Even after more than three hours of questioning before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Tuesday night, we didn’t learn much about Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education’s actual views on education.
In fact, at various points, Republican donor and activist Betsy DeVos seemed to have thin knowledge about key issues facing the department she would lead in Trump’s administration.
To start, when asked for her thoughts on using test scores as a measure of student proficiency or growth by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, DeVos didn’t seem to understand the difference, much less provide an informative response about which she would prioritize as head of the Department of Education.
Proficiency, achieved when a student reaches a specific benchmark in a subject, differs from growth, which measures a student’s progress in a subject. The debate is a common one in the education community and plays into schools’ ability to receive federal funding because legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, often emphasizes proficiency.
“I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery,” DeVos began. “Each student is measured according to the, um, advancement they’re making in each subject area.”
“Well, that’s growth,” Franken interjected. “That’s not proficiency.” Asked for further clarification by DeVos, Franken went on to explain the difference. “But it surprises me you don’t know this issue,” he added.
At another point in the hearing, DeVos cited an incorrect statistic for the growth of student debt — nearly 1,000 percent over the last eight years. Once again, Franken rebutted her answer: “That’s just not so. It’s increased 118 percent in the past eight years. I’m just asking, if you’re challenging my figures, I would ask that you get your figures straight.” Even Republicans have cited similar statistics, although some reports put the percentage much lower.
Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine also pressed DeVos about whether schools, like charters, that don’t meet requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law, should still receive federal funding. Again, DeVos deflected the question with a response about states’ rights. When she returned to the subject later on, however, she admitted that she was “confused” earlier.
Devos also discussed her belief that in certain situations, having guns in school might be desirable — like when Grizzly bears attack students in Wyoming, for example — and that the issue should be left to the states. Later, a representative from the specific school that DeVos cited told Mic that they don’t use guns to defend students from grizzlies.