Are Schools Afraid To Teach Critical Thinking? Or Is It Just Too Damn Hard?
Yesterday charter school shill Sarah Hernandez jumped into the open seat race for CA-34, one of the bluest districts in the country. The last thing that kind of district needs is some pawn on the charter school billionaires jumping into Congress disguised as a progressive Democrat just because EMILY's List demands a woman fill the seat. Betsy DeVos is a woman too. Stephen Henderson, who writes for the Detroit Free Press knows her well and shared his insights about why she could well be Trump's most dangerous cabinet pick so far with USA Today readers this week.
In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation's largest urban network of charter schools.
What remains in short supply is quality.
In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.
On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance.
Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.
This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome. And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.
President-elect Donald Trump has made a number of controversial cabinet nominations already. But none seems more inappropriate, or more contrary to reason, than his choice of DeVos to lead the Department of Education.
DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools.
She is, in essence, a lobbyist-- someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.
For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children.
DeVos is a believer, and a powerful influence wielder for the special interest she has championed. But that doesn't make her the right pick to helm an entire arm of the federal government. Wealth should not buy a seat at the head of any policy-making table.
That is true especially in public education-- a trust between government and the people that seeks to provide opportunity for those who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
Supporters call Betsy DeVos an "advocate" who cares for children. And she may be that.
But the policy expression of that concern has been one-sided, and as much about establishing an industry as it is about kids.
The DeVos family has helped private interests commandeer public money that was intended to fulfill the state's mandate to provide compulsory education. The family started the Great Lakes Education Project, whose political action committee does the most prolific and aggressive lobbying for charter schools.
Betsy DeVos and other family members have given more than $2 million to the PAC since 2001. GLEP has spent that money essentially buying policy outcomes that have helped Michigan's charter industry grow while shielding it from accountability.
This summer, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million over two months-- an astounding average of $25,000 a day-- to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led Legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit.
GLEP also pushed hard and successfully to lift the cap on charter schools a few years ago, even though Michigan already had one of the highest numbers of charters in the nation, despite statistics suggesting charters weren't substantively outperforming traditional public schools.
And in 2000, the DeVos extended family spent $5.6 million on an unsuccessful campaign to amend Michigan's constitution to allow school vouchers-- the only choice tool not currently in play in Michigan.
Even if Betsy DeVos ceased her substantial contributions to pro-school choice lawmakers, or to GLEP’s PAC, what credibility would she have in a policy job that requires her to be an advocate for all schools? How could she credibly distance herself from her history as a lobbyist?
Beyond the conflicts, there are also deep questions about her substantive understanding of education policy.
As a private citizen, DeVos is free to hold any belief she wants, and to promote her beliefs however she likes, regardless of how they comport with fact or outcome. But as secretary of Education, DeVos would be expected to help set standards, guide accountability and oversee research in a way that benefits children, through outcomes, not one particular interest or industry. And more important, the U.S. Secretary of Education must understand the value of both high-performing charters and traditional public schools.
She has no track record of working along those lines, and no experience that suggests she’s even interested in it.
Largely as a result of the DeVos lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.
We're a laughingstock in national education circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators, who have not opened schools in Detroit because of the wild West nature of the educational landscape here.
In Michigan, just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money. That's not so in most other states, where proven track records are required. In other states, poor performers are subject to improvement efforts, or sometimes closed. By contrast, once a school opens in Michigan, it's free to operate for as long as it wants.
And in Michigan, you can operate a charter for profit, so even schools that fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit, while other states have moved to curb the expansion of for-profit charters, or banned them outright.
The results of this free-for-all have been tragic for Michigan children, and especially for those in Detroit, where 79% of the state's charters are located.
A yearlong Free Press investigation found that 20 years after Michigan's charter school experiment began, Detroit's charter schools have shown themselves to be only incrementally stronger, on average, than traditional public schools. They have admirable graduation rates, but test scores that look nearly identical to those of public schools.
