The left is in hysterics over yesterday’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary. The vote, which was a tie until the president of the Senate, Vice President Pence, cast the deciding vote in her favor, and education in the United States died, according to liberals.
I’m not convinced. Admittedly, unlike many conservatives, I’m not excited about some indisputable benefits she is going to be to the American education system. I don’t find her qualifications especially impressive, nor do I think she possesses a magic bullet for the problems schools are experiencing.
To be honest, I don’t think anyone does — and that’s the point. In 38 years of existence, the Department of Education has had no meaningful impact on education in America. With minor exceptions, there has been no improvement in students’ test scores, while spending has more than doubled, taking into account inflation and the increase in the number of students in that time. That’s with Republican and Democratic appointees running it.
To what degree are test scores a good indicator of student performance anyway? Is there too much “teaching to the test” happening? There is a broad consensus that national standards for education results are a good thing, but no one can figure out how to implement them effectively. From No Child Left Behind to Common Core, evidence abounds that despite common assumptions, no one has a universal answer.
Intellectually honest criticism has been bipartisan — in both its sources and its targets. The Washington Post reported that the Obama Administration spent $7 billion in attempts to fix failing schools, with no results.
Democrats have wavered between laughing and crying at Betsy DeVos’ lack of experience and understanding of the education system, but they should turn that critical eye on their own appointees. Indeed, some have. I looked for positive results from the Department of Education’s existence; I didn’t find any. What I did find was an opinion piece in The Washington Post in 2012 written by a professor of education — an Obama supporter, no less — who called Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, “his very worst cabinet appointment.”
Duncan, the author argues, was unqualified for the position. He spent some time as the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, but never spent anytime in a classroom. He was “probably the most test-obsessed” person to be education secretary.
[His] system has turned teachers into functionaries and turned students into factory workers whose job it is to produce higher and higher test scores in the futile quest for Annual Yearly Progress, in which each year’s students are required to outscore last year’s students, with their teachers deemed incompetent should this year’s students fail to outperform last year’s, year after year, ad infinitum.
In a bipartisan manner, the author also takes aim at Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige, who he argues was the first secretary to really embrace the testing movement. After Paige’s experience with “the Houston miracle,” which the author calls “a mirage,” he naturally attempted to apply similar concepts to the national level. Where are the results? There weren’t any. There haven’t been in the last four decades.
So what is the solution? I have no idea, but there is no evidence that the Department of Education is it.
Since it hasn’t made a positive impact, there is no reason to assume the American education system will be worse off without it. Why don’t we toss it in the dustbin and avoid party-line votes between recipients of donations from potential education secretaries and recipients of donations from teachers unions? No more protests or sit-ins over nominees sounds good to me.
The Department of Education primarily has three functions: it 1) gathers data and conducts research on education, 2) provides financial aid, and 3) makes national education policy. The Department could continue to exist merely as a body that gathers data, conducts research and makes it available to the public. The second function, financial aid, could be substituted with federal funding for states that will then provide it instead.
The third function has proven worthless. An education system as vast and diverse as America’s is unlikely ever to be greatly improved top down. It’s rather astounding anyone thought it could be. This function need not be replaced with anything more than increased space for state and local solutions. Perhaps then teachers can be empowered to find solutions for their individual classrooms and to contribute more to the improvement of the schools in which they teach.
Sure, it may not improve the education system that much, but the Department of Education has never done any better.