Has Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cooled on remote learning?
DeVos has recently called for school buildings across the country to fully reopen, threatened to find ways to withhold funding from schools that stick with full-time remote learning, and derided the Fairfax County district in Virginia for its plan to combine in-person and virtual instruction.
For many in the education world, these comments from DeVos come as a big surprise. The secretary was an enthusiastic supporter of virtual education earlier in the pandemic—before President Donald Trump started putting pressure on school districts this month to reopen buildings and return to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 academic year.
Just this spring, for example, as school buildings closed and millions of students transitioned rapidly to remote learning, DeVos praised schools' flexibility and willingness to transition to online learning.
"I think it's very clear that we have an opportunity to embrace distance learning and remote education in a way that two months ago would not have been thought possible," DeVos told reporters in April. "And it's happening very well in many places and-out of necessity-many others are getting up to speed."
Later that month, DeVos' Education Department announced it would provide more than $180 million in grants to boost statewide virtual learning programs and help families access technology that's essential for learning at home. Applications for those grants were due June 29. The department did not respond to questions from Education Week about the status of that program.
DeVos still believes "well-executed" online programs can be valuable for some students, according to department spokesperson Angela Morabito. "Many public charter and private schools and some districts did an excellent job of making the pivot, on very short notice, and were able to keep education going," Morabito wrote in an email. "Those were notable exceptions, and based on the science and data, Secretary DeVos is urging every school to plan for a return" to full-time, in-person learning this fall.
The department has also said children will experience psychological setbacks and miss out on access to in-school meals and health care if buildings remain closed. Many parents have jobs that can't be done remotely, which will make child care an issue, the department has said.
DeVos' recent public comments pushing for schools to reopen and return to in-person instruction have been ignored in many places. As of July 23, nine of the nation's 15 largest school districts had announced they will be using full-time remote learning as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting more than 2 million students, according to Education Week's school reopening tracker. Many other districts plan to open buildings only on certain days of the week.
The Fairfax district, meanwhile, on July 21 reversed its reopening plan and resolved to keep buildings closed when the year begins.
Confusing and contradictory rhetoric from federal officials such as DeVos represents a failure of productive leadership during a period when schools and the families they serve urgently need support and consistent messaging, many education leaders argue.
For educators nationwide, federal recommendations are "full of mixed messages right now," said Kristina Ishmael, director of primary and secondary education for Open Education Global and a senior research fellow at the policy research firm New America. "A lot of district leaders don't necessarily know where to go from here."
DeVos has long advocated for online learning and other alternatives to the traditional public school model. During a speech at the 2017 ASU+GSV summit, a conference on technology, business, and education, she outlined how she would transform American education: "We would build a system centered on knowledge, skills, and achievement, not on delivery methods." In 2018, she toured the country observing and spotlighting a program that brought online education to rural K-12 students.
She has touted virtual charter schools despite evidence that some of those programs yield poor student outcomes. In addition, prior to her federal tenure DeVos and her husband were investors in K12, Inc., a publicly traded online learning company that supports or operates many virtual charter schools. In higher education as well, she has proposed revamped regulations that would allow more online schools to access federal aid.
In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos said the rapid evolution of technology was an encouraging sign of the possibilities for improving education. "In the internet age, the tendency to equate 'education' with 'specific school buildings' is going to be greatly diminished," she said.
John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, a K-12 digital learning research and consulting firm, believes there's some validity to the idea that online learning is less desirable when it's mandatory, as it will be in many schools this year, than when it's one option among many. He and other online learning proponents have advocated for thinking of schools' efforts this spring as "emergency remote learning" or "crisis learning" rather than "online learning," which is typically more strategic and planned over a longer period of time.
But he hasn't seen DeVos draw that distinction. Trump hasn't made it either—on July 10, he tweeted that "Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning" now that schools across the country have tried it.
"The politicizing of this encourages other people to take a similarly non-nuanced view and say that all schools should be open or all schools should be closed," Watson said. "Anything that takes away from really thinking about these issues and shifts it to the overly simplified view that our political situation unfortunately devolves to these days is negative for everybody involved."
Meanwhile, Ishmael thinks DeVos' apparent 180-degree shift on virtual education might make state and district leaders who applied for federal online education grants earlier this year wonder whether the department supports their proposals.
Longer-term, Ishmael believes a sudden reversal for the federal government's attitude towards online learning could put up another roadblock to rethinking antiquated policies around instructional time and delivery methods. In her home state of Nebraska, where she worked as a teacher, state laws slowed down efforts to create a new online public school.
"There's a ripple effect that will potentially happen because of this as well," she said.