POWELL: Why should public cheer next education secretary?

Published on Monday, 16 November 2020 20:36
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Many teachers around the country are cheering the forthcoming change in national administration  because Betsy DeVos will be replaced as secretary of the U.S. Education Department. DeVos, an heiress and philanthropist, has been a fan of charter schools and a foe of political correctness. While not really expert in pedagogy, at least she has not been the usual tool of teacher unions.

But President-elect Joe Biden is encouraging teachers to expect Nirvana. Addressing them the other day, Biden noted that his wife, Jill, is a community college teacher, and so "you're going to have one of your own in the White House." Presumably that means teachers will have "one of their own" at the Education Department as well.

Among those mentioned is U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, the former Waterbury teacher and 2016 national teacher of the year, a Democrat who was just elected to her second term from Connecticut's 5th Congressional District.

Apart from her classroom work Hayes has no managerial experience and her first term in Congress was unremarkable. Her recent campaign's television commercials celebrated her merely for listening to her constituents. While she won comfortably enough in a competitive district in a Democratic year, her departure for the Cabinet would prompt a special election that the Democrats might lose even as they already are distressed by the unexpected shrinkage of their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But then the U.S. Education Department does little to improve education. Mainly it distributes federal money to state and municipal governments, which do the actual educating. No matter who becomes education secretary, money will still get distributed and education won't improve much if at all.

Quite apart from the personalities, the big issue about the appointment of an education secretary is the big issue with other federal department heads. Why should the public cheer the appointment of an education secretary who is part of the interest group he would be regulating, any more than the public should cheer another treasury secretary coming from a Wall Street investment bank, another labor secretary coming from a labor union, another defense secretary coming from the military or a military contractor, another agriculture secretary coming from agribusiness, and so forth?

This kind of thing is called "regulatory capture" and it operates under both parties, though some special interests do better under one party than the other, as the cheering from the teacher unions indicates.


The virus epidemic has invited a comprehensive reconsideration of education but no one in authority has noticed.

Every day brings a change of plan and schedule in Connecticut schools. One day they're open and the next day they are abruptly converted to "remote learning" for a few days, a week or two, or a whole semester because somebody came down with the flu.

Amid all this many students have simply disappeared. Additionally, since education includes not just book learning but the socialization of children, their learning how to behave with others, the education of all children is being badly compromised.

Governor Lamont wants to leave school scheduling to schools themselves. This lets him avoid responsibility for any school's policy. But local option isn't producing much education.

The hard choice everyone is trying to avoid is between keeping schools open as normal, taking the risk of more virus infections because children are less susceptible to serious cases, or converting entirely to internet schooling and thereby forfeiting education for the missing students and socialization for everyone else.

If social contact can be forfeited, the expense of education can be drastically reduced. The curriculum for each grade can be standardized, recorded, and placed on the internet, with students connecting from home at any time, not just during regular school hours. Tests to evaluate their learning can be standardized too and administered and graded by computer. A corps of teachers can operate a help desk via internet, telephone, or email.

Much would be lost but then much already had been lost even before the epidemic, since social promotion was already the state's main education policy. Maybe the results of completely remote schooling would not be so different from those of social promotion.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column, Editorials on Monday, 16 November 2020 20:36. Updated: Monday, 16 November 2020 20:38.