There Are Silver Bullets in Education and I Went to Washington to Tell DeVos That

I recently had the opportunity to meet with the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her senior advisers. It was an invitation I wasn’t sure if I would initially accept. However, I am glad I did.

Although, several of Secretary DeVos’s stances and philosophies about public education are very disconcerting to me, I went for several reasons.

I believe in engaging with folks I diametrically am opposed to on issues because it is one of the ways to become more informed about the root causes of their beliefs and actions. It is easy to have circular dialogues that exist in an echo chamber that reinforces our own conversations, but doesn’t move us forward. Even at times of war, sometimes, folks have to pitch tents and make themselves heard.

When conversations about education default to ideological trench warfare, it doesn’t move things forward-each side relentlessly taking snipes at the other, using the same weapons and casting the same aspersions. As Charles Cole III and I wrote earlier this year, we cannot hibernate for four (or eight years).

As advocates and agitators on behalf of our communities, at times we must engage with those who profess opposing views.

Also, I recognize that although DeVos is the U.S. secretary of education, my time and experience as a Principal Ambassador Fellow, showed me that the power of this office is mainly vested in two areas: convenings and the bully pulpit. (Money is the third lever the department has, but I’m from Philly, we don’t see much of that flowing into our city.)

Being able to share my views and experiences that I share with thousands of Black families is important. If educators who work with Black families don’t engage to firmly offer a counter-narrative in these spaces, who will? All the noise we bring cannot be from afar.

Although we briefly met with DeVos to share our opinions, we also had the opportunity to meet with her senior staff and senior career officials in the department – several of whom I had the pleasure of working with during my eighteen months as a Fellow. I went to express my opinion and to be heard. The main issues I raised included:

While some department officials claimed that there were no silver bullets in education, I, and others pushed back. There actually are silver bullets in education; weighted, predictable and adequate funding levels, high expectations and high levels of support for children and any adult being paid to educate them, robust professional development opportunities, teacher equity, high performing and diverse staff, robust post-secondary pathways and partnerships that support to college and career readiness, holistic curriculum that is rigorous, responsive, and respectful of students’ humanity, etc., are all ingredients for what works in schools—including those schools that support our most marginalized. There are silver bullets, but without the courageous will to invest in our school communities, schools will continue to falter.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Ashe and amen! I am sure it was a difficult decision to make to participate but I agree one hundred percent that we must speak truth to power when provided with the opportunity. Thank you for reminding this administration that the issue in American is not a lack of solution but a lack of will. They know how to educate their own children. They don’t have the will to educate ours. We, however, MUST! Thank you Bro. Sharif for continuing the struggle of your ancestors to stand for education for liberation.

    • Thank you, Mama Doctor Ayesha! I wish I had been older to sit at both of your feet while you conversed about the work you were placed on earth to carry out. It still gives me chills to think about you two. I am immensely proud to be one of your disciples.

  2. I am so glad to hear why you feel it’s important to go into spaces where opposing views are held. I’m convinced we need to be present to hear and be heard. Our students can’t wait for a four year storm to pass. Thank you for sharing your wisdom as I’m currently looking for answers to the question about engaging with those who seem so positioned against what I believe in.


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