By Tanzina Ahmed, Ph.D., Department of Social Sciences, Bronx Community College CUNY (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Do you know who Betsy DeVos is?
Chances are, if you’re reading a blog on education, you know that name and exactly why it’s so revered (or reviled) in American schools today. Furthermore, you probably know how she, as the current Secretary of the United States Department of Education, is shaping the policies and practices of schools across the entire country. You may or may not be enthused about her political priorities but you know of the pivotal role she plays in the education and lives of millions of American enrolled all the way from pre-K to graduate school.
Yet, if you asked a typical undergraduate class on child psychology or human development to identify her... what would you hear? From my experience, a chorus of crickets. A few students might recognize the name, but most don't know who she is or how her decisions profoundly influence students and their families across a wide span of ages and institutions. Even once they know who she is, they’re often at a loss to understand how her educational policies affect the lives of hundreds of millions of American students. Such would also be the case for previous Secretaries of the Department of Education, such as Arne Duncan and John King.
It's easy to overlook the influence of people like Betsy DeVos because their influence is so widespread and pernicious. Yet given recent political events, it's more important than ever to help psychology students in undergraduate institutions understand how the Secretary of Education and the administration she represents wield their power over the life of others. Professors teaching developmental psychology classes may have a special responsibility to help their students understand how matters discussed in political science classes might shape people’s academic and career trajectories over a lifetime.
However, it can be difficult to bring politics into the study of psychology in a way that helps students understand the issues at stake. Lecturing students on this issue usually doesn't help, especially since the intersection between politics and psychology can be abstract and murky. Thus, to help students put some “skin in the game” and understand how families are affected by the decisions of the Department of Education, I’ve created an activity called “Being Betsy DeVos.”
In this assignment, I break students out into small groups to work together on the American education system. I tell them that they are now all Betsy DeVos and need to answer critical questions on funding and promoting education within our country. Their challenges include the following:
- President Trump’s 2017 budget plan would take away $2.4 billion for teacher training grants and $1.2 billion for funding summer-school and after-school programs, weaken or eliminate funding for 20 educational programs, and cut $200 million in federal programs that help low-income, first-generation and disabled students (Bendix, 2017). What recommendations would you make to President Trump about funding these programs? What arguments would you make on what programs to keep and what to cut?
- Under the 2017 budget, the Trump administration would like to spend $1.4 billion to expand use of vouchers in public and private schools, eventually spending $20 billion a year in funding vouchers (Bendix, 2017). Many of these funds will go toward private and/or charter schools that hold different educational standards from public schools (for instance, some of these private and charter schools may choose to teach creationism rather than evolutionary biology). Do you support the President’s proposal to pull money away from public schools and redirect it toward private and/or charter schools? What are the pros and cons of his proposal?
- Should charter schools funded with public money have the same academic accountability standards as other public schools when they are all competing for the same students and resources? Should charter schools have the right to teach material they want to teach (such as leaving out evolutionary biology to teach creationism) and to not publicly report their students' grade and test scores on statewide exams?
- The Trump administration has argued that the federal government should get rid of Obama-era restrictions on giving federal funding to for-profit colleges (like University of Phoenix and DeVry) that allegedly use predatory sales techniques and are more likely than non-profit institutions (like CUNY) to leave students with large debts but no degree (Mitchell, 2017). Do you believe that the federal government should allow students to use federal funding for whatever college institution they wish to go to, even if these institutions have poor track records?
Once students are sorted out into small groups to answer these questions, they work together for 30 to 45 minutes. They must write a set of notes on the major ideas and examples that come up during their discussion. They must also collaborate to present a 5-minute oral report on their answers to the rest of their classmates at the end of the class hour.
In the past I have asked students to produce both the written and oral reports in order to challenge them to come up with strong supporting arguments to their answers. These two activities help them sharpen their collaborating, note-taking, and presenting skills.
From my personal experience, students often end up vigorously debating the policies and priorities of the United States Department of Education when asked to answer these questions. In doing so, they investigate both their prospective policies and priorities and end up questioning those of others. For instance, I have known several religious students who have argued for more funding for charter schools and for the right to decide what their children should learn. On one memorable occasion, a student proclaimed that: “Parents should have the choice to send their children to whatever schools they want. If I want my child to have a Christian education, they should have one!”
Needless to say, she got pushback from several other students in her group, many of whom were concerned about students who would have to remain in traditional public schools while money was hoovered away into private and charter schools. As another student said, “[the] Government has to make rules to help every child, not just the lucky children who win the lottery [for vouchers or placement in private/charter schools]!”
It can sometimes be a struggle to keep the class both excited and civil—and to ask them to be respectful toward the diverse views of their fellow-classmates. Yet students who partake in this activity often become more interested in understanding how the Department of Education works after engaging with the debates on education that are raging in the country today. In having to argue for one side or another in these thorny debates, students are confronted with the understanding that the policies they – or Betsy DeVos – promote will affect the lives of millions of American students.
Betsy DeVos will not always be the Secretary of Education anymore than Donald Trump will always be the president. Still, as the years go by and Secretaries of Education come and go, psychology professors can continue to modify this activity to engage students in discussions of how politics shapes the lives of students from pre-K to the college level. By offering students the chance to work on the thorny questions of education policy today from a vantage point of power, professors can help them better understand how political science intersects into everyone’s development.
Furthermore, by contrasting students’ decisions about funding or promoting educational policies and programs against the actual decisions of the Secretary of Education an the President of the United States, students can better understand how their priorities are not necessarily the priorities of those in power. This is a realization that can shock students, but also help them understand the ramifications of political progress (or lack thereof) in their lives and the lives of others. Ultimately, this activity can help students understand how they are similar to or different from the people whose policies rule their lives, and helps them better understand how contemporary politics affects their development in many ways.
Bendix, A. (2017, March). Trump’s education budget revealed. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/trumps-education-budget-revealed/519837/
Mitchell, J. (2017, June). Trump administration scraps Obama-era rules on for-profit colleges. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-to-scrap-obama-era-rules-on-for-profit-colleges-1497458305