Give Educators More Freedom to Innovate, DeVos Tells SXSWedu

Associate Editor

Austin, Texas

Educators are innovators, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a SXSWedu standing-room-only crowd here Tuesday, and they need more room to exercise that skill.

The comment came at the end of a session about rethinking higher education when an audience member asked why the secretary had focused her speech at the event on “entrepreneurs and innovators ahead of teachers and students.”

“Well, we are at an innovation conference,” DeVos said, “and I believe that teachers can [be] and are innovators.” She added, “We have to free them up to be more innovative in their own classrooms.”

DeVos described a recent meeting she requested with educators who had been recognized as “teachers of the year.” She wanted to understand why those honorees had left the classroom.

As part of receiving that honor, the teachers had “done their victory laps” around their states to celebrate the recognition, and talk with others in their state or region about their experiences, she said.

But when that work was over, those educators returned to their districts and were told to go back and “get within their box at their school,” she said.

“Almost to a person, they said they left out of frustration, or a feeling of not being appreciated,” DeVos said.

The education secretary said teachers should be given “more latitude and autonomy to meet the needs of their students in their classrooms,” although she did not elaborate on how that would happen.

New Mobile App for Financial Aid

One innovation DeVos said the Department of Education is about to launch is a new mobile app for financial aid.

She said the department’s Federal Student Aid program is “a lender with one of largest consumer loan portfolios in the country,” but it hasn’t had a mobile app.  The development will bring FSA on par with “a customer-centric financial institution, not a government maze,” DeVos said.

Beyond better access to financial aid, there is a “fundamental disconnect between education and the economy,” she said. “Too many higher education institutions are graduating students with skills that employers don’t need.”

The secretary said rethinking education means questioning everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion and realizing his or her potential.

A Return Visit

Hundreds of people lined the halls of the Austin Convention Center waiting to be admitted to hear the session featuring DeVos and the panel she moderated, which also featured Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a massive open online course provider; David Clayton, the senior vice president of consumer insights for Strada Education Network; and Ben Wallerstein, CEO and co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors.

“This is a fabulous, fabulous event and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be here,” DeVos told the audience. “The last time I was here, I said a few things I heard [about during] my confirmation.”

Those comments in 2015 included what she called “an inconvenient truth [that] government really sucks.” This year, she said it was enjoyable to again be in the company of “entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and doers” in contrast to the “somewhat stuffier, acronym-laced halls of Washington, D.C.”

Her brief speech before she stepped into the role of moderator echoed remarks she made last year about the need for classroom innovation at another conference of education entrepreneurs, the ASU+GSV Summit.

Meanwhile, yesterday she told a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers that states’ accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act lacked innovation, were not ambitious enough and did not take full advantage of the law’s flexibility.

My colleague Daarel Burnette II reported on the reaction to what the secretary called a “tough love” speech to the state school chiefs.

At SXSWedu, DeVos’ appearance was met with quiet, polite applause.

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5 thoughts on “Give Educators More Freedom to Innovate, DeVos Tells SXSWedu

  1. DeVos wants us to have innovation and autonomy in the classroom while using a scripted curriculum to give standardized tests. Hummm?

    1. She appears to be talking out of both sides of her mouth. Innovation and autonomy went out the window the day teachers (myself included) were told to follow a script and prepare standardized test for a standardized test for which I am evaluated. This is sad on so many levels.

    2. She appears to be talking out of both sides of her mouth. Innovation and autonomy went out the window the day teachers (myself included) were told to follow a script and prepare for a standardized test for which I am evaluated. This is sad on so many levels.

  2. Is it the government that forces us into “standardized tests” or is it the universities that utilize measures like ACT and SAT and the college board that creates the “single right answer” tests that produce those measures?

  3. I question why someone who has NEVER attended a public school or has sent her children to one is head of Education. LEGISLATORS who are RARELY in the schools are the ONES demanding that we GIVE the STANDARDIZED tests…Let’s put an INNOVATIVE TEACHER in charge!!!!!

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