Obama administration dangled billions of dollars through the ‘Race to the Top’ competition, and the grant-making process not so subtly encouraged states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. With a price tag of nearly four and a half billion dollars, it was billed as the largest-ever federal investment in school reform,” she said.
“Later, the department would give states a waiver from NCLB’s requirements so long as they adopted the Obama administration’s preferred policies — essentially making law while Congress negotiated the reauthorization of ESEA,” she added.
DeVos explained that “nearly every state accepted Common Core standards and applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘Race to the Top’ funds” under the Obama administration’s leadership.
She officially declared Common Core DOA at her department.
“But despite this change, the United States’ PISA performance did not improve in reading and science, and it dropped in math from 2012 to 2015. Then, rightly, came the public backlash to federally imposed tests and the Common Core,” the secretary said. “I agree, and have always agreed, with President Trump on this: Common Core is a disaster and, at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”
DeVos asked a series of questions that she said “must” be answered in order to improve the quality of public education nationally.
“Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?” she asked. “Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”
During the question and answer portion of the event, DeVos was asked if any of the Bush- and Obama-era education policies were helpful for students.
“I don’t think there’s much we can hold onto from a federal level that we can say that was a real success. I think there were very well-intended directions that were taken and I think probably some of the best outcomes or the best results from those policies were around the support of charter school growth across the country, which gave lots more parents and students more options and also the desire for more accountability and more transparency,” she replied. “From a federal policy perspective, there’s not really been anything you can embrace as having been successful broadly for students.”
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, DeVos said, “school leaders, educators and parents have the latitude and freedom to try new approaches to serve individual students.”
“My message to them is simple: do it. Embrace the imperative to do something truly bold, to challenge the status quo, to break the mold,” she said.
“One important way to start this process is to make sure that parents get the information they want and need about the performance of their children’s schools and teachers. ESSA encourages states to be transparent about how money is spent, down to the school-building level,” she added.
DeVos said that America’s “children deserve better than the 19th-century assembly-line approach” to public education.
“They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging lifelong learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make,” she said. “That means no more discrimination based upon ZIP code or socio-economic status. All means all.”
DeVos told the audience she is hopeful that states and local governments will embrace a more “personalized and customized” public education experience, especially for students with learning disabilities.
“We’ve seen probably some of the best results for students with disabilities in places where the states have recognized that every student is unique and different and where parents have additional options and alternatives to an assigned school that might not be working for their child,” she said.
DeVos also said that “school choice” means more than successful voucher programs.
“Choice in education is not when a student picks a different classroom in this building or that building, uses this voucher or that tax-credit scholarship. Choice in education is bigger than that. Those are just mechanisms,” she said.
“It’s about freedom to learn, freedom to learn differently, freedom to explore, freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again,” the secretary explained. “It’s freedom to find the best way to learn and grow, to find the exciting and engaging combination that unlocks individual potential.”