Most days I try not to think about Betsy Devos and her inexperience and agenda driven running of our country’s Department of Education, who’s mission reads:
Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access
As a classroom teacher, serving over 140 individual students a day, I admit it is pretty easy to dismiss the reality that a billionaire who has never spent time in and around public schools before her ascendance to the highest educational post of the land, is actually the secretary of Education. But in the last two weeks, news of her past, sound bytes of her present, and her visions for our future have reared their ugly heads like a hydra fixated on maddening its victims.
First there was her recent announcement to roll back Title IX protections and universities’ abilities to protect sexual assault victims and hold perpetrators accountable. “Highlights” of her official statements can be seen here and the full text here. I admit that my initial reaction was that of a father of two daughters and that of an educator who for the last 2 years has dealt with more title IX infringements at the high school level than I would have cared to. This is also hot off my summer reading list where John Krakauer’s book Missoula (a book I think Devos should desparately read if she hasn’t already) was fresh on my mind. Since then I have looked a little deeper into the issue, and while my skepticism and book recommendations for Devos remain, I can see the legal dilemma that has arisen from the current circumstances. This New Yorker article makes some valid points. In the end however, I am uncertain if any of this will result in less sexual assault on our nation’s campuses or increased safety, and that is a huge problem.
Then there was this episode of This American Life. Listening to Devos’ privileged past experiences as a volunteer at a local public elementary school,shelling out kindness to individual students and their families was a hard stomach to say the least. But what I took issue with the most was this quote from one of her speeches to the conservative audience at ALEC.
This isn’t about school systems. This is about individual students, parents, and families.
She again this week double downed on this very problematic notion that “systems” don’t matter and that government should focus on individuals.
And like those western settlers, anyone who dares to suggest schools ought to do better by their students is warned off: It’s too hard. It’ll take too long. There’s not enough money. It can’t be done.
Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education “system.”
What’s an education “system”?
There is no such thing! Are you a system? No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers.
What’s an education system?! Only the very thing you are charged with managing and improving for ALL students, parents, and educators who are part of that system. To be certain, systems are NOT individuals… AND systems should be designed to serve individuals within the system in the most equitable and efficient manner possible, continually being revised towards improvement. But a simple examination of the history of public education in this country would illuminate quite well that this has not always happened. I also take great exception to the assertion that “we defenders of the system” are saying “it can’t be done.” My daily existence and work as a professional, along with so many of the colleagues I have worked with for over a decade, is one of essential possibility. When it can be done, it’s because of our work and commitment to our students and their communities.
And it is individuals; policy makers, politicians, philanthropists and corporations who CREATE these systems… often to get the results as intended. How can one argue that “systems” don’t exist? Especially when one is at the head of such a masssive system?
I teach all of my social studies students the very important skill of analyzing and distinguishing between the institutions and the individuals that design and our impacted by them. We look at the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of systems designed to get both intended and unintended results. I feel like Secretary Devos could stand to visit my classroom for a review ok these concepts.
I think the answer to the previous questions posed: How can one argue that systems don’t exist?
Answer: when one believes that they shouldn’t exist and because of their belief actively tries to eliminate that public system.
And I think it’s pretty clear that Betsy Devos has this as her main agenda. And now she has even more capability to actually make that happen.
Queue the lesson on civic and political action and social movements. Secretary Devos, you have an open invitation to my class for that lesson as well.