Another school year has come to an end. As I look back, one persistent image in my mind is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos using a Congressional testimony to dismiss East Hartford High School as “nothing more than adult day care … a dangerous daycare.”
DeVos was quoting “Michael” — a student from East Hartford who “got a diploma, but not an education” — to criticize not just East Hartford High School, but all public schools.
When Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., later questioned her about potential discrimination in school voucher programs, DeVos uttered her stock response: “We believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus.”
I have worked in public schools for 26 years. If there’s one thing the schools in which I’ve taught are NOT, it’s “top-down, one-size-fits-all.” In fact, I invite Secretary DeVos to observe any of my classes to see for herself how differentiation, student-centered learning, and accommodations — the very antithesis of “one-size-fits-all” — occur on a daily basis.
She won’t come, of course. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also encouraged DeVos to visit the school she condemned and observe it firsthand, rather than rely on a story from one student who graduated 17 years ago. DeVos has yet to respond to the invitation.
The teachers of East Hartford High School were offended, of course. And rightfully so. One such teacher is a former student of mine. She has spent the past six of her 11 years as a teacher in East Hartford.
“EHHS is, first of all, a very safe place,” she wrote in response to my email questions. “Our [suspensions] have gone down drastically in the past three years especially. We have not had a major incident since I have been here. It is a place of learning. Classroom time is spent on task and working toward pushing the students to higher-order thinking. Our lesson plans are posted outside our doorway and checked every Monday to ensure that our plans are purposeful and follow a sequential process, building on previous skills.”
Sound like dangerous daycare? Maybe not, but the place is still a diploma mill, right?
“Students are never ‘passed along,’” she added. “In fact, we have had many students fail freshman year for a lack of being prepared and for inability to adjust to the high school work load. For that reason, in the past three years we have created freshmen teams where students have all core classes in a team of teachers who all follow the same policies and meet for common ‘team’ time to discuss cross-curricular planning as well as student needs. In addition, we have added a ‘freshmen seminar’ which addresses social/emotional issues as well as study skills. Due to these programs, 75 percent of freshmen were on track to graduate after freshman year last year.”
In addition, she said, “Just to ensure students are not ‘passed along,’ if a student in any grade level earns below a 60 in any class, they have the opportunity to earn those credits back through the extensive summer school program that we offer for free to students in the district.”
Long story short, Betsy DeVos — the nation’s top education official — used an outdated story from one student to represent the “failings” of both a particular school and public education itself. Ironically, this antiquated anecdote posing as “fact-based evidence” would not pass muster in my Advanced Placement English Language & Composition class. But I’m not surprised because DeVos is a one-trick pony.
Her one trick? To criticize all institutions of public education while propping up private alternatives. Whether it’s privatizing education through school-choice, sanctioning religious schools, or protecting for-profit colleges at the expense of students, DeVos is hijacking public dollars for private causes.
It’s not a pleasant thought to end the school year with — a thought at odds with the successful year I experienced in a public school. So like the teachers in East Hartford, I’m offended. But that’s just the motivation I need to prove Betsy DeVos wrong again next year.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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