By John Sheffield, ESM Prep Managing Partner / Senior College Coach
Every employee at ESM is passionate about students, their education, and their futures. Enthusiasm for young people’s potential is the foundation of our recruiting, hiring, training, retention, and organizational structure. All but two employees work directly with students to effect change first-hand. Our workforce has varied interests, but a collective passion for student success unites our entire staff around our motto and namesake “Every Student Matters” and its corollary: that every student’s education outcome can be improved.
Because of these views and the elevated tenor of politics during the Trump administration, the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has become a particular touch-point in our organization. I write not to examine her qualifications or experience, as both have been examined thoroughly, but to advocate for the policies that I hope Secretary DeVos adopts during her tenure so as to improve education in our country.
1) Students first, accountability second – Whatever the direction education policy in the Trump administration takes, it should begin and end with students. While this may seem obvious, it has not always been the case. In Michigan, where Secretary DeVos has most successfully pushed her policies, for-profit schools have proliferated and have often been less than satisfactory. Furthermore, their continued funding is not tied to student results. While I don’t think that profit-seeking behavior is compatible with public education, I know that all student services need to be tied to demonstrable results. Common Core has faults, but it is a standardized evaluation of student performance, and by extension, educator performance. Any replacement should evaluate student performance on both growth and proficiency, and these evaluations should determine how federal education dollars are distributed. This admittedly has not always been the case with past administrations, but anything less is a breach of the government’s responsibilities to taxpayers and an abrogation of our shared responsibility to students.
2) Equal access – All students in America deserve access to high-quality education regardless of race, gender, ability, religious preference, sexual identity or expression, or geographic location. Federal money cannot be distributed to any school (private, public, or charter) that doesn’t uphold these commonsense and legally-guaranteed promises. In addition, school choice cannot supplant the existence of high-quality, local public schools. Other school options can provide significant benefits: alternative school structures provide testing grounds for new pedagogical strategies, specialized schools can benefit students with specific needs, and alternative accountability practices enable teacher evaluations to be free from the often differing motives of unions. However in many geographies, and in particular rural areas, the local public school is the only option available for students. To divert funding to other places leaves those students who can’t reach another school with one, now less-funded, option. Any policy needs to consider the outcomes of all students.
3) Educate for economic evolution – Our world and our economy are changing. Education should reflect that. While this means increased focus on technical and STEM skills, it should also include new methods of delivery, pedagogical systems, and renewed focus on creative skills that cannot be as easily automated. It may also involve reinvigorating funding to vocational skills and alternative methods of higher education. And it should take into account the rising costs of higher education and incorporate plans that can stem the increasing unaffordability at many institutions.
4) An educated electorate – A goal of any education policy should not just be to prepare people for their economic futures but to train them to be informed citizens. This means developing critical thinking skills that empower them to evaluate the disparate sources of information now available and make informed decisions for themselves. After all, an uninformed democracy without guaranteed rights looks a whole lot like mob rule.
Education policy could undoubtedly be improved by a shake-up. In math performance on the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, the U.S. ranked 35th, underperforming the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average and falling from the 2013 rankings. There are many reasons for this performance and they should all be evaluated. Comparing teacher compensation is tricky, but it’s instructive to compare what a teacher earns to other choices available to him/her. US teachers are paid about 32% less than other similarly educated professionals, and that difference is larger in the US than all but 5 OECD countries. Drawing and retaining talent had been a priority of previous Secretaries of Education. Teaching strategies could also be reexamined. Singapore (which led the PISA exams in Math, Reading, and Science) focuses its math teaching strategies on fewer concepts, more visuals, and increased attention to a student mindset that encourages effort as the pathway to improvement. (Common Core was meant to better align with international systems such as Singapore’s).
There are unquestionably many improvements to be made, but I hope Secretary DeVos advocates for the common-sense positions that help all students. And in this increasingly politicized and polarized climate, I hope that politics can stop where our students’ futures begin.