Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to the crowd at a summit in Salt Lake City.  (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made news (again) recently when she was booed by students at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Florida, while she delivered a commencement speech. Students were upset that she had earlier this year called historically black colleges and universities “pioneers” in school choice rather than necessities because blacks weren’t allowed at white schools.

But in terms of education policy substance, the substance of a speech she gave a day earlier deserves at least as much attention. (See full text below.)

The Michigan billionaire appeared at the 2017 annual technology and innovation conference in Salt Lake City sponsored by Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley, delivering a speech and answering questions from Jeanne Allen of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform, who, as Liz Willen, editor of the Hechinger Report, said in this column, “threw one softball after another, such as: “What would you say to people about technology?”

As Willen noted, the audience, a friendly one of entrepreneurs, probably expected her to talk exclusively about educational technology.

What she talked mostly about, though, is what she always talks about — school choice — and she renewed previous attacks she has made on the value of government and public schools. If anybody thought that having the responsibility of running the entire Education Department would broaden her scope, this speech should disabuse them of that.

DeVos has been as controversial as any Cabinet member in the Trump administration, confirmed by the Senate only after Mike Pence became the first vice president in history to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee. In 2015, she gave a speech declaring the U.S. public education system “a dead end” and saying that “government sucks.”

Here are some of the highlights of the speech and some of the questions they raise about her views.

DeVos said:

Since I do have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to begin by saying it’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education. Why now? Because Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.

What exactly does this mean? The Education Department did not respond to a query about the meaning of “over 50 years.”

Is that a reference to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most important federal education legislation ever passed by Congress that was aimed at funding primary and secondary education to help close achievement gaps? Is it a reference to federal involvement over decades in attempting to desegregate public schools and protect the civil rights of students? Is it a reference to major federal legislation aimed at protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities?

Is she suggesting that the federal government should simply stand down and stop trying to protect the civil rights and educational opportunities of students and leave it to the states, whose inaction or misaction led to federal involvement in the first place?

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She said this about school choice:

Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work. Let’s be clear. This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education — we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.

Peter Greene, a veteran teacher in Pennsylvania, wrote about this on his Curmudgucation blog in a post titled “DeVos: Boldly Trampling Public Education.”

Of course, lots of folks live in a place where they have none of those networks as a choice because businesses only serve the customers that are profitable enough to get their attention. This may just be an area of ignorance typical to the really rich — I’m betting that DeVos has never been in a situation where a business told her it wasn’t worth their bother to serve her, nor has she found herself in a situation where that service was simply priced out of her reach.

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DeVos said:

Our students have fallen behind our peers on the global stage. In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, the U.S. ranked 20th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math. That’s worse than the 2012 PISA ranking which was somewhat higher in reading and math.

Actually, U.S. students have never done well on international exams, not since the dawn of international exams. Furthermore, PISA’s methodology has been criticized for years. For example, students who take it are supposed to represent the entire country or school system, but some countries, such as China, were allowed to select from their most educated students.

And using a test score to declare that American students have fallen behind their peers ignored other measures. Consider these:

• The Global Creativity Index ranks the United States second of 139 countries in the latest results, 2015.
• The 2016 Global Innovation Index ranks the United States fourth out of 128 countries.
• The 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Index ranks the United States first of 121 countries.

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DeVos criticized the traditional public education system in part because it is based on a 19th-century education model. She said:

The system is based on the Prussian model implemented in the early 1800s. Yes, courtesy of a country that no longer exists.  The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live. If you’re a block away from a better school zone, too bad.

Here’s Greene again:

I’m not one to rush to unqualified defense of the system, but I can’t help noticing that computers are based on a numbering system in around the 6th or 7th century. For that matter, we have a government based on a model implemented in the late 1700s. Granted, DeVos’s boss thinks that model is terrible, but “based on an old model” is only a useful criticism if you are heavily invested in selling a new system …

Let’s say instead that the system promises you a school in your community. Let’s say the system promises that you won’t have to send your child far from home just to get a decent education.

Here is the text of her Salt Lake City speech. In the first paragraph she mentioned Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform:

Hello everyone, and thank you, Jeanne, for the kind welcome. It’s great to be here at ASU GSV among so many of the great leaders and innovators in the education space.

You know, I’ve always envisioned that these conferences should be flipped around. Rather than the government official standing on stage and talking at all of you, I should be listening to you and learning about your challenges, opportunities and accomplishments.

But since I’m already up here, I hope you’ll allow me to monopolize the microphone for just a few minutes. I encourage you however, to consider this an open invitation for us to connect in the near future so I can hear from you personally.

Since I do have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to begin by saying it’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education.

Why now? Because Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.

We’ll never be able to solve a problem unless we acknowledge it exists, so here’s the current reality:

1. The system is based on the Prussian model implemented in the early 1800s.

Yes, courtesy of a country that no longer exists.

2. The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live.

If you’re a block away from a better school zone, too bad.

This of course creates a problem for those who don’t have the financial means to move to a different home.

If real estate prices are based on the neighborhood school district, it will always adversely affect the economically disadvantaged.

Thus the most vulnerable are trapped in the worse performing schools, while the wealthier families get the better schools.

3. Our students have fallen behind our peers on the global stage.

In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, the U.S. ranked 20th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math. That’s worse than the 2012 PISA ranking which was somewhat higher in reading and math.

