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Instead of criticizing teachers in 'receive mode,' DeVos ought to adopt listen-and-learn mode

Betsy DeVos' first visit as U.S. secretary of education to a public school did not start off well.

During the Feb. 10 visit to Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, protesters confronted DeVos outside the school with signs declaring, "Our children are not props." However, once inside the school, DeVos appeared to have a lovely time and described the classrooms and teachers as "wonderful."

But then DeVos told a columnist at Townhall, a conservative publication, the teachers at Jefferson were in "receive mode" and "waiting to be told what to do."

That led former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Kaya Henderson to direct a Twitter response to DeVos: "Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. But this is so amateur and unprofessional that it's astounding. We deserve better."

At Jefferson, DeVos visited classrooms of teachers who have made great strides with economically disadvantaged students. Jefferson was chosen as the site of her first official visit because of the pace of its academic gains. The Washington Post described it as "one of the fastest-improving schools in the city’s public school system. While fewer than half of students are meeting or approaching grade-level expectations, according to new Common Core tests, the school’s growth has won it classification as a 'rising' D.C. school."

It may have been DeVos went to classrooms where teachers let students show what they know. When I first observed classrooms as a reporter, I was impressed with the teachers who put on a floor show, who were practically tap dancing in front of the room. Over time, I learned teachers shouldn't be the ones doing all the performing. What makes the difference is getting the students to perform. Jefferson may have designed its classrooms so kids take center stage, not teachers.

DeVos could have mistaken student-led learning for teacher passivity. In any event, DeVos has never taught or held a job in a school. It might be prudent for her to reserve judgment on what is effective classroom practice until she knows a bit more about it.

I will let the Jefferson Academy staff tell the rest of the story.

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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.