Education Secretary Betsy DeVos read to students at Ashland Elementary in Virginia on April 25. DeVos highlighted innovative teaching practices in a speech Tuesday to teachers and principals. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

At Calvert Elementary School in Auburn, Neb., students are free to move at their own pace rather than being pushed to keep up with the class.

At Alabama’s Tuscaloosa Magnet Middle School, teachers took project-based learning to the next level, helping students produce a Spanish-language soap opera and build an amusement park to simulate functions of the human body.

Teachers begin preparing middle-schoolers at Doral Academy of Technology near Miami for Advanced Placement coursework so they can be ready for rigorous classes in high school.

Each has been named a National Blue Ribbon School and got a nod from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a speech Tuesday afternoon. In a short address to educators at an awards ceremony in Washington, DeVos highlighted schools she said were breaking the “one-size-fits-all” model of education.

“America’s students are more diverse than ever, and we all know that no child is the same as another. National Blue Ribbon Schools recognize that different students in different places have different needs,” DeVos said, addressing the educators in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

“This is why I continue to urge everyone involved in education to ‘rethink school’ – to thoughtfully question and challenge everything through one clarifying lens: How does this improve individual student achievement?” DeVos said.

The Education Department named 342 schools National Blue Ribbon Schools, a long-running awards program that recognizes schools for academic progress and for closing the achievement gap. This year’s recipients hailed from 44 states, the District and military bases. The department bestowed the honor on 50 private schools, three-quarters of which are Catholic.


DeVos highlighted schools she said are breaking the mold, delivering instruction tailored to students’ interests and needs. She put an emphasis on personalized learning, a variety of efforts to tailor curriculum and approaches to individual students. She also highlighted project-based learning — challenging students to tackle real-life problems with hands-on projects — a method intended to mirror the collaboration and problem-solving that happens outside of the classroom.

DeVos has sometimes gotten an icy reception from public school educators because of her derision of the public school system, which she says is pushing an outdated model of education that is failing students. The secretary favors school choice policies that would direct public dollars to private schools, allowing parents to pick where they send their child, regardless of their means.

Her address avoided those themes, and educators said they largely appreciated that their work was being validated.

Kent Sanders is a fifth-grade teacher at Leon Sheffield Magnet Elementary School in Decatur City, Ala., where teachers emphasize breaking out of the “sit and get” model. Sanders said he appreciated that DeVos highlighted project-based learning, which he employs enthusiastically in his classroom. His students start the day at hands-on stations, doing art projects and building models with Legos.

“When it comes to boosting student achievement, you have to be willing to do something different,” Sanders said. “If you come into my class at any given time, it might seem like chaos, but it’s organized chaos.”

Paulina Cho, principal of Wedgeworth Elementary in Southern California, saw the awards as a rebuke to DeVos’s frequent assertion that public schools are not innovative. Cho oversees a school where half of students come from low-income families and 45 percent of students are English language learners. She earned the award by closing the achievement gap.

“We showed them . . . public schools work,” Cho said.

Veronica Savoie, assistant principal of Midland High in rural Louisiana, said she would love to try some of the innovative approaches the secretary highlighted. Her school received an award for boosting achievement while cutting the school day to four days. Fridays are optional for students, but about one-third return for tutoring or to work on projects.

But her school does not have money for things such as personalized learning, which would require additional staff. There are just two math teachers for the school of about 300 students.

“I think those ideas are great,” Savoie said. “We just don’t have the money.”