DeVos and the limits of the education reform movement

Betsy DeVos exposed the education reform movement’s pitfalls in her highest-profile media appearance to date.

President Donald Trump’s education secretary got the job based on her years of advocacy for expanding “school choice,” especially in Michigan, her home state. Yet she stumbled when Lesley Stahl asked her in a widely watched CBS “60 Minutes” interview to assess the track record for those efforts.

“I don’t know. Overall, I – I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos stammered.

It’s not just Michigan or Midwestern conservatives. Policymakers and philanthropists across the ideological spectrum and the nation have teamed up to reform public education for decades, only to find that their bold projects have fallen short. Regardless of the evidence, however, top-down reform remains the standard among politicians and big donors.

As an educational policy scholar, I have identified a few reasons why school reform efforts so persistently get lackluster results, as well as why enthusiasm for reform hasn’t waned. Despite its long-term failure, large-scale education reform maintains consistent bipartisan support and is backed by roughly US$4 billion a year in philanthropic funding derived from some of the nation’s biggest fortunes.

Shiny objectives

DeVos may be a uniquely polarizing figure, but she is hardly the first federal leader to champion school reform.

Ever since 1983, when the Reagan administration published its “A Nation at Risk” report bemoaning the quality of American public education, politicians have rallied public support for plans to overhaul the nation’s education system. Over the past quarter century, leaders from both parties have backed the creation of curricular standards and high-stakes standardized tests. And they have pushed privately operated charter schools as a replacement for traditional public schools, along with vouchers and other subsidies to defray the cost of private school tuition.

All of these large-scale school reform efforts, whether pushed by the federal government or backed by billionaire philanthropists including the families of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, homebuilder and insurance mogul Eli Broad, late Walmart founder Sam Walton and DeVos herself have encountered setbacks.

Still, the larger ethos of reform hasn’t changed. And none of the leaders of this effort, including DeVos, appear to be wavering in their efforts, even when challenged with evidence, as happened during her cringe-inducing “60 Minutes” interview.

[embedded content] Former PBS NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow sums up his book ‘Addicted to Reform,’ which describes the pitfalls of the K-12 reform movement.

A cycle of failure

From George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law in 2015, the federal government has taken a highly interventionist approach to education policy.

But it has routinely failed to produce promised results. Today, educators, scholars and policymakers now almost universally regard No Child Left Behind as a washout. And many critiques of Obama-era reform efforts have been equally blistering.

Nevertheless, the core approach to federal education policy has not markedly changed.