Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing Jan. 17. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

From start to finish, this week’s Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary, was a remarkable affair — remarkable as in seriously unusual, uncomfortable to watch.

While many confirmation hearings have moments when somebody says or does something that raises eyebrows, the DeVos hearing on Tuesday was something of a spectacle throughout. (It’s no wonder stories about the hearing went viral on social media, something that doesn’t usually happen with education confirmation hearings.)

It wasn’t just that DeVos — who critics say supports policies that would privatize public education — seemed unable to answer basic questions and made some rather startling statements. Among them:

And she stuck to her talking points even past the silly point in a back-and-forth with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.):

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”

It evoked memories of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) repeating himself four times during a February 2016 primary debate, saying this or something nearly identical: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s trying to change this country.” Rubio was criticized so harshly for it that it diminished his candidacy and he never recovered.

Watch the full exchange between Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, at her confirmation hearing. (Reuters)

Republicans on the committee tried their best to throw DeVos the softest of marshmallow questions, attempting to portray her education views — seen by many educators and Democrats as being radical — as actually being in the mainstream. For example:

Sen. William Cassidy (R-La.): “Ms. Devos, great to see you again. I am really struck, the kind of reaction your nomination has elicited. Let me just ask some questions. Do you support public education?”
Betsy DeVos: “Absolutely, senator.”
Cassidy: “Man, that’s amazing. Some would have us think that you do not. Do you think all children deserve to have the opportunity to receive a quality education?”
DeVos: “Absolutely, I do.”
Cassidy: “Do you support the rights of all children, regardless of incomes or race . . . to have the opportunity to choose the school that meets their child’s needs?”
DeVos: “Absolutely I do, and I commend you and your wife for the school that you started that is specifically focused on dyslexic students.”

Some couldn’t help but reveal their own cluelessness about U.S. public education even as they tried to support her. Take Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He said that the Department of Education says “half” of U.S. public schools “are not doing well.” No, the department doesn’t say that.

Former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Jan. 17 spoke in support of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, at the opening of her confirmation hearing. (Reuters)

Even someone who once described himself as a Democrat, former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, betrayed a basic misunderstanding of education testing during his friendly, formal introduction of DeVos before she gave her opening testimony. He said that a recent report found that just 35 percent of eighth graders were “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test sometimes called “the nation’s report card,” and just 34 percent were proficient on the math exam. “In other words,” he said, “about two-thirds of eighth graders in our country are not proficient in reading and math.” He then went on to describe “proficient” as the “middle ranking” in NAEP.

Actually, no.

Proficiency ratings on the NAEP do not translate to grade-level reading and math performance. And while “proficient” does come between “basic” and “advanced,” making it the “middle” NAEP level, it doesn’t mean average, as Lieberman was suggesting. Proficient in NAEP means that “students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” Besides, many critics of NAEP say the levels for proficiency are too high.

This certainly might sound technical to people who don’t worry about this stuff for a living, but it is actually an important distinction.

But let’s move on.

Just as soon as the hearing started, the committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary himself, declared that committee members would have just five minutes each to question DeVos, setting off a sustained chorus of complaint from every Democrat on the panel, who each argued with Alexander about why he wouldn’t give them more time.

Alexander kept saying it was precedent, and the Democrats kept telling him it actually wasn’t. He said President Obama’s two education secretaries were treated the same way before the Senate education committee when they came up for confirmation, but he was reminded more than once that the U.S. Office of Government Ethics had cleared Obama’s nominees before the hearing. DeVos has yet to be cleared.

A Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, made the point that Democrats were wasting some of their precious five minutes complaining that five minutes wasn’t enough — but she did at least note that she, too, had wasted some of her time complaining about the complaining Democrats.

Democrats accused Alexander of trying to shield DeVos from their questions, but he kept falling back on his sticking-to-the-rules-he-created argument. Alexander looked like he couldn’t wait to be somewhere else, but he  spent a lot of time trying to defend his five-minute “golden rule,”  a phrase he uttered several times.

My unscientific tabulation of time spent on topic indicates that this was the one on which the most time was spent.

Devos — as has been noted, for example, here, here, and here — could or would not answer basic questions about education policy, such as whether states and localities had to comply with a federal law protecting students with disabilities. This revealed either a stunning lack of background in key issues, lousy hearing preparation, an ability to handle the pressure — or all three.

Democratic senators and Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont who was temporarily a Democrat last year when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, asked tough questions of DeVos to see what she knew, didn’t know, or wouldn’t say. Sanders asked her a question that was not so much a question as a statement:

Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos answered in the only way she could: Yes, she would.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at her confirmation hearing that "there's nothing in life that's truly free" when asked whether she would support making public colleges tuition-free. (Reuters)

Though her supporters praised her performance, within 24 hours it was already the stuff of late-night television jokes. As Trevor Noah noted on “The Daily Show,” DeVos essentially flunked her hearing exam but is likely to be confirmed anyway and can be expected to change some important education policy set by the Obama administration to protect students.

So much for accountability.