Secretary of Education Betsy Devos needs to know more about real schools and real teachers. Hell, just real people would be good. In calling for enforcement of standardized testing policies in public schools, during a public health crisis, she once again reveals a lack of connection to the lived reality of the victims of a policy that has been misguided for two decades. Coincidentally, in a letter to school leaders Thursday, she wrote:

“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”

“Two decades” here is noteworthy- it indicates an apparent belief that entrenched “bipartisan reforms” and the standardized testing focus public education have been subjected to is a good thing and that we will fail if we don’t return to that. The Devos approach is more framing from the outside looking in while my framing relies on the word real- as in the real world. We need an assessment approach more intentionally linked to students, teachers, schools…

That word “reform” should mean a move in that direction, but we need to “get real” with what our kids need.

When I use “real”, I’m not judging the type of student, education, or school model, I mean out in the real world wherever. Actually living it and doing it. However, it looks, however it works, wherever it happens. I don’t just mean school, I mean life. But my focus is on education right now because Devos has dropped another turd into our pool. The real-life is a pool already filled with the crocodiles of insecurity and loss from years of education cuts. There is a deep end filled with many, and the bottom slopes gradually up to the deck level. There are fewer crocodiles as the water gets shallower, and better and luckier swimmers might be able to get away, but even upon the deck a crocodile just might get you. Pull you in. Drag you under…

Illness, homelessness, drugs, crime, job, and income loss-that happen in our schools. With Devos level of wealth and privilege removes most if not all of the ability to empathize with people swimming in that pool. Secretary Devos has no connection to that-her perspective is from a deck chair adjusted for her with a cool drink brought to her.

On one of her many yachts.

Docked far, far away from the pool.

Because of that distance, she doesn’t know what progress or success can look like for some of our most struggling students.

That said, I value valid, practical standardized tests used wisely. I also demand that those involved in the development of an assessment approach have spent time in “the pool”. In our assessment process and on-the-ground (and in the pool) we need those who know the pool, know those crocodiles, and possibly know them very well. Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, struggle and loss are more probable and prevalent, and the very few moments to breathe and tread water come with knowing you could be a bit from below at any moment.

Betsy Devos needs to know that schools and teachers are the crocodile trainers and tamers.

If anything has proven (and will prove) that beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s the COVID-19 crisis. So maybe a better message is sharing out an expectation that testing continues to happen to inform instruction during challenging times. As a profession, educators need to demand the autonomy they deserve in devising more flexible, responsive, and reality-linked assessment systems.

Betsy Devos

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