American public school students fall well behind students around the world in math and science proficiency. This is not debatable. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, both cited in The New York Times in 2012, “Fourth- and eighth-grade students in the United States continue to lag behind students in several East Asian countries and some European nations in math and science, although American fourth-graders are closer to the top performers in reading.”
In California, the number of credentialed math and science teachers is actually declining, reports the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Newly installed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos believes at least two factors have contributed to these and other problems in American education — lack of school choice and the failure of top-down policies dictated by Washington.
During an interview in her office Monday, Mrs. DeVos cited one example: “This department just invested $7 billion trying to improve failing schools and there were literally no results to show for it.”
A U.S. News and World Report story in 2015 confirms her view that there is little connection between academic achievement and the amount of money spent: “The U.S. spends significantly more on education than other OECD countries. In 2010, the U.S. spent 39 percent more per full-time student for elementary and secondary education than the average for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.”
Mrs. DeVos wants to give more power to the states to set their education priorities: “I think the more states and locales are empowered to innovate and create and are unencumbered by unnecessary regulations and sort of beaten into compliance mentally versus a can-do and results-oriented mentality, it’s been repeatedly demonstrated that any type of top-down solution, no matter where you try to employ it in government, it’s not successful.”
While acknowledging that resistance from teachers’ unions and some members of Congress is strong (she notes the hypocrisy of those members who can afford to send their children to private schools, yet oppose allowing poor children and their parents to choose better schools), she believes a growing number of people are getting behind school choice: “We had an example of that in Florida where over 10,000 parents and students marched in Tallahassee against [a] lawsuit that the teachers union had filed, which of course, has been dismissed, thankfully.” The lawsuit tried to block a school voucher program.
Mrs. DeVos cites data she says shows that particularly low-income parents “at a level of almost 75 percent to 80 percent embrace the idea of giving more choices and empowerment.” She notes that while school choice for all is the goal, the Every Student Succeeds Act (a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which established the American federal government’s expanded role in funding public education) has a provision “that will allow states that are particularly innovative to implement some choices on a very local level. And I am very much going to encourage them to take the ball and run with it as far as possible.”
Mrs. DeVos believes that not teaching values and character development in our relativistic and politically correct age is a “significant factor” contributing to lack of achievement in many schools. She also says she has found a few “moles” (my word) in the department who are committed to her not succeeding and pledges to do whatever can be done to render them ineffective.
Mrs. DeVos believes the protests during and after her confirmation were not “spontaneous, genuine protests,” but are being “sponsored and very carefully planned. We’ve seen enough written that they want to make my life a living hell. They also don’t know what stock I come from. I will not be deterred from my mission in helping kids in this country.”
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).
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