Salt Lake City
K-12 and higher education in the U.S. needs to “innovate and iterate,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 at the 2017 ASU/GSV Summit here Tuesday.
Those two terms resonate in this gathering of educational technology executives, developers and investors, most of whom want to influence schools to try their products in an effort to accelerate student learning and improve outcomes.
At the same time, DeVos used the speech to sound a bleak picture of K-12 education in the U.S. despite high levels of spending compared with many other countries. And she stressed the need to return policy authority from the federal government to the states and localities, and repeated her longstanding support for school choice.
Local news reports indicated that about 80 protesters gathered outside the Grand American Hotel while DeVos addressed the audience inside. As part of her Utah visit, she also toured the Granite Technical Institute, which is a vocational training program that the Granite School District operates, the local media reported.
In a Q-and-A with Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, after her speech, DeVos said she has visited 17 or 18 schools since taking the top role in the Education Department.
Those visits “bring home the fact that we have a very large and very diverse country, and the notion that the federal government should be mandating anything from the top is pretty much a hellacious approach,” she said.
DeVos did not identify any ways in which she saw innovation evidenced in her visits to K-12 schools. More than 100 educational leaders were in the audience, many of them superintendents from the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools or administrators from large districts.
However, DeVos did commend Arizona State University (the “ASU” in ASU/GSV) in her speech as a leader in innovation. Tackling complex challenges, students there have won awards and funding for new ideas like the G3Box, which converts shipping containers into low-cost medical clinics that can be sent anywhere in the world.
The Role of Technology in Schools
DeVos said she has enjoyed seeing how technology has been utilized in a variety of settings to date, but she is confident “we haven’t realized the full range of technology’s ability to help students learn,” she told Allen. Watching her young grandchildren convinces her how powerful technology is, and that there are more and more ways they learn through technology.
As for rural schools, DeVos said “we’ve just scratched the surface” in the role technology can play in bringing education to far-flung populations of students.
If she could build a new educational system from scratch, DeVos said “we would build a system centered on knowledge, skills, and achievement, not on delivery methods.”
Aside from technology, DeVos painted a dire image of the state of K-12 education in her speech—citing recent Program for International Assessment or PISA scores that place U.S. students 20th in reading, 19th in science and 24th in mathematics among 77 countries and economies, a concern she has voiced before.
“It’s not for lack of funding,” she said, as the U.S. spends an average of 31 percent more per pupil on elementary and secondary education than average among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reporting data.
DeVos called the U.S. system “antiquated and unjust.” The education reform effort that “has been in vogue since the early 1980s” has produced plenty of studies, conferences and initiatives, spent billions of dollars, and has “very little to show for it,” she said in her prepared remarks.
Calling All ‘Problem Solvers’
“The change we need won’t come from Washington,” predicted DeVos, who said parents, educators, community leaders and philanthropists as likelier change agents.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is in the process of being implemented, and Congress “was very intentional about the notion that power should be returned to the states” so they could try something new. “We want states to unleash their creative thinking to tailor their education to the students they serve,” she said. “It’s important that we allow states to be as innovative as they possibly can,” she said, adding that she plans to highlight those new approaches to draw attention to them.
“This administration is very intent on ensuring that states are empowered and returning powers to localities that have heretofore had to defer to federal government for too many things,” she said.
“Each of you is a problem solver,” DeVos told the audience. “I expect you share my belief that those of you closest to a problem are the most likely to solve it.”
DeVos, who reiterated her call for parents to choose what schools their children attend, said, “We have the chance to think big and act boldly on behalf of students and their futures,” and asked the audience to not let this opportunity pass them by.
On the Political Landscape
DeVos encouraged the audience to speak with their representatives in Congress “about what you do, and how you view … the restrictions on the way you do what you are setting out to do.”
The department is also following the executive order of President Donald Trump and reviewing “every single regulation that’s been promulgated,” asking whether it’s necessary, or how much of it is necessary, then “ridding ourselves of everything that’s not necessary,” she said.
Devos was interviewed after her speech by Jeanne Allen, CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform, who asked the education secretary how closely the reality of running the department of education met her expectations.
“Since I didn’t come with a whole lot of preconceived ideas about what I was going to find in the department,” she said, which elicited laughs from the audience, “I can’t say what’s really different.”
On her experience with policy, DeVos said, “I think I do know quite a lot about policy. I’ve been involved in educational policy for about 30 years. My focus is strictly on doing what’s right on behalf of individual students. If we can help get that right, it’s going to make a tremendous difference.
Within the Education Department there is an office of innovation, and DeVos said she believes innovation “needs to be infused in everything the office does.” She is working to make sure every area the department touches is “thinking anew about the needs of students…today,” she said.
DeVos had another change she would make if she could. Instead of her department having “education” in its name, she said it should be called “The Department of Lifelong Learning,” to reflect the realities of education’s reach today.