Questions Raised During Betsy DeVos' First Confirmation Hearing

Donald Trump’s choice for the new Secretary of Education faced a grilling at her recent senate confirmation hearing.

Betsy is a wealthy businesswoman who has long called for changes to public education which she terms “a dead end”. However, her practical experience in public schooling is non-existent. She hasn't worked as a teacher, administrator or policy maker for public schools and has no personal experience of the system either.

The previous incumbent holding the position was Secretary of Education, John King, who was also not a perfect appointee, due to his “Race To The Top” grant applications that drew criticism from teachers unions and trade groups alike. However, he did have practical experience of working in a classroom, running a school and had held a government position in education at the state level.

Exactly what DeVos can bring to the job remains to be seen, but she doesn't have the normal prerequisites such as background knowledge, experience or qualifications.

As shown in her questionable performance at her confirmation hearing where she showed a lack of knowledge concerning the following issues and debates:

The Difference Between Proficiency and Growth

One of the most troubling moments in the senate hearing was when DeVos showed a lack of comprehension regarding a continued debate on assessment and testing.

Educators have long argued that end of year tests such as those for “No child left behind” measures do not allow teachers the chance to use the results to inform their future planning. Testing for the sake of testing doesn’t lead to improvements, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Brown University found that even when students improved their standardized scores from one test to another, they were not applying this knowledge in real world scenarios.

The timing of standardized tests is important but so is understanding exactly what is being measured.

When assessing against a level of proficiency teachers are pressured to ensure that all students reach a certain level, the danger can be that students who excel and therefore have already achieved the required threshold, can be left to stagnate and are not challenged. Conversely, students at the bottom of the class who are unlikely to achieve the required standard can also be forgotten as teachers concentrate their attentions on the students they know they can raise to the pre-set proficiency.

Assessing against growth standards requires the teacher to measure what each individual student has learned and achieved measured against their past success. Even a child who is not meeting a proficiency threshold can still make improvements in growth, progress is important for student morale and to show teachers that a student is capable.

Guns in Schools

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked DeVos whether she would agree that “guns don’t belong in schools”, she answered: “I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Her comment provoked laughter among the assembled senators and led to the trending hashtag #potentialgrizzlies.

When asked her opinion on (the then)President-elect Donald Trump’s stance that gun-free zones around schools should be removed, she simply said: “I will support what the president-elect does.”

The Concept of Accountability

Many think that DeVos did not seem to understand the question when asked by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) if all schools (both public/public charter and private) should be held to the same standards of accountability after receiving voucher money. She simply repeated “I support accountability” while refusing to answer specific questions about her policy, before finally saying “no”.

Refused to Commit to Enforcing ‘Gainful Employment Regulations’

Federal laws called the “Gainful Employment Regulations” prohibit for-profit universities and career colleges from charging exorbitant prices for their courses without offering quality programs that lead to employment. Student aid monies can be withheld unless an institution can show it prepares students for ‘gainful employment’.

DeVos didn’t seem to be aware of this law and when told about its existence, she would not commit to enforcing it but simply vowed to ‘review’ it.

The Existence of IDEA

‘The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act’, commonly referred to as IDEA, is a federal civil rights law, which ensures students with disabilities receive the appropriate provisions guaranteeing full access to education. DeVos commented that individual states should be able to make the choice on whether or not to enforce IDEA, showing a significant lack of understanding regarding education law.

She Would Not Discuss Detroit

DeVos refused to answer a question from Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) specifically about lessons we can learn from the Detroit school system. A troubled and failing system where charter schools often only achieve minimally more than public schools.

Why it Matters

When any of us apply for a job we are expected to have attained a set of prerequisite skills, experiences, and qualifications, these background basics give our new employers confidence in our ability to do the job. Betsy DeVos proved at her senate confirmation hearing that there are some gaps in her understanding of federal education law, that she is unaware of ongoing educational debates and that she doesn't have any practical experience in the education sector.

Those of us passionate about education need to remain vigilant to policy changes, and violations and make our voices heard while still retaining some level of trust to allow our new Secretary of Education to begin what will be a very difficult job.

Fiona Tapp, is a Freelance Writer, Educator and Mom.  An Expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years and Master’s Degree holder in Education. Take a look at her website or blog to connect.

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