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Six things you should know about Betsy DeVos’s tense trip to Harvard

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard.

By now, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos must be used to a tough audience. Her reception at Harvard Thursday, featuring plenty of protesters, was no exception — in line with what she’s faced at Senate confirmation hearings and at school visits across the country.

DeVos was attending a school choice conference filled with supporters of her perspective, and she was questioned by Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, who has long advocated for private school vouchers. But she was also met a number of skeptical audience questions.

Here were some highlights from the night:

1. DeVos has a new analogy: schools are like restaurants and food trucks.

The education secretary has compared schools to taxis and Blockbuster to emphasize the need for innovation. We need schools operating like Uber and Netflix, she’s urged.

On Thursday, she offered a new metaphor for school choice — one that tried to deflect criticisms that she is anti-public education.

“Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what — food trucks started lining the streets to provide options,” DeVos said. “Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet their customers’ needs.”

“Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?” she asked. “No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at the time.”

This gets at the heart of the school choice debate — whether or not schools should function like consumer goods in a marketplace.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Protestors at Betsy DeVos’s speech on school choice at Harvard.

2. Eight months on the job hasn’t changed her view that the feds should play a minimal role in deciding how schools are run or which schools are working.

The first question lobbed at DeVos came from a parent who has sent her children to district, charter and parochial schools, but argued that “as a whole, most [school] systems … aren’t working for black parents like me.”

The question focused on DeVos and the federal government’s role in ensuring quality schools: “Why don’t you think that you should have any say or any control over setting minimums … so systems aren’t the wild, wild West?”

DeVos, a skeptic of the federal role in education, immediately pivoted back to school choice. “My goal, my hope, is that all parents like you and all others would have the power to choose a school that is right for your child,” she said. “Accompanying that there has to be a lot of great information available to parents.”

DeVos also demurred when Peterson asked her a nitty-gritty question on ESSA, the federal accountability law. Peterson noted that many states — whose plans have been approved by DeVos’s education department — have decided to judge schools, in part, by rates of student chronic absenteeism. DeVos wouldn’t say what she thought of this.

“All the states are coming up with different measures,” she said. “I’m not sure that that’s the right approach or the best approach, but I’ll withhold judgment, and let’s see what the states’ results are.”

3. She’s still on the defensive when it comes to Michigan’s charter schools.

One questioner, who — like DeVos — is from Michigan, echoed a common criticism of the secretary: “Thanks in part to your advocacy, we [Michigan] lead the nation in for-profit schools, paired with some of the weakest accountability laws. … Given the fact that in Michigan students have a lot of choice, but not good choices, and corporations are profiting from that, why do you think that choice is appropriate for the nation?”

DeVos responded, “Of the students that are still left in the city of Detroit, 49 percent of them” — here, the audience reacted with guffaws and boos, and DeVos interrupted herself. “Excuse me, everybody who has had means and wants to move elsewhere has moved outside the city of Detroit. And the students that are there, 49 percent of them have chosen to go to charter schools. Nobody is forcing them to go to charter schools.”

“Of the traditional public schools in Detroit,” she continued, “not one of them has ever been closed down because of performance, not one. Yet there have been over 20 charter schools closed. … The reality is, of kids going to charter schools in Michigan and in the city of Detroit, they are gaining three or four months per year over their public school counterparts.”

DeVos appears to be referencing the CREDO study of Michigan charters, which shows that charter students outscore similar kids in public schools on standardized tests.

It’s also worth noting that while it may be true that no Detroit district schools have been closed explicitly for performance, well over 100 Detroit district schools have shut down since 2000, presumably due to declining enrollment. And another study from CREDO found that low-achieving district schools in Michigan were more likely to close than low-achieving charters.

4. Research undermines DeVos’s claims on school choice and school spending.

In her speech, DeVos hit on what she believes works (school choice) and what she thinks doesn’t work (spending more money).

She pointed to a study released Wednesday on Florida’s tax-credit voucher program, saying that it “demonstrated the longer a student participated in the choice program, the better their long-term educational outcomes.”

Later, she said, “More funding? Does that fix the problem? Again, the data would show otherwise, with the U.S. spending significantly more per pupil than nearly every other country in the developed world – and without the student achievement to go along with it.”

The research on voucher programs is more mixed than she suggests. It also may be misleading to say that students who stay in private school through Florida’s program longer, benefit more; as the researchers acknowledge, this may have less to do with the program and more to do with the types of students who stick around.

On funding, DeVos’s claim is also difficult to support. Recent research shows that schools and students do in fact benefit from additional resources. DeVos is right that in raw dollars per student, the U.S. outspends most other countries. As a percentage of GDP, though, our spending on K-12 education is about average.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Protestors at Betsy DeVos’s speech on school choice at Harvard.

5. DeVos is excited about tax credits, but federal action isn’t imminent

The education secretary reiterated that she’s interested in a tax credit program that would help parents send their students to private school — but that she had no plans to make any announcements.

“Not here and not now,” DeVos said. “There’s certainly a lot of hope for that.”

“I would just hope that more states would embrace this notion and the ones that actually have it would expand their offering and get even more assertive about offering parents more of these choices,” she added.

Eighteen states have already adopted those policies, which allow individuals to donate to nonprofits, then get a tax cut for amount they donated. The donated money is doled out as tuition stipends, which function just like school vouchers.

Congressional Republicans’ new proposal to overhaul to federal tax policy, unveiled Wednesday, didn’t touch school choice.

6. She stayed calm as audience members unfurled protest banners and students asked pointed questions about her wealth and her department’s Title IX changes.

Outside the event, protesters took up about a city block in front of the Harvard Kennedy School. Speakers included presidents of Boston Teachers Union and the New England NAACP, plus Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson. The crowds sang “When the Schools Belong to Us” to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Inside, one student asked, “How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices?” to laughs and snaps.

“I’ve been involved with education choice for 30 years,” she responded. “I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice. The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so.”  

Grace Tatter contributed reporting.

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.