Amid the hullabaloo surrounding Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings for U.S.Secretary of Education, there was also a force at work with the potential to destroy American public education—and we missed it.
Some of history’s greatest activists and thinkers warned of the need to see even the stealthiest of threats to progress. Malcolm X challenged that liberals are only different from conservatives in one way, “the liberal is more deceitful more hypocritical, than the conservative.” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also reached the “regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.” While these two leaders differed on philosophy and tactics, they were deeply aligned on the threat that perfectly-packaged, well-intentioned hypocrisy posed to progress.
Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that we may have missed that kind of hypocrisy during Sec. DeVos’ hearings. It was not shiny like an Amway fortune, humorous like a grizzly bear meme, or titillating like tales of buying influence. Certainly, what many of us may have seen as a shroud of supposed shared values has served as an invisibility cloak. But our ability to adequately defend and support a top-quality public education system demands that we discern and decipher danger, even when it comes in our favorite wrapping paper.
But I contend that the hypocrisy we saw during the confirmation process is a more serious threat to American public education.
Hypocrisy #1: We care selectively about talent and performance in education.
Delawareans may have made their voices heard during the federal confirmation process, but we are paying much less attention to what is happening right here at home. Here in Delaware, folks wore “red for public ed” and called their Senators – Senator Carper reported receiving 3700 calls – to oppose Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Yet, there has been much less interest in the local leadership that will most impact Delaware kids. Christina School District –one of Delaware’s largest and lowest performing school districts– hired a new superintendent in January. But we heard little public scrutiny of his qualifications and track record of getting results for students.
Likewise, all Delaware school and district leaders are required to have an annual evaluation but you scarcely hear discussion about the performance and effectiveness of the leaders serving our children each day. With the deadline to run for school board approaching, it is also worth noting that Delawareans who serve on school boards have a substantial impact on the quality of public education. Yet, Delaware’s track record is one in which most races are uncontested, few Delawareans vote in these elections and most Delawareans would not be able to assess the performance of their local school board members.
If performance matters, let’s make it matter all the time: from the classroom to the confirmation hearing.
Hypocrisy #2: We offer political speak even when we know the truth.
Data nerds and policy wonks, including me, had a field day sharing the viral video of Al Franken questioning DeVos’ understanding of “proficiency and growth.” Franken even went on to say that “proficiency is an arbitrary standard.” Education insiders traded jokes, virtual high-fives and aghast emoticons. Even “VAM is a Sham” adherents were excited to put their knowledge of growth models on display in service of the social media thunderclap.
But let’s be honest about what matters for students and parents in the real world. The truth is that parents are not too interested in knowing their child is growing faster than similar students if their child cannot read, write, interpret complex texts and solve algebraic equations.
Certainly, there is value in knowing which schools or teachers are getting students to grow faster academically when compared to other students like them. But we know that institutions of higher education and places of employment expect students to meet their bar for proficiency and competency in order to be accepted. However arbitrary, their standards are absolute and have serious consequences.
If we love students and public education, we need to prioritize truth, honesty, and transparency.
Hypocrisy #3: We love public education but have lost faith in its power.
While Franken was being touted for his takedown of DeVos during the confirmation hearings, few acknowledged the soft bigotry of the following statement he made: “With proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency and ignore the kids on the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency (emphasis added).”
These statements underscore the pervasive low expectations for students of color and low-income students in our education system. Statements like these assume that poverty and academic challenge will determine these students abilities throughout their education while ignoring the transformative power of excellent educators and schools.
Hypocrisy #4: We’re fine playing politics with kids’ futures, so long as they are not our kids.
Betsy DeVos’ nomination process brought renewed attention to tired school choice debates. It resurfaced the hypocrisy inherent in so many of these discussions.
While policymakers like Franken politicize conversations about school choice, he chooses to send his children to Dalton – one of the nation’s best schools – at a cost of more than $40,000 per year. Now, I would be the last to begrudge anyone for sparing no expense to give their child better options. But when people with the resources to choose the neighborhoods and schools that give their children advantage, and expect “outprivileged” folks to remain in schools they would not find suitable enough for their own children we have to start asking some serious questions.
You can certainly say that you love public education while protecting yourself from the worst outcomes of the system. But that’s like telling your partner you love them and then asking for a prenuptial agreement: don’t be surprised if they start questioning the depth of your commitment.
It is easy to spot an outsider and rally the resistance against an anticipated attack. But what do we do when the greatest threats come from within? How do we harness our advocacy energies against the forces of hypocrisy and apathy? Maybe we start with a few moments in front of a mirror. Our public education system would be in a much better place if we start inspecting whether our local actions reflect the excellence and urgency we would want for our own kids.