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Betsy DeVos: Traditional public schools are Blockbuster in age of Netflix

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos garnered a lot of attention Wednesday for her commencement speech under duress at an HBCU in Florida. Students at Bethune-Cookman University booed multiple times during her cheery speech, which was the standard pep talk delivered at graduations.

DeVos gave a more policy-laden talk earlier this week at the Arizona State University + Global Silicon Valley Summit in Salt Lake City, hitting on her favorite theme of school choice.

While DeVos plugs choice in almost every speech she gives, she went deeper in this speech. Here are relevant excerpts:

We’ll never be able to solve a problem unless we acknowledge it exists, so here’s the current reality.

The system is based on the Prussian model implemented in the early 1800s. Yes, courtesy of a country that no longer exists.

The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live. If you’re a block away from a better school zone, too bad. This of course creates a problem for those who don’t have the financial means to move to a different home.

If real estate prices are based on the neighborhood school district, it will always adversely affect the economically disadvantaged. Thus the most vulnerable are trapped in the worse performing schools, while the wealthier families get the better schools.

Our students have fallen behind our peers on the global stage In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, the U.S. ranked 20th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math. That’s worse than the 2012 PISA ranking which was somewhat higher in reading and math.

And it’s not for a lack of funding. According to their 2012 data, we spend 31 percent more per pupil than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average on elementary and secondary students.

The facts show our system is antiquated, unjust, and fails to serve students. This is flat-out unacceptable.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been attempts at reform. “Education reform” has been in vogue since the early 1980s, and has produced plenty of studies, conferences and initiatives. We’ve also seen billions of dollars invested by the private sector to improve the system, but with very little to show in return.

Since the 80’s, we’ve made incredible advances in nearly every other sector of our society except education.

For example: who here can pull out their Blockbuster card? No one. You all likely use Netflix, or Amazon or one of the myriad streaming services available.

Think about your cellphone. It used to be that you could only fit your mobile phone in a duffel bag. Now, we carry a device in our pocket that’s more powerful than computers that used to take up entire rooms. Apple, Uber, Airbnb… the list goes on and on. So much has changed and our lives are better because of it. So why is our education system so far behind the curve?

We can no longer accept this education malaise. The time for simply tinkering around the edges is over.

We already have failed a generation or more of kids, and every year we’re failing another graduating class. In order to prevent repeating this destructive cycle, we need a new generation of education reform. That’s why I’m here. Each of the examples I mentioned stemmed from entrepreneurs who saw solutions to problems we didn’t even know existed.  And, now our lives are better for them.

So, what are we going to do about this problem in American education that we know exists? Since we have a room full of innovators here today, my question to you is this: if you were to start from scratch, what would America’s education system look like?

I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.

Here’s how I would answer the question I just posed to you: We would build a system centered on knowledge, skills and achievement – not centered on delivery methods. Traditional, charter, private, virtual, and other delivery methods not yet developed: all would be treated as viable options so long as they met the needs of their students.

This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn. When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code.

The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.

So when a school — any school — fails any student, that child deserves the right to move on. The goal is not to promote choice for choice’s sake. The goal is to provide a wide range of quality options that actually help individual children learn and grow in an environment that works for them. For too many Americans, there is only one, single assigned option, and it isn’t working.

In the United States in 2017, no student should be locked into a school that fails them. Even the best-performing school in the country won’t be the right fit for everyone. The simple fact is that if a school is not meeting a child’s unique needs, then that school is failing that child.

Let’s be clear.  This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education – we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.

So, what can government do to advance these ideas? Well, this Administration started by giving states more flexibility in how they implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Just like no two students are identical, states like New Hampshire and California, or Utah and New York, have their own unique educational challenges and opportunities. We want states to unleash their creative thinking to tailor their education to the students they serve.

With this Administration, you’ll find a partner that wants to empower you and collaborate with you, not dictate to you from on-high. But while we will take some definitive steps, government alone can’t and shouldn’t solve these problems. The change we need won’t come from Washington – it will come from the people in this room, and from parents, educators, community leaders and philanthropists. My job is to get the federal government out of the way so that you can do your jobs.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.