Betsy DeVos’s blistering interview a couple weeks ago on 60 Minutes was a disgrace. I have students, plenty of them, who could demonstrate more awareness about schools, charters, teaching and learning than the U.S. Secretary of Education did on Sunday night’s interview.
While there is a lot of well-deserved criticism for DeVos’s lack of preparation, the bottom line is she just isn’t curious enough to lead America’s schools.
Curiosity is immensely beneficial. Albert Einstein is to have once remarked, I dont possess any special talent. I’m just passionately curious. The thing is, you don’t have to be a genius to understand the needs of schools. However, as a lead donor and now leader of schools, you do need to visit them. Why? Because that’s what curious leaders do.
Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
Betsy DeVos: I have not– I have not– I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.
Lesley Stahl: Maybe you should.
Betsy DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.
Adrienne Partridge, a contributor at Inc, writes:
Research says that you increase your ability to learn and retain information when your curiosity is ignited. When you are curious, the limbic reward system of the brain actually illuminates. This is why it is important that teachers spark curiosity in the classroom and use curiosity as a teaching method.
The sad part is, DeVos’s lack of preparation is precisely because she does not appear to be inquisitive about those she was hired to lead. As someone who has never been an educator, I would imagine that she would want to be immensely curious; shadow educators, pick their brains, mine their experiences to inform decisions. But, this just doesn’t appear to be the case.
In Greater Good Magazine, Emily Campbell writes