This week, Betsy DeVos cleared another hurdle towards becoming the next education secretary of the United States. Ms. DeVos is a vocal supporter of school choice, most notably vouchers. She advocates for parents to be able to choose the best schools for their children, whether they’re traditional public schools, charters, or private schools. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten called Ms. DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” Opponents of school choice point to evidence that programs like school vouchers may be fueling re-segregation in American schools. This topic elicits emotional responses from all stakeholders, from parents to policy makers and everyone in between. Heated debate aside, I believe we’re getting distracted by a plan that’s meant to sound grand but is actually going to be very tough to implement. Our focus should instead be on a much larger problem.
The majority of our students live in areas where school choice doesn’t authentically exist. The availability of vouchers would mostly impact urban schools because rural areas don’t attract enough attention to establish charters — sometimes, there aren’t enough students in these areas to fill even one school. In addition, President Trump’s $20 billion plan to pay for vouchers does not cover the cost of his school choice program — it requires states to collectively provide an additional $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice. So in essence, this is a lofty plan that’s very hard to swallow. The problem is, this is literally the only thing we’re arguing over in this debate about Ms. DeVos. Why aren’t we bringing up the elephant in the room? Why aren’t we talking about the structural changes all schools need to make in order to teach 21st century skills and improve student outcomes? I’m talking about competency-based education.
Over 150 years ago, public education was a revolutionary idea. Driven by the economic imperative of the industrial revolution, schools prepared young people for citizenship in a democratic society. Students navigated school grouped by age and acquired knowledge by moving from one specialized class to another. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because schools still generallyfunction as they did over 150 years ago. However, the teacher’s role has grown vastly more complex over the years and as a result, today’s teachers are buried under an avalanche of responsibilities without added supports. No wonder teacher morale is low and burnout rates aren’t dropping.
Whoever our next Secretary of Education is, they need to advocate for all of our children and our teachers, because we can talk about parents all day, but it’s the students that are attending schools interacting with teachers, not parents. I’ve taught high school at both a traditional public high school and a charter high school. I believe how a child is taught matters more than whether they attend a traditional public, charter, or private school.
The next education secretary must make a push for districts to overhaul their schools to promote personalized learning, grounded in competency-based education (also known as standards-based grading). In this model, students demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills that are aligned to standards (and no, it doesn’t have to be the Common Core). When an individual student demonstrates mastery, they move on. If they don’t, the teacher is there to determine the intervention or remediation that’s required. Top-down, compliance-based schools grounded in dated pedagogy do not promote student voice and choice.
During one of my years as a high school math teacher, I was teaching Algebra to a seventeen year old who also happened to be enrolled in an after-school community college English class. That means his math skills required work, but he was well beyond his peers in ELA. He spent the next year accumulating his math and science credits while pushing ahead in other subjects. It’s 2017 folks: why are children still navigating school grouped by age, as if they’re some kind of consumer good?
The next education secretary must fight to rework how educators learn to design curriculum, so that it’s tailored to meet individual strengths, interests, and experiences. Teachers today can’t meet individual needs sustainably if they’re still constrained by limited access to quality tools, or mandated use of ineffective tools. It’s shameful that in America, teachers can graduate from a master’s program in education or receive a teaching credential, and still never have gained familiarity with a single education technology tool.
At Kiddom, we’re big proponents of the standards-based grading practice and mindset. Our platform is ideal for teachers that write curriculum grounded competency-based education, but we don’t force teachers to embrace it. We offer educators support resources and professional development for the practice, but many teachers are just not there yet. We’re just a small team offering teachers and learners a platform: we don’t write education policy and we certainly don’t dictate how schools should operate (nor will we). If educators want systematic change to benefit all students, we as individuals must get behind something we can all agree on.
So if Ms. DeVos does indeed become the next U.S. Secretary of Education, I hope we come together, from “both sides of the aisle” to advocate for competency-based education. It’s a practice that will fundamentally impact all teachers and learners for the better.