Should We Take Betsy DeVos Seriously or Literally?

Betsy DeVos photo by Flickr user Michael Vadon

DeVos by Michael Vadon on Flickr

This week Eduwonk features guest posts from different members of Bellwether’s Policy and Thought Leadership team who lead some of our most impactful work. The post below is by Chad Aldeman.

During last year’s presidential campaign, there was an intellectual debate about whether we should take then-candidate Trump at his literal word, or if he should be taken seriously but not literally. We now face the same dilemma with his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

To understand why, start with DeVos’ statement in March about how her department would implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):

My philosophy is simple: I trust parents, I trust teachers, and I trust local school leaders to do what’s right for the children they serve. ESSA was passed with broad bipartisan support to move power away from Washington, D.C., and into the hands of those who are closest to serving our nation’s students.

States, along with local educators and parents, are on the frontlines of ensuring every child has access to a quality education. The plans each state develops under the streamlined ESSA template will promote innovation, flexibility and accountability to ensure every child has a chance to learn and succeed.

Flexibility, local control, power away from Washington. Got it. States know what to do with that.

But wait. DeVos is also on the record on multiple occasions, in multiple contexts, declaring that she will follow federal law as written. Similarly, Jason Botel, her Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, is holding states specifically to what’s in the ESSA statute.

There is an inherent conflict here between flexibility and rigidity. And we’re starting to see the consequences of that tension. Although ESSA provides states wide latitude in a number of areas, there are portions that are both clear and strict. Here are four examples where this tension may play out:

  1. ESSA doesn’t qualify science or social studies as “academic achievement” measures for the purposes of accountability. Those measures may be included in other areas of a state’s accountability system, but a literal interpretation of ESSA suggests that states can only count English and math toward the state’s achievement indicator.
  2. ESSA requires states to measure proficiency as their academic achievement indicator. Several states are attempting to shift from the NCLB-era focus on one proficiency threshold toward a more continuous measure of performance, and a number of academics have spoken out in favor of this idea. But a strict interpretation of ESSA says states must include proficiency.
  3. ESSA, like No Child Left Behind before it, requires states to identify any school where any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming. States have wide discretion in how they define “consistently underperforming,” but ESSA does not allow states the flexibility to narrow their approach to focus only on certain historically low-performing groups or to combine groups in any way. Any means any.
  4. ESSA imposes a strict rule on how states should identify schools with low-performing subgroups. The law says states must identify any school with any subgroup performing, by itself, as low as the bottom five percent of schools overall. Although I haven’t seen any state game this out publicly — which is saying something in the first place — my sense from several private conversations is that this definition, applied strictly, could capture 40-60 percent of schools in a given state. That’s a lot! States don’t want to identify that many schools and are instead proposing a number of approaches to cap how many schools they identify.

DeVos has put herself in a tight spot with her Department’s “letter of the law” rhetoric, because it will force her to apply rigid rules like these on states, regardless of their policy merits or her stated desire for flexibility and local control. Worse, if she picks and chooses where to strictly hew to the law and where not to, she’ll open herself up for charges of hypocrisy.

This conundrum is a big reason why I have personally advocated for a different style of accountability that hinges on results, not rules. It’s also why we convened an independent review of ESSA state plans that looks beyond mere compliance with the law. But without guidance from Secretary DeVos, states are left wondering whether they should take her seriously or literally. It’s a question that has big implications for the field.

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