Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Concerns About the Future of American Education: Betsy DeVos

Senate confirmation proceedings for Betsy DeVos--the nominee for Secretary of Education--are underway. DeVos is a polarizing figure, it seems. I have talked with a few people who think she is an amazing choice for Secretary of Education. But, from others, I have also heard grave concerns about her potential to lead the U.S. Department of Education. Honestly, the hearing has left me with little to be excited about. I see so much political theater in the questioning, and too little substance in her responses to questions, and some of them were downright troubling to me. One example (I'm paraphrasing): "Guns might be needed in schools in case of grizzly bear attacks." (No, I'm not kidding.)

Betsy DeVos
Image by Keith A. Almli [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The trouble is that it's pretty easy to push a video clip of an outrageous statement (like the one I've linked above) through social media, and that is likely to get people chattering. And, WOW is there a lot of chatter, in response to the bears comment, and quite a few others she made in the hearing.

I am not sure what to think about DeVos yet, actually. And so it's with great interest over the past day that I've been following some of my fellow tweeting-teachers whom I deeply respect. I have seen a lot of comments along the lines of, "She's never taught in public schools. She's never taught at all! And her kids went to private schools, and she went to private schools--how can she possibly understand public schools?" I want to tread lightly here; I think that these are real concerns, and these are questions that should be asked. 

But...I also want to push back, ever-so-gently on one point.

I'm wondering about the critique that DeVos is not a teacher, and that this should disqualify her from serving as Secretary of Education. While I definitely see the value of having someone who has experienced the realities of serving as a classroom teacher, I'm not entirely sure that this is a basic job requirement for Secretary of Education. Perhaps it should be? For a little historical perspective, I think it's important to note that most of the people who have served as Secretary of Education have not been teachers. Shirley Hufstedler, the first Secretary of Education (under Jimmy Carter) was not a teacher; she was a lawyer and judge prior to her secretariat. Most of the others who have served in this office since then have similarly not been teachers, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. A few names you might recognize, depending on your age, or knowledge of the history of American education:
  • William Bennet (Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan) was not a teacher. 
  • Lamar Alexander (under George H. W. Bush) was not a teacher. 
  • Richard Riley (under Bill Clinton) was not a teacher. 
  • Margaret Spellings (under George W. Bush) was not a teacher. 
  • Arne Duncan (under Barack Obama) was not a teacher. 
While it could certainly be argued that some of these folks were not great leaders in the role of Secretary of Education, is the fact that they weren't classroom teachers to blame for this?

So my real question is this: Is DeVos's lack of a license to teach the real issue? Or is there something else at play, and we are using the lack of experience as a professional educator as a target for precluding her from serving?

For my friends who teach in public schools, what do you think about Betsy DeVos? Are you concerned about her (potential) leadership of the U.S. Department of Education? If so, why?


  1. Personally, it's not her lack of being a's her complete lack of ANY public school experience. Neither she, nor her kids, ever even attended a public school. DeVos has a history of working against public schools. That's what scares me.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Jessica. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts; this is helpful for my understanding. Thanks for your respectful tone too. There seems to be far too little of that online these days.

  2. Having taught in the Public School System in South Dakota, my biggest concern would not be her lack of teaching experience, but her lack of understanding of government regulations like IDEA that protect and serve the most vulnerable. Her answers in her hearings were scary to me.

    1. I wondered about that too, Rikki. IDEA is one of the most significant parts of federal oversight of education! Her misunderstanding of the difference between growth-based and proficiency-based assessment also gave me pause.

  3. Copied and pasted this from a coworker. What do you think of this analogy?

    Bear with me for a second while I try to make a point. Suppose that a Quaker was nominated to become Secretary of Defense. Of course this Quaker is a pacifist who has never served in the military, nor has any family members. This Quaker believes that war and fighting are wrong and has never even shot a gun. This Quaker has been critical of the job our Defense Department has been doing for years. This Quaker believes that the U.S. spends too much money on the military and would like to shift many duties over to private firms. There are many private firms that could take over many of the duties of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and even the Coast Guard. We would have less government control over these private firms, but it is not needed because the private sector always runs things better than the government. Plus, these private firms can be more selective on who they hire, they don’t have to let just anybody in. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Quakers, I just don’t think someone with that mindset belongs heading up the Department of Defense.
    Now how is this scenario different than our current nominee for Secretary of Education?

    1. I think that is an apt analogy, based on what I know of DeVos. Thanks for sharing this, Rikki.