And it’s not for a lack of funding. According to their 2012 data, we spend 31 percent more per pupil than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average on elementary and secondary students.

The facts show our system is antiquated, unjust, and fails to serve students. This is flat-out unacceptable.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been attempts at reform. “Education reform” has been in vogue since the early 1980s, and has produced plenty of studies, conferences and initiatives. We’ve also seen billions of dollars invested by the private sector to improve the system, but with very little to show in return.

Since the 80’s, we’ve made incredible advances in nearly every other sector of our society except education.

For example: who here can pull out their Blockbuster card? No one. You all likely use Netflix, or Amazon or one of the myriad streaming services available.

Think about your cellphone. It used to be that you could only fit your mobile phone in a duffel bag. Now, we carry a device in our pocket that’s more powerful than computers that used to take up entire rooms.

Apple, Uber, Airbnb … the list goes on and on. So much has changed and our lives are better because of it. So why is our education system so far behind the curve?

We can no longer accept this education malaise. The time for simply tinkering around the edges is over.

We already have failed a generation or more of kids, and every year we’re failing another graduating class. In order to prevent repeating this destructive cycle, we need a new generation of education reform.

That’s why I’m here. Each of the examples I mentioned stemmed from entrepreneurs who saw solutions to problems we didn’t even know existed. And, now our lives are better for them.

So, what are we going to do about this problem in American education that we know exists? Since we have a room full of innovators here today, my question to you is this: if you were to start from scratch, what would America’s education system look like?

I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.

Here’s how I would answer the question I just posed to you: We would build a system centered on knowledge, skills and achievement — not centered on delivery methods. Traditional, charter, private, virtual, and other delivery methods not yet developed: all would be treated as viable options so long as they met the needs of their students.

This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn. When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code.

The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.

To approach education anew, we should be ready and willing to embrace change.

Yes, change is often scary. But what should really scare us is continuing to support a system that has repeatedly failed so many kids.

Thomas Edison didn’t get the light bulb right on his first try. But he didn’t give up after his first, second or third failures either. He kept adjusting, tweaking and sometimes scrapping the whole thing and starting afresh, because he refused to accept that an oil lamp was the only way to provide light.

So when a school — any school — fails any student, that child deserves the right to move on.

The goal is not to promote choice for choice’s sake. The goal is to provide a wide range of quality options that actually help individual children learn and grow in an environment that works for them. For too many Americans, there is only one, single assigned option, and it isn’t working.

In the United States in 2017, no student should be locked into a school that fails them. Even the best-performing school in the country won’t be the right fit for everyone. The simple fact is that if a school is not meeting a child’s unique needs, then that school is failing that child.

Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work.

Let’s be clear. This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education — we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.

We’ve seen this commitment to 21st century education from Arizona State University, one of our gracious hosts today. Their Entrepreneurship (PLUS) Innovation program allows students to pitch concrete ideas on how to solve complex challenges, with the winner receiving $20,000 in seed funding. One of those was the G3Box, which converts old shipping containers into low-cost, fully-functioning medical clinics that can be efficiently shipped around the world to provide health services to high-need areas.

Another example is SafeSipp, which developed a low-cost water purifying device that also increases water-carrying capacity — a necessity for those who travel long distances to obtain clean water. SafeSipp won over $50,000 in grants, including rent-free manufacturing space from ASU, and they’re now able to distribute their product to communities throughout the developing world.

ASU is pairing the bright minds of the university with the capital of the private sector to benefit entire communities. That’s why U.S. News and World Report listed ASU as the #1 Most Innovative School in the country. It’s exactly this type of fresh approach that we want to encourage and emulate across the nation.

So, what can government do to advance these ideas? Well, this Administration started by giving states more flexibility in how they implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Just like no two students are identical, states like New Hampshire and California, or Utah and New York, have their own unique educational challenges and opportunities. We want states to unleash their creative thinking to tailor their education to the students they serve.

The President’s budget also calls for a significant expansion of school choice and parental empowerment. With Title I funds, we’re giving local districts more flexibility in how they distribute those funds so that they can best address their student’s needs. And, we’re working to eliminate regulations and red tape so educators can actually educate students, and not spend hours on paperwork.

With this Administration, you’ll find a partner that wants to empower you and collaborate with you, not dictate to you from on-high.

But while we will take some definitive steps, government alone can’t and shouldn’t solve these problems. The change we need won’t come from Washington — it will come from the people in this room, and from parents, educators, community leaders and philanthropists. My job is to get the federal government out of the way so that you can do your jobs.

Each of you is a problem solver. I suspect you share my belief that those who are closest to a problem are most often the best-equipped to solve it. When it comes to education, those closest to the problem are parents. It’s parents — not a bureaucrat sitting in Washington or a state capital — who are the most attuned to their children’s needs.

As leaders and innovators, my challenge to you is this: do not let this opportunity pass you by. We have the chance to think big and act boldly on behalf of students and their futures.

The demand among the American people is there. Millions of parents are dreaming of the opportunity to send their child to a school that can put them on the path to success. You are the ones who can help meet that demand and help make their dream a reality.

Let’s seize this moment, to ensure that each and every child has an equal opportunity for a great education.

We owe it to the rising generation to give them nothing less.