Voices in Education

Say What You Mean: Redefining the Movement for Public Education
For years, education reformers have used a set of recurring words like accountability, choice, quality, failing, and equity to appeal to broad values while promoting policies that were much more controversial. Many of the same people are now shocked to see their “common sense” ideas utilized by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 
Above all, DeVos and Trump have proclaimed choice as savior of public education. While reformers have often equated choice with charter school advocacy, DeVos has quickly broadened that idea to include less oversight and more vouchers, private schools, religious schools, online education, and “any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.”1
As she works to popularize these ideas, DeVos’s rhetoric mirrors that of previous reformers. “Do you believe parents should be able to choose the best school for their child regardless of their zip code or family income?” she asks.2 She frames her opponents in ways that will strike many as familiar, too, claiming they are “protectors and defenders of the status quo and of a system that has continued to fail way too many of our young people.”3 Trump has also picked up on the education reform catch phrases of his predecessors, echoing Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush by calling education “the civil rights issue of our time.”4
In the process, Trump and DeVos have highlighted just how meaningless these words have become. Throughout the accountability era ushered in by No Child Left Behind, reformers consistently used ambiguous language that masked a host of policies that ran counter to their feel-good veneer. 
“Wouldn’t you like a quality teacher in every classroom?” they asked. Their solution was to implement highly controversial and unreliable evaluation systems based in test scores, including measuring teachers on subjects they didn’t even teach. 
“Don’t you want to free students from failing schools?” they offered. The policy response was to close scores of schools based on standardized exams, open often unproven charter schools in their place, and send many of the original students to other struggling, underperforming schools outside of their neighborhoods.

My book Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform is largely made up of accounts from teachers who demonstrate the disconnect between the buzzwords that have come to define education policy and the reality of what has happened to their classrooms since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. Critically, they also offer alternative visions and practices for education focused on equity and justice.
Attacks on public education did not begin on November 9, 2016; years of reform have brought us to this precipice. But the attention DeVos has drawn creates an opening to reclaim the language, values, and priorities of public education. In a moment when federal and state policy is in flux and when people are actively considering the role of education within our democracy, we should look to those inside our schools—students, parents, teachers, and staff—to define and lead the movement.
1 Tripp Scott Florida, Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUGPZvnCxBg.

2 CPAC 2017: Betsy Devos’ Entire Speech (Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, Oxon Hill, MD: CNN, 2017), http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/02/23/cpac-betsy-devos-entire-remarks-sot.cnn.

3 Paul W. Smith, “Paul W. Smith’s ‘exclusive’ radio Interview with Betsy DeVos, the New U.S. Secretary of Education.,” Radio (WJR 760 AM, February 13, 2017), https://audioboom.com/posts/5601513-check-out-paul-w-smith-s-exclusive-radio-interview-with-betsy-devos-the-new-u-s-secretary-of-education-2-13-17.

4 Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump in Joint Address to Congress” (Washington, D.C., February 28, 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/28/remarks-president-trump-joint-address-congress.

About the Author: Brett Murphy is a former New York City public school history teacher who now works in curriculum design and program development. She is the editor of Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2017).