Rethinking Schools in the DeVos Era

Betsy Devos’s “Rethinking School” tour can feel like a mission to dismantle the whole system, public schools first. Choice, charters and change are DeVos’s keynotes, along with a call for more and more crushing competition. We wondered if this this just another race to the top that will ultimately leave most children behind, or if something new is happening.

According to DeVos, her plan might be the only thing new thing in the last century of education history. On her school tour she likes to say schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years:

For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that. That means your parents’ parents’ parents .. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

We’re trying to offer a counter to DeVos’s vision of public education and it’s discontents. We got schooled on an alternative set of solutions by some educators we like a lot.

Jack Schneider gets us started. He’s a school parent in Somerville, and professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He’s on his own mission to “rethink schools,” particularly the metrics we use to measure their worth. He highlights Somerville High School as a case study: a diverse, working-class school thriving despite the odds, but still coming up short in the tests.

Jennifer Berkshire—who, along with Jack, co-hosts the education podcast Have You Heard?—gives us the close-up on DeVos. In her reporting, she’s profiled DeVos as one of the leading crusaders in the “holy war against the welfare state” . But she still sees hope in the rising, grassroots resistance to DeVos’s program, which is now one of the most unpopular parts of the Trump platform, even in the red states.

Malcolm Harris, the 29-year-old author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, accounts for the new pressures placed on the millennial generation of students. “We are poorer, more medicated, and more precariously employed than our parents, grandparents, even our great grandparents,” he writes. The disease, he says, is neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism. It’s a deeper rot that cannot be solved simply through social democratic reform or technocratic tweaks, and it still needs something more than a political revolution to create real change. 

Finally, Charles Petersen, an editor for N+1 and PhD candidate in the American Studies program at Harvard University, outlines a deeper history of competition in American education. His ideological frame is not neoliberalism, per se, but the myth of meritocracy itself.

Guest List
Jack Scheider
historian of education at Holy Cross, co-host of the Have You Heard? podcast, and author of Beyond Test Scores: Better Way to Measure School Quality
Jennifer Berkshire
freelance education reporter and co-host of the Have You Heard? podacst
Charles Petersen
senior editor at N+1 and PhD candidate in the American Studies department at Harvard University

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  • Douglas Boyce

    A great podcast (as usual), but I would very much agree Charles Petersen that we should push back the start date of these tendencies in the ‘general’ view of education; Ruskin in ‘Sesames and Lilies’ fro 1864: “[A]n education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house;—in a word, which shall lead to ‘advancement in life’;—this we pray for on bent knees—and this is all we pray for.” It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, is advancement in life;—that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death”

  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris, team ROS, and guests. Very good discussion, worthy of this moment. Kudos for the song selection “School days.”

    • zgoldhammer

      Glad you caught the Stanley Clarke reference!

  • Patrick

    Two outstanding shows this week – the interview with Claire Messud and the full show on public education. Great work – Thank you!

  • Potter

    Excellent discussion that start from the basic questions. As a product of the school system of New York City of the 50’s and 60’s, grade school through college free tuition, I am very partial and avid about public schooling and was happy to hear Bernie Sanders talk about that in 2016. In those days of yore we were free of having to learn for a job and oh how glorious it was to just follow my interests! I wish this for my granddaughters whose parents moved to an upper income suburb to take advantage of that public school system so highly rated. It was the housing values that became and stayed so high because of the tradition of the school system being so good. The trend seems to be more in the direction of allowing the children to explore themselves as fully as possible and not about preparing for a job. It’s a darn shame if children are pushed to think of life as work, as part of our capitalist system…consumers.

    We were in Montreal this summer, a very multicultural city with a large college student population.The public university there is McGill, a huge institution. I understand that many come from the US to study there for a great education at a reasonable cost. Exemplary.