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Yes, Betsy DeVos, Our Schools Are Innovating


Natalie Boe teaches multiplication in her 4th grade math class at Washington Elementary School in Valley City, N.D., earlier this year.

—Dan Koeck for Education Week

A state superintendent responds to DeVos’ criticism of her state’s ESSA plans


Kirsten Baesler

Earlier this week, I commented on Twitter about U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ remarks at the Council of Chief State School Officers Legislative conference. During her address, she said that states need to do more to innovate in education. She further emphasized the need to give local schools and communities the kind of flexibility and authority they need to transform classrooms. She stated that she didn’t see this written into states’ plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

What I fear the secretary may have overlooked in her comments is the transformative initiatives states like North Dakota already have in place—ones that cannot be communicated effectively in a regulatory document such as a templated ESSA application.

I’ve worked in education for 28 years, the last five of them as the elected state superintendent of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. My office has been involved in helping education stakeholders across the state put together our ESSA plan and craft innovation legislation. Never before have I heard more open and honest conversations about rethinking the delivery of education than I have in the last year, both in North Dakota and with colleagues across the nation.

Consider this. I file my taxes each year. It gives a sketch of how much money I earn, but in reading my tax returns you could never expect to learn about me, my plans for the next year, or my priorities. I would argue that each state’s ESSA plan works much the same way.

As I have engaged in national conversations with educators and policymakers, it is clear to me that state leaders didn’t intend for the plans to be an overview of our states’ vision for education or the sole way of communicating the wide-ranging and robust work that all education stakeholders are doing.

“It is clear to me that state leaders didn’t intend for the plans to be an overview of our states’ vision for education.”

In my state’s case, the ESSA plan is a mechanism for North Dakota to tell the U.S. Department of Education how we plan to spend the nearly $141 million in federal funding we receive each year. (This amount represents 12.1 percent of total spending in state and local dollars to meet the needs of our students.) This plan can help to leverage efforts toward the state’s vision, but it doesn’t represent the vision entirely.

Last April, North Dakota passed legislation creating an innovative education plan with bipartisan and cross-sector support. In so doing, we enabled our education communities across the state to break free from burdensome rules and regulations.

Senate Bill 2186 created a program that allows public and private schools greater control over practices, allowing them to focus on personalized learning, social-emotional skills, college-and-career readiness, and the training for educators to carry out this work. My office led a team of legislators, teachers, administrators, parents, students, and business leaders who crafted the bill.

Now, the law is helping students like Elizabeth, a high school freshman in a rural North Dakota district near Fargo who didn’t like school. Elizabeth’s district was one of several that were instrumental in the bill’s passage, and, in turn, it was ready to implement an entirely redefined education program for the 2017-18 school year. Elizabeth now has the freedom to learn in a personalized way, at her own pace, and to follow her passions. More flexibility and personalized instruction has since given Elizabeth time in the school day to explore meaningful career opportunities in partnership with local businesses.

This story is not one that we could illustrate in a federal ESSA application, yet it is just one example of the first steps in the remarkable movement to reinvent education in North Dakota.

I believe that Secretary DeVos and I agree on the direction that the delivery of education needs to take. We must do better for young people. We must embrace the challenge of innovation to meet the needs of our individual students. I invite Secretary DeVos to visit our North Dakota schools. I’m sure that other states, which are undertaking similar multifaceted initiatives, would also welcome a visit from her.

I would further encourage the secretary to engage in meaningful conversation with chief state school officers, teachers, administrators, students, parents, and all of the other stakeholders that are making this sort of innovation possible.

Secretary DeVos, once everyone has a better understanding of the work that is being done in states across the country, I am confident we can work together to make progress for all students.

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