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Living in Dialogue: Why I Was Shaking My Head at Betsy DeVos

A video of Betsy DeVos responding to questions from Lucille Roybal-Allard of the House Appropriations Committee hearing has gone viral, and has been watched now by many thousands of people. I appear in the background, shaking my head as DeVos asserts that larger class sizes might actually be beneficial since they allow students to collaborate with more classmates, and might allow the best teachers to be paid more. So in this post, I will take a look at the actual research on the subject, and a bit of the history of the idea.

But first, a little about the day. I was in Washington,DC, because the group I work with, the Network for Public Education, has just released a major report: Asleep at the Wheel, How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a RideThis report, authored by Carol Burris and Jeff Bryant,  reveals that over the past decade, the Federal government has wasted roughly a billion dollars on charters that never opened or closed within a year or two. It is a shocking report, with examples from all over the country. It paints a portrait of careless disregard for taxpayer funds, and a willingness to forego any semblance of quality or oversight in the pursuit of the magical virtues of “freedom” and “choice.”

There was a House Appropriations committee hearing at 10:15 am. I arrived at the room at about 7:40 am, and was the third in line, behind two paid “linestanders,” who were there holding spots for lobbyists who would arrive later in the morning sipping lattes. When we entered the room, I chose a seat in line with a large TV camera, behind where Secretary DeVos would be seated.

The hearing started off with a bang, with chairperson Rosa DeLauro taking on DeVos over the cruel budget cuts she has proposed. DeLauro cited NPE’s report, covered in the Washington Post by the excellent Valerie Strauss, and asked DeVos how she could propose an increase in funding for charter schools at the same time she was slashing funding for dozens of far more valuable programs. DeVos grinned like an organ grinder’s monkey and dodged every question, as can be seen in this clip.

About halfway through the hearing, Congresswoman Lucille Royball-Allard quoted from DeVos’ written testimony a passage that suggests larger class sizes might be desirable.  DeVos’ testimony states:

There is no evidence that the Federal taxpayer investments in existing professional development programs or class-size reduction have meaningfully improved student outcomes. In fact, students may be better served by being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.

In response to Congresswoman Roybal-Allard’s question, DeVos stated:

Given Education Freedom initiatives, there are different kinds of environments in which students learn well. Some students can learn better with larger classes, with more students to collaborate with, and others with smaller…

At this point, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard asks her for research that supports this idea. Devos responded:

There’s plenty of research that undergirds the fact that class size doesn’t yield results.

At that point, I can only shake my head in disbelief.

The problem for DeVos is that there is ample research that shows just the opposite – that class size matters very much. My friend Leonie Haimson has worked for years with a group called Class Size Matters, and they provide here a set of studies supporting this..

Another friend, Nancy Flanagan, attributes the source of the idea that larger classes are just fine to every billionaire’s favorite education researcher, Eric Hanushek. Way back in 1998Hanushek suggested there was no real value in reducing class sizes – using test scores, of course. In  2011, Bill Gates urged  policymakers to stop worrying about class size. He wrote:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise.

And of course, the “top teachers” would be identified by their students’ test scores. This was part of the impetus behind the terrible test-based evaluations and pay schemes many states still are using. At that time, I was working as a teacher coach in Oakland Public Schools, and blogging for Education Week’s Teacher Magazine. I wrote Gates an open letter  in response. I wrote:

As class sizes increase across the board, as they are likely to do, we are going to see turnover rates rise among teachers. I serve as a mentor for beginning science teachers, and have built a program to try to support and retain them in Oakland. Sadly, more than half of my own mentees are leaving this year, after working only two or three years as teachers. If you ask them why, they will tell you, that the stress and challenge of the job is simply overwhelming. All of them are promising, bright young teachers. They all have huge gifts to offer their students. But the challenges they face leave them feeling defeated. Increasing their class size will only make this worse.

The absurd thing is that everyone knows that smaller classes allow for greater outcomes of all sorts. Teachers are able to give more attention to individual students, behavior is more manageable, and I have never been in a public school classroom where collaboration was limited by the problem of too few students. The day that we see private schools, such as the ones attended by DeVos, Gates and their children, advertising their large class sizes is the day I will believe their claims that it does not matter. Instead, of course, these schools do just the opposite, and boast of average class sizes of 15 or 20 students.

Americans will not be gas-lit by DeVos or her billionaire sponsors.

Network for Public Education Action has launched a petition calling for the firing of Betsy DeVos. Please sign here. 

You can read more of my work in my book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundationavailable here.

Update: The GIFs keep coming: https://tenor.com/view/betsy-devos-wtf-gif-13824767

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now leads workshops with teachers on Project Based Learning. He is the co-founder of the Network for Public Education.