What impact will Betsy DeVos, the newly appointed Secretary of Education, have on what is taught in U.S. science classrooms? DeVos, herself, is a fundamentalist Christian with a long history of opposing science and funding anti-science, religious groups. Thus far, she hasn’t taken any strong positions on evolution or climate change, but her husband’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign may hint to her beliefs.
How could DeVos impact science education in the U.S.? Well, depending on which political party you ask, science education is either going to sink or swim.
Point: School vouchers allow parents the right to choose, which allows lower-income students access to better education.
When, on the campaign trail, Trump promised a $20 billion federal school voucher program, suggesting he’d get states to kick in enough money to send children living in poverty to private schools, Betsy DeVos became an obvious choice for Secretary of Education. DeVos, a long-time proponent and lobbyist for school vouchers, has spent millions, at one point literally $25,000 a day, supporting private and charter school initiatives. The assumption is that when these parents can choose where to send their child to school, they’ll choose the school with the best programs for their children. DeVos, like many libertarians, believes that “competition” between schools will force poorly performing schools to either improve their curriculum or risk losing students and the funding tied to those students. The hope is that competition—”the market”—will raise education standards.
Already, American students underperform their international peers in the maths and sciences. A 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study revealed U.S. students score below the international average in math and barely reach the international average in science.
“This pattern that we’re seeing in mathematics seems to be consistent with what we’ve seen in previous assessments… everything is just going down,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, to the AP.
So what can DeVos do about these declining scores? Well, the DeVos argument is about more accountability among educators, more innovation, more choice, less bureaucratic oversight, and more charter schools.
Some research suggests that voucher programs may actually be the right route in keeping kids in school. One study out of the University of Kentucky about Milwaukee’s voucher program tracked students for five years, and they found a relationship between voucher-receiving students and high school graduation, even if the students didn’t stay in the voucher program throughout high school.
Similarly, a team out of the University of Arkansas examined Washington D.C.’s voucher program that targeted poor, minority communities and found that voucher students were 21 percent more likely to graduate high school, suggesting, “that private schools provide students with an educational climate that encourages school completion either through the intervention and expectations of school faculty or by having similarly motivated and achieving peers.” The team even called the program “one of the most effective urban dropout prevention programs yet witnessed.”
At the end of the day, what matters is that children not only receive a better education but also have access to an education that would not have been available were it not for the vouchers.
Counterpoint: Betsy DeVos has a history undermining science and her charter initiatives have not only failed in her home state Michigan but also show no indication of improving math or science scores.
While Betsy DeVos has not specified how she plans to handle STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education on a federal level, it’s pretty clear that religion may influence her decision-making. If this is the case, her shaping of science education would systematically deprive children of a proper understanding of the basis of science, technology, and even the basis of modern biology—like evolution.
For starters, DeVos is a fundamentalist Christian with a long history of opposing science and funding fundamentalist religious groups like the notoriously anti-science group Focus on the Family. As if donations—into the millions of dollars—aren’t enough, in a 2001 interview, when asked about Christian schools relying on philanthropy, DeVos said, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”
Furthermore, DeVos is an active membership in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a church that believes whose official statement on science reads, “Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected,” and that “all scientific theories be subject to Scripture.”
If her husband’s gubernatorial campaign and their joint investment in both conservative and religious causes are any indication, DeVos may similarly advocate teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes. This is like teaching the truths of modern chemistry beside alchemy. It just ain’t right.
Veering away from her religious beliefs, DeVos’ commitment—and contributions of millions of dollars—to the cause of school of choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout her home state Michigan has seen students’ performance plummet.
Largely as a result of DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about every other state, and, thankfully, because of that lobbying, the state also lacks any mechanism for shutting down these failing charters.
According to a report by The Education Trust, a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes academic achievement for students, reports that about 20 percent of Michigan charter school openings over the past five years were rated by “D” and “F” authorizers. While some poor-performing charter schools have closed, most continue to operate. Take for instance example Cesar Chavez Academy Elementary of southwest Detroit, where Latino students are performing at lower levels than Latino students in Detroit Public Schools (DPS)—one of the worst performing urban districts in the nation.
If you think this is just the case for one school, you’d be dead wrong. According to a 2013 state assessment, performed by Stanford University, for eighth-grade math, two-thirds of Michigan charter districts performed below DPS.
Not bad enough? According to that same study, 75 percent of all public schools, nationwide, performed better than Michigan charter schools.
A review of Michigan’s 2015 federal charter school grant application cited unreasonably high representation of Michigan’s charters among the state’s “priority” schools list—a designation for the state’s worst performing five percent of public schools. Yes, privately-funded schools have gotten so bad in Michigan that they’re begging the state to bail them out. From 2010 to 2014, the number of “priority” charter schools actually doubled.
Who continued funding these failures? Mrs. DeVos, naturally. And what does this mean for the future of science education? Well, if Michigan’s any indication, it looks like it’ll go straight to shit.
Image: The Kingsway School, CC-BY
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.