December 8, 2022

John Walcott: More conversation needed about DeVos

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Back in November, Betsy DeVos made a visit to her alma mater, Calvin University. In a guest essay for the Calvin Chimes, Dr. John Walcott, Associate Professor of Education at Calvin, calls for some conversation about some of DeVos’s policies. 

Walcott opens by offering respect for distinguished alumni and noting the importance of providing space for diverse opinions as well as asking tough questions and engaging deeply. And he agrees with DeVos’s call to debate, engage, and advance with policies.

I believe that an opportunity for additional engagement with these issues is especially necessary because of the problematic nature of much of what Secretary DeVos proposes when it comes to education. For example, her call to support “students and not systems” fails to recognize that student learning can be supported by teachers, curriculum, financial resources, school administrators and, yes, in many cases may even require a building conducive to learning. It is easy to demonize systems, but the use of this sort of false dichotomy is ultimately unproductive.

We also need to carefully consider Secretary DeVos’ focus on parental choice and individual rights as the basis of her calls to change our educational system. This perspective ignores the function of our schools as a public good, an institution at the core of our desire to promote democratic values and the flourishing of all students. We need to think carefully about the purpose of education in a democratic society and about the role of public schools that have been part of our nation’s commitment to education since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Our call to seek justice and be agents of renewal in our world may push us to prioritize the needs of our community and of the most vulnerable in our society over individual rights.

As an educational scholar and researcher, I recognize the need to carefully examine the impacts of policies that use the language of choice and freedom on student learning and on public schools. For example, advocates for school vouchers, which allow parents to use public education funds for tuition in private schools, argue that these policies can be the key to improving student outcomes while ignoring research that does not support these claims. For example, Dr. Christopher Lubienski (Director of the Center for Evaluation and Policy Analysis at Indiana University), summarizing research since 2015, states that “every study of the impacts of statewide voucher programs has found large, negative effects from these programs on the achievement of students using vouchers.”

There’s more in this thoughtful critique of DeVos policies. Read the full piece here. 

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