As Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos spoke before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions this evening, she reiterated that she believes a “one size fits all” approach is ineffective in terms of providing a high-quality education for all children, according to their individual needs.
“For starters,” she said in her opening statement, “we need to embrace new pathways of learning. For too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life. The old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model is not the only one that will lead to a prosperous future. Craftsmanship is not a fallback, but a noble pursuit.”
One student at Collinsville High School in Illinois expressed that same opinion in an editorial last month but gave it a very different spin. “College isn’t for everyone,” writes Luis Medina, the editorial editor for the student newspaper, The Kahoki. “There are many people who have not gone on to pursue a higher education than a high school diploma. Some do not even possess one yet have a higher income than their parents.”
Ms DeVos added, “Students should make informed choices about what type of education they want to pursue post-high school and have access to high-quality options. President-elect Trump and I agree we need to support all post-secondary avenues, including trade and vocational schools and community colleges.”
Many of these “informed choices,” as Mr Medina points out, are already available within public schools, which provide a wider variety of options than the one-size-fits-all education programs to which Ms DeVos seems to imply they limit themselves. But her repetition of this idea indicates an inability to grasp either the depth or breadth of educational programs available in many public schools.
She said if she’s confirmed, she would look forward to working with Congress “to enact solutions that empower parents and students, provide high-quality options, and spend tax dollars wisely.” One must assume, if she’s confirmed, that those solutions would include “empowering” the programs that already exist in addition to adding new or even untested programs.
At Collinsville, Mr Medina writes:
Here at the high school of champions, we have an excellent vocational center that offers a wide variety of technical classes. The vocational center can and has helped students find work doing things that they genuinely enjoy. The students who take these classes usually take them for the simple fact that it is going to help propel them into a stable career.
So while Ms DeVos suggests helping all children get an equal “opportunity” to a high-quality education, what kids are focusing on is the array of options before them, including college, for post-high school lives. Each looks to carve out an individual path to success and happiness.
I can be as pragmatic as anyone, but setting goals is not the time to settle. When Ms DeVos elevates craftsmanship to a “noble pursuit,” she sends the message, to impressionable young people, that it is just as high a goal as a college education. It is not, although children who are only able to achieve at that level need to feel OK about that capability, given the right effort in the process of learning and achievement, just as those who can achieve at higher levels need to feel OK about their endeavors.
Yes, crafts may lead to a stable career, as the student writer correctly points out, and let’s give that the credit it deserves. But something that is intended to meet the simple need of survival is probably closer to being mundane than noble. Saying it’s a higher achievement than it is nullifies the “high-quality” nature of the education Ms DeVos says she seeks to make available to “every” child, regardless of his or her family’s income or ZIP code. Just declaring that a certain goal is higher than it actually is also reflects a fundamental lack of understanding, on Ms DeVos’s part, about how student achievement works across the educational spectrum here.
Here her words, spoken as the likely next US secretary of education, trumpet the false glory of survival instead of setting the nation on a path of high standards or lofty goals. We don’t make winners just by saying they’re winners or that people love them. It reminds me of Little League giving even the last-place team a “participation” trophy. She fools no one but the fools.
What we ought to hear, instead, coming from our future education secretary, is something we can compare with George W Bush’s impossible dream of achieving 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. No one was fooled into thinking it was possible, but when you’re sitting at the top of education in America, it’s best to set high goals.