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DeVos: Outcomes at U.S. schools are so bad, they probably can’t get much worse

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reads to second-grade students at Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., on March 23. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Wednesday that U.S. public schools nationwide are in such bad shape that she isn’t “sure how they could get a lot worse.” She cited what she called “stagnant at best” scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though NAEP scores in math for low-performing students have gone up substantially in the past few decades.

DeVos said repeatedly at a Washington event at the nonprofit Brookings Institution that the federal government should have a largely advisory role in education policy and encourage states to experiment with choice to find what is best “for each individual student.” But when asked by Brookings senior fellow Russ Whitehurst whether the Education Department would reject state accountability plans it didn’t see as promoting choice, she said, “I don’t know. It’s too early to say that.” The plans are required to be submitted to the department by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and officials can choose not to accept them.

The convenient pattern of Education Secretary DeVos’s school visits

Whitehurst pressed her, asking whether the department would turn down a state plan that proposes an accountability system seen as being “antithetical to serving parents’ interests.” She responded by saying, “I think there is certainly going to be a lot of discussion back and forth as we go through this process.”

DeVos is the most controversial education secretary in the department’s history. She was confirmed by the Senate only after Mike Pence became the first vice president ever to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee, and some of her visits to schools have been met with protests. Critics say she is focused on privatizing public education, while she and her supporters say she wants to provide parents choices.

DeVos gave keynote remarks at Brookings, where the think tank unveiled its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, its ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts. For the 2016 index, the district with the highest score was Denver, followed by the Recovery School District in New Orleans, New York City, Newark and Boston. D.C. Schools was ninth on the list, which is compiled with a number of measures, including the availability and mix of choice options for parents.

Whitehurst asked DeVos whether she could envision a situation in which a choice environment implemented poorly could actually have “negative impacts on families,” with parents having more choice  of schools but academic achievements and outcomes getting worse. “Could you see that happening at all?” he asked her.

This is how she responded:  “I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today. I mean, the fact that our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate as compared to the rest of the world and that we’ve seen stagnant at best results with the NAEP scores over the years. I’m not sure we can deteriorate a whole lot.”

So far, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is just what her critics feared

Whitehurst told her that NAEP scores had in fact gone up significantly over the past 20 years for low-performing students. And U.S. students have never done well on the PISA tests, the Program for International Student Assessment, given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math and science.

DeVos, who has in the past called public education a “dead end,” made clear that providing parents with choices of schools for their children is her top priority. Asked by an audience member what role the federal government should play in ensuring that parents have choice but also providing enough consumer protection to ensure that schools aren’t going to collapse, she said: “I think it’s a fine balance to strike. I think the first and most important measure of accountability to the public is to the parents in general, right? The fact that parents choose a school for their child.”

She said that it was important for schools to be “transparent” with the public about their results, but did not suggest that they should be required. “I think we have to take a step back as a federal government and resist the notion that we are going to be able to manage this all from a top-down approach,” she said.

Whitehurst asked her how the public should hold the Trump accountable for making progress with student achievement. She said that she wasn’t a “numbers person” and that accountability “would certainly be around policies that would empower parents and students to make … choices.”

Asked by Whitehurst about the Trump administration’s initial federal budget proposal, which included a cut of at least 13 percent to the Education Department’s budget, she said that funding discussions were still continuing.

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