On Inauguration Day 2017, we pause for a moment to ask our colleagues about their hopes and dreams for schools. In 2017 and the years to come. Peter Senge, the brilliant systems thinker from MIT and author of Schools that Learn, observed: “Aspiration does not come easily in most school settings. It must be deliberately cultivated.” We believe that this need to motivate/stimulate “aspiration” applies to many circumstances – in schools and in society. As many gurus of organizational change will tell you, visioning is an important part of any transformation process. Given this change in our Presidential administration and opening of a new doorway to our future, how can we cultivate visioning? In schools and out of schools. In many schools it is almost as if we have tapped the “hold” button on our cell phones. Time has stopped as we wait for news that will guide us into the future. From our discussion with school leaders, it seems as if the pressures are so great, and the demands from the past 15 year during NCLB and Common Core State Standards so overwhelming, that many are just waiting to see what else will happen to them.
Right now in America, honored traditions and agreements are being set aside. For example, what will happen with our relationship with NATO? What will be the relationship between the White House and the press? Or what about America’s history of being a welcoming place for immigrants? How much say will women have about their reproductive rights? Who will attend public schools? Americans are uncertain of a shared vision for our democracy going forward. We are uncertain of the vision for America. If we are not uncertain, we are at least divided. Our President-Elect seems to disregard the value of public education as he supports a nominee for Secretary of Education who advocates for plans of “school choice” that will shift undetermined tax-payer dollars out of public education. We cannot allow this administration to allocate public resources to benefit only some children. An estimated 10% of the nation’s children attend private schools, where the average annual tuition is $10,000. Yet, 23% of America’s children live in poverty (OECD).
With ESSA, educators have an opportunity to redefine how we approach America’s instructional priorities and accountability. In this high-tech 21st Century environment, we have many options for innovations and for setting directions for schools in ways that are mindful of everything we know about learning and brain development through neurobiology. We have considerable data about the impact of poverty and trauma on short-term learning and brain development, as well as long-term health and well-being. And we have data on ways to improve learning, focus, memory, critical thinking, and emotional health. There is an opportunity to create new visions for education.
We can imagine what an advocate for children’s well-being could bring to our educational system. However, we cannot imagine how Betsy DeVos’ background and experience can enable her to create a vision for improving America’s education system – a system where 90% of our children are educated in public schools. DeVos has no experience with public education. She, her spouse and her children all attended private schools. She has served as Chair of the Alliance for School Choice and headed the All Children Matter PAC, but both of these organizations supported only private education. Charter school advocates decry the absolute failure of her attempts to transform education in Detroit, calling it the “biggest school reform disaster in the country.” Her plan in Detroit lacked oversight and many schools that failed to educate students continued to enroll students without accountability.
As we consider a new vision for America’s education, we must ask what does DeVos, the daughter of a billionaire industrialist, know about public education? What does she know about the needs of children living in poverty? What does she know about children’s well-being and particularly the well-being of children from families that are disenfranchised? What does she know about educational strategies that support teachers, principals, and administrators? What does she know about how to inspire or lead others? And according to evidence from her confirmation hearing on January 17, we also need to ask what does she know about ESSA and IDEA? What does she know about the legal rights and needs of children in special education? And what has she done to earn the privilege to lead our country’s educational system?
Maud Schaafsma is a principal in ChildWorks, a Chicago educational consulting group. Maud has a PhD in Sociology and has done research and public policy post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and in the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee.