Is Betsy DeVos Prepared To Lead Our Children To The Stars?

<em>Ad Astra. </em>Scuputure by Richard Lippold, on the North side of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
Ad Astra. Scuputure by Richard Lippold, on the North side of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

In Sunday morning’s Washington Post, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2012, wrote an op-ed in favor of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

Mr. Romney began his op-ed by writing,

“The nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education has reignited the age-old battle over education policy. The heat is already intense not just because it involves the future of our children but also because a lot of money is at stake. Essentially, it’s a debate between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well.”

No, Mr. Romney, with all due respect, you have not identified the essential debate, though you have identified players whose self-serving positions obscure the fundamental failings of the American education system. You are thinking short-term and tactically, when your thinking, and the thinking of the nation’s incoming leaders, including Ms. DeVos, must be long-term and strategic. You must align your arguments with the yet-to-be-resolved results and products of local, state, and national elections not four-years hence, not eight years hence, but 20-40 years hence, if not beyond.

It is not just the “future of our children” that is at stake; it is the future of a nation built on ethics, decency, humanity, and the fundamental right to feel safe within the borders of the country, the community, and the home. Whether our children and their children will be responsible for that vision of the future is not a certainty.

Mere educational outcome metrics, no matter how they are massaged by competing factions, do not reflect the underlying failure of our society to hold parents, communities, teachers, and leaders to much higher moral and ethical standards, and to do so by creating an atmosphere in our schools—all schools—conducive to, and encouraging, educational rigor, logical thinking, and non-judgmental debate of the issues facing all of us. We must unlearn fear and distrust, and relearn reliance on others, acceptance of differences, and the immutable value of personal accountability. If Ms. DeVos speaks to those issues in her confirmation hearing, I will be open-minded and ready to listen.

When many of us older, traditionally-educated, folk- mystifyingly considered "elites" by Trump--were in school, there were debate teams, oratory classes, English lit and appreciation, composition requirements and lengthy assigned papers, etc. Math and the sciences classes were rigorous. An “A” was hard-earned. The excellent schools that remain—public and private—are, I’m afraid, beating against a tide of education mediocrity, a tide that lifts many students to unreasonable and unearned levels whether or not they have accomplished the basics that underpin actual understanding.

The 2016 National Center for Education Statistics Report, “The Condition of Education notes

“[T]he 2015 average mathematics scores in grades 4 and 8 were 1 and 2 points lower, respectively, than the 2013 average mathematics scores. The 2015 average reading score for 4th-graders was not significantly different from the score in 2013, and the 2015 score for 8th-graders was 2 points lower than the score in 2013. At grade 12, the average mathematics score was lower in 2015 than in 2013, and the average reading score did not significantly differ between the two years. Of particular note is that in both mathematics and reading, the lowest performing 12th-grade students— those performing at the 10th and 25th percentiles—had lower scores in 2015 than in 2013.”

In short, we have not improved the outcomes of our youngest, or our most educationally-at-risk older students, and we have not really moved the needle toward excellence for the rest.

We Americans can debate for hours the relative merits or shibboleths of teachers’ unions, home-schooling, charter schools, vouchers, racial red-lining of inner city schools, the public’s willingness to fund school bonds, etc., but if there is no fire in the belly of a community to make the hard choices necessary to address the underlying deficit of core knowledge training—which I define as the development of logical thinking coupled with open-minded analysis followed by non-judgmental critical debate—we are not going to advance this nation toward a favorable goal.

Learning is hard. We must heft our own shovels to clear away the paths to our individual success stories.

Communities and families must face those truths, and we simply cannot afford to let every upwelling spew of popular opinion, or false equivalency trends set by political expediency, give communities the misguided impression that their kids are doing well. They are not doing well in many instances, and when our education system fails our children, our children, as adults, will repeat and compound the failures.

There is a beautiful, 100’ tall, gold-colored stainless steel spire on the Mall side of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The spire pierces a constellation of stars. The title of the sculpture by Richard Lippold is Ad Astra, meaning, "To the Stars." While this title is most apt for the sculpture, and the sculpture itself is inspiring, I prefer the longer Latin phrase, Per aspera ad astra, or, "Through hardships to the stars," because no journey of such significance can be begun without great effort supported by education at every level.

I do not begrudge those who voted for Donald Trump. But I do begrudge their parents, teachers, and social, media, and political role models who encouraged them to vote for reasons unrelated to Trump’s qualifications for office. Such encouragement comes from ignorance—the willful kind or the kind that comes from never having learned—and that is unacceptable. We admit that we are still not ready to take on the hard work of saving our democracy if we are not willing to question those who promised a journey to the stars with no plan to teach us how to get there. I can only hope Ms. DeVos’s inquisitors will not shirk their duty; they must ask the tough questions.

Per aspera ad astra.