16 August 2018

Betsy DeVos and the Irony of Her "Innovation" Agenda

When my default inner liberal reads about the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Drumph's Secretary of Education, I see her as the devil in disguise because of her relentless use of the term "choice" as a code word for the privatization of schools without transparency or accountability. 
But, when I rein in that bias to allow my inner teacherpreneur to take hold, I appreciate her consistent rhetorical emphasis on innovation and specifically on the idea that we should enact policies that will overcome the bureaucratic stranglehold that prevents innovation in most schools. 
If I rein in that bias, as well, allowing my inner psychologist to have the floor, I continue to appreciate the need for innovation, but great concerns arise about the ways that both parties have ALWAYS consistently compromised learning through the policies they use to guide the bureaucracy. 

It is the values and perspective of my inner psychologist that I strive to live by as an education advocate. 
That is the perspective that I am confident will give me the deepest understanding of the situation in education and will best represent the long term interests that the education system must serve. 
The long term challenge is to figure out how to ensure that learning, not teaching, is valued and respected as the true essence of good education, regardless of partisan traditions and opinions about how to run schools.

Betsy DeVos On The Record

Taking that challenge as my lens, Betsy DeVos’ actual statements slap me in the face because she appears to have exactly the same mental model of schooling that has caused all the problems she rails against. 
Betsy DeVos' political maneuvering will come to naught as long as she continues to act as if schooling is essentially the process of teachers delivering content into students’ heads. 
In the following press quotes and in her own transcript of a speech she gave she repeatedly refers to our "education delivery system": 
If you claim you are for freedom…if you claim to be an innovator or you value innovation…if you claim to be an entrepreneur…if you claim to believe in equal opportunity…if you claim to embrace social justice…then you have to embrace educational choice, and you have to embrace opening up our closed education delivery system.
Betsy DeVos on Forbes.com
“We must revolutionize our education delivery system in America,” [Betsy DeVos] says.
She also used the phrase in her remarks to the SXSW Education Forum as that speech was quoted in the Washington Post. In fact, she used the phrase six times, according to the written transcript posted on the website for the American Federation for Children (which Betsy DeVos is affiliated with). 

Delivery via Betsy DeVos

The delivery view is most destructive in public policy when the metaphor guides "accountability" measures. 
The idea is that as long as the delivery happens, which can allegedly be verified by measuring student regurgitation of content on tests, then there is no reason to be concerned with anything else. 
Betsy DeVos' version of "choice" appears to be just as myopically dedicated to a partisan ideological commitment to privatization as the liberal devotion to maintaining the "public school" monopoly does. 
Both ideologies assume teaching-as-delivery is the soul of schooling and they merely differ in the details of how to manage the delivery of academic content that is most easily measured by instructional bookkeeping (test scores, grades, completion rates, etc). The history of education shows that both learning and teaching are deeper and more interesting than mere instructional bookkeeping of delivery would suggest.

Learning has never been the central concern of any major political ideology because until recently it has been a vague and messy concept that cannot be used to anyone’s political advantage. 
That is going to change. 
There are key aspects of learning that are tractable to scientific study (and therefore more clearly defined and less messy in an institutional sense). 
Also, the science of learning is reaching a level of maturity so that it may finally become politically useful. 
The trendy use of research on things like mindsets, grit, mindfulness, and other scientifically informed concepts is evidence for the maturation of the field. 
What is currently missing for the politicos to make use of learning as the central commitment in schooling is a unifying narrative that can enable the differing political viewpoints to distinguish themselves from one another in a manner that still reinforces the scientific truth. 

Trans-Partisan Truth

In case you are skeptical that a scientific truth can be supported by both parties simultaneously, consider the status of germ theory in healthcare politics. 
We are currently struggling to figure out how to pay for the healthcare system, but neither side proposes to save money by cutting the features of programs or infrastructure investments that are inherently more expensive due to the dictates of germ theory. 

Here in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago we completed a multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment affectionately called "The Big Pipe," making sure that we better comply with the central dictate of germ theory which says that to prevent the transmission of communicable diseases like cholera, raw sewage should not mix with fresh water that people might drink or swim in. 
It would have been a lot cheaper to ignore that scientific dictate. 
But we have a large body of law and policy at both state and federal levels that ensure that dictate is not routinely violated. 
That body is so robust that it required us to build "The Big Pipe" even though our previous sewer system only violated that dictate a handful of times every year. 
But even once a year is too much when we consider the negative public health consequences predicted by germ theory. 

Trans-Partisan Truth in Education

Experts on learning have an implicit consensus that it is the growing of mental maps, cognitive cartography, to put it into $3 words. 
The consensus is only implicit because the experts routinely use that combination of metaphors (growing and map making) but have not formally acknowledged it as a theory. 
The mapmaking metaphor is commonly used by cognitive scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran , and Daniel Kahneman. 
It is also used by influential education researchers such as Linda Darling-Hammond. 
The growth metaphor is widely used by educators. 
It turns out that the challenge of an education system is to create the conditions for the growth of mental maps. 
It also turns out that dictating instructional delivery for every student at all times is detrimental to creating those conditions. 
The very "soul of schooling" under the old way of thinking is itself the destroyer of what most experts agree are the proper conditions for learning. 

Taking the growing mental maps theory seriously requires a different kind of innovation; holding schools accountable for the learning conditions, not for instructional bookkeeping. 
There is a place for instructional bookkeeping, but not until after the conditions at a school meet with scientific standards for optimal learning. 
Those scientific standards follow from what are known as primary human needs. 
Schools can create the conditions for optimal learning by ensuring that the students have their primary human needs supported. 

Of particular note for schools are the psychological needs for autonomy and relatedness. 
(If you are interested in the precise theory I am referring to, it is the Basic Needs sub-theory within the meta-theory of motivation known as Self-Determination Theory.) 
Those are the needs with the most consistent evidence of being thwarted. 
They are also consistently depicted in books and movies as being thwarted in schools. 
If you can remember any of the most famous school movies of the last few decades like: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995), Lean On Me (1989), Stand and Deliver (1988), Teachers (1984), To Sir, With Love (1966), or Blackboard Jungle (1955),
then you may recall how alienated and resentful the kids (and often many of the teachers) were portrayed to be. 
Unless Hollywood was completely making it up, then it is common knowledge that schools are notoriously need thwarting places. 
The consistent scientific evidence for declines in engagement and motivation across the span of K-12 schooling further supports the notion that it is a widespread pattern that is not confined to those students who are dramatic enough to be portrayed in the movies. 
Most students have had their learning compromised by being disengaged in school by the time they leave. 

Innovation in Education Will Not Be Partisan

Shifting the perspective of education policy to psychological needs is a major change, so it will not come about quickly and easily. 
I have not yet seen any statements by nor attributed to Betsy DeVos that would suggest she has a clue about learning. 
To be fair, I am writing the book that will articulate the growing mental maps idea of learning as a theory for the first time, so she is not to blame for this oversight. 
My upcoming book on the growing mental maps idea of education and its implications for public policy is called Nurture: The Surprising Secret to Saving Our Schools, Ourselves, and Our Society
Given her public record as a private citizen with a lot of money to throw around, Betsy DeVos is effectively the devil in disguise, but not for the reasons that liberal ideologues suppose. 
Liberal ideologues are also devils in disguise as long as they continue to champion policies that undermine the primary human needs of students, teachers, and all the other humans in schools. 
The devils of education politics are all those who continue to construct policy based on the false delivery theory.

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