The most accurate assessment is that charter schools are simply a second, privately managed failing system. Yes, there are high-performing outliers-- slightly more than 10% of the charter schools perform in the top tier. But in Detroit, the best schools are as likely to be traditional public schools.
DeVos and her family have not been daunted by these outcomes. It's as if the reams of data showing just incremental progress or abysmal failure don't matter. Their belief in charter schools is unshakable, their resistance to systematic reforms that would improve both public and charter schools unyielding.
They have also pushed hard on schools of choice, where districts open their borders to kids from other jurisdictions.
In concept, it could be a great equalizer: Children from poor districts could attend schools that have many more resources. But in practice, white and more affluent parents have fled as poorer, minority kids have come into their schools, exacerbating de facto segregation, according to a report by Bridge Magazine.
This newspaper has been, and will continue to be, an advocate for successful charter schools, and for educational choice as one way-- but certainly not the only way-- to improve this state’s school landscape.
But it's impossible to imagine such improvement will be aided by an education secretary so willfully impervious to the relevant data. Instead, Betsy DeVos' lodestar has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it's not operated by government.
Charter school advocates like DeVos reject any criticism of charters as a defense of the status quo. But that's a gross and partisan distortion, especially for people like me.
I've made the most personal endorsement possible by sending my two children to charter schools in Baltimore and here in Detroit. In both cases, we've chosen high-quality charters; in Detroit, the best choices were far scarcer than in Baltimore. And to get into the high-performing school we chose in Detroit required an extraordinary effort. I have the income, the transportation and access to be sure my kids get the best opportunity available.
Most Detroit parents don't enjoy those same advantages, and they are stuck choosing from among a sea of mediocrity or worse.
DeVos' lobbying hasn't been good for Detroit, or Michigan.
It won't be good for the nation.
And if you noticed that virtually every member of the Trump Administration-- from top to bottom-- is weighted down by unbelievable conflicts of interest, you would be guessing right if you assumed DeVos is one of the worst. Even the Wall Street Journal couldn't help noticing yesterday. Her family invests heavily in Social Finance Inc., "a startup whose fortunes hinge in part on policies crafted by the department Ms. DeVos would run... Much of SoFi’s business stems from refinancing student loans; the Department of Education is by far the country’s biggest student lender, with $1.3 trillion in outstanding loans."
So what happens when we educate children poorly. I'm sure you know. Trump's election stands as a testament to ill-advised political interference in the education system by right-wing ideologues like DeVos for decades. This week an occasional DWT contributor, author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, penned a special report for the New York Daily News on the "fake news" pizzagate insanity of recent days. This could only happen in a country filled with self-righteous, ill-educated morons, the people who, in large part, elected Trump. Dan started his piece by acknowledging he was about to drive some of those morons into a frothy frenzy "by saying two things that will surely make some people very mad. First, the language we use has begun to obscure the relationship between facts and fantasy. Second, this is a dangerous byproduct of a lack of education in our country that has now affected an entire generation of citizens."
Regarding language: we are all being more than a bit too careful in how we refer to falsehoods. Perhaps in an effort not to create interpersonal confrontations, an effort to "just get along" we have started to use euphemisms to refer to things that are just plain whack-a-doo crazy. The lie that Washington, D.C. pizza shop Comet Ping Pong was running a sex slave operation spearheaded by Hillary Clinton led to a shooting on Sunday. This newspaper called the lie a "fringe theory."Yesterday, the NY Times looked at those PISA results (from the video up top) and although there is some controversy over the premises, everyone agrees that the U.S. is doing pretty badly at educating young people-- treading water in the middle of the pool. "Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms."
Other euphemisms for lies are counterknowledge, half-truths, extreme views, conspiracy theories, and, the more recent appellation, "fake news."
