Dear Secretary DeVos,
Congratulations on your appointment. I guess you’ve heard by now that some people aren’t happy about you being our Secretary of Education. That’s okay. You’re starting at the lowest point, which means there’s no place to go but up.
And I’m here to help! I’ve penned a few helpful suggestions that, if followed, will make you the most popular Secretary of Education ever. Do you mind if I call you Betsy? Secretary DeVos seems so formal. I’ll call you Betsy and you call me Paul.
First and most important, stay in your lane. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but unlike other areas of the Federal government, your department’s authority is limited. Federal money isn’t the biggest portion of funding for most local school districts. Betsy, did you know that while many people think public education is in rough shape, they believe their local schools are pretty good? When asked to raise local taxes to improve schools, most folks vote yes. By and large, we trust our local schools.
Second, don’t roll out a bunch of new regulations that make schools jump through hoops. Do you remember No Child Left Behind, Betsy? It was a hot mess. Educators spent more time crunching numbers than teaching children. We’re still paying the price.
Third, celebrate great teachers. Imagine what will happen if you go on a “great teacher tour!” Drop in unexpectedly and celebrate them like they are Beyoncé or Tom Brady. How about this? Set aside every Monday to jet around the country and find great teachers. And don’t depend on school principals or superintendents to tell you who they are. Ask the kids and parents. They know.
Fourth, don’t assume charter schools or private schools or parochial schools are the end-all best solutions for education. They have their places, but you need to remember that most don’t deal with the cross-section of students our public schools see. Despite all my years in public education, I’m not against school vouchers. But Betsy, you need to make sure that the elite schools your kids attended take the same cross-section of kids as the public schools. You can’t leave behind the kids who don’t fit the mold. Oh, yeah, Betsy, a little secret: most kids don’t fit the mold.
Fifth, help schools make it easier to get rid of bad educators. Too many teachers hide behind tenure. I know, it allows for freedom of expression. I get that. What I don’t get is the hours of time and reams of paperwork required to fire teachers who have no business in the classroom. The same can be said for bad administrators. Every minute a student spends with an ineffective educator is time wasted.
Sixth, don’t forget the extras. Music is important. Art is important. Foreign language is important. Physical Education is important. Vocational Education is important. I’ve seen more kids saved through Jazz Band and Auto Body Repair than all the Math and Science classes combined.
Finally, pick a couple of wizened public school teaching veterans for your cabinet. You don’t need Harvard professors or bureaucrats. They don’t have a clue. Find that third-grade teacher every parent wants their kids to have. Find that sharp-eyed high school English teacher who made their students not only read the classics, but love them. They know what’s going on and they won’t be afraid to tell you. When I was a school superintendent in Tipton, Missouri, I always knew I’d get the straight skinny from Mrs. Norma Keirsey. Norma’s gone now, but back then she never hesitated to grab me by the arm and let me know when something needed fixing. Best of all, after spotting me serving lunch in the elementary cafeteria one day, she started calling me “Hot Pockets.” Betsy, that’s the kind of honest feedback you need.
So there you go, Betsy. I hope I’ve helped. I do have a quick aside before closing. My daughter Lynnea has tweeted some negative things about you. Please don’t take it personally. Lynnea is currently looking for a job as a band teacher, and any help you might be able to give her will be appreciated.
Good wishes from your friend,