The phrase "fake news" sounds too playful, too much like a schoolchild faking illness to get out of a test. The euphemisms obscure the fact that the sex-slave story is an out-and-out lie. The people who wrote it knew that it wasn't true. There are not two sides to a story when one side is a lie. Journalists-- and the rest of us-- must stop giving equal time to things that don't have an opposing side. Two sides to a story exist when evidence exists on both sides of a position. Then, reasonable people may disagree about how to weigh that evidence, and what conclusion to form from it. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own opinion. But they are not entitled to their own facts. Lies are an absence of facts and, in many cases, a direct contradiction of them.
Regarding education: We have failed to teach our children what constitutes evidence, and how to evaluate it. Edgar Welch, the Comet Ping Pong shooter, told authorities that he was "investigating" the conspiracy theory. I believe he thought that is what he was doing, but there is no evidence that any investigating was performed. I suspect that this ignorant citizen does not know what it is to compile and evaluate evidence. In this case, one might look for a link between Hillary Clinton and the restaurant, behaviors of Clinton that would suggest an interest in running a prostitution ring, or even a motive for why she might benefit from such a thing (certainly the motive could not have been financial, given her speaking fees). Or, lacking the mentality and education to conduct one's own investigation, one could rely on professionals by reading what trained investigative journalists have to say about the theory. The fact that no credible journalist gives this any credence should tell you all you need to know.
We have failed to teach our children to fight the evolutionary tendency towards gullibility. We are a social species, and we tend to believe what others tell us. And our brains are great storytelling and confabulation machines: given an outlandish premise, we can generate fanciful explanations for how they might be true. But that's the difference between creative thinking and critical thinking, between lies and the truth: the truth has factual, objective evidence to support it.
A Stanford University study of civic online reasoning tested more than 7,800 students from intermediate school through college for 18 months ending June 2016. The researchers cite a "stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak." They were horrible at distinguishing high quality news from lies. We need to start teaching them to do so now. And while we're at it, the rest of us could use a refresher course. Fortunately, evidence-based thinking is not beyond the grasp of most 12-year olds, if only they are shown the way.
Our kids isn't learning.
Many are saying that Pizzagate is a direct result of fake news (but let's call it like it is: lies). But what weaponizes the lies is not the belief in them-- belief in lies can be harmless, such as belief in Santa Claus or that these new jeans make me look thin. The danger is in the intensity of that belief-- the unquestioning overconfidence that it is true.
Critical thinking trains us to take a step back, to evaluate facts and form evidence-based conclusions. What got Welch into a situation of discharging a firearm in a DC pizza parlor was a complete inability to understand that a view he held might be wrong. The most important quality in critical thinking is in short supply these days: humility. If we realize we don't know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible. Somehow, our educational system and our reliance on the internet has led to a generation of kids who do not know what they don't know. If we can accept that truth, we can educate to stamp out the lies.
For now, the PISA reveals brutal truths about America’s education system: Math, a subject that reliably predicts children’s future earnings, continues to be the United States’ weakest area at every income level. Nearly a third of American 15-year-olds are not meeting a baseline level of ability-- the lowest level the O.E.C.D. believes children must reach in order to thrive as adults in the modern world.Change for the sale of change is never the answer. In fact, its as likely that change will make thing worse instead of better. And, judging by who Trump picked to head his education efforts, worse is exactly the direction the U.S. will soon be headed.
And affluence is no guarantee of better results, particularly in science and math: The latest PISA data (which includes private-school students) shows that America’s most advantaged teenagers scored below their well-off peers in science in 20 other countries, including Canada and Britain.
The good news is that a handful of places, including Estonia, Canada, Denmark and Hong Kong, are proving that it is possible to do much better. These places now educate virtually all their children to higher levels of critical thinking in math, reading and science-- and do so more equitably than Americans do. (Vietnam and various provinces in China are omitted here because many 15-year-olds are still not enrolled in school systems there, limiting the comparability of PISA results.)
As we drift toward a world in which more good jobs will require Americans to think critically-- and to repeatedly prove their abilities before and after they are hired-- it is hard to imagine a more pressing national problem. “Your president-elect has promised to make America great again,” Mr. Schleicher said. But he warned, “He won’t be able to do that without fixing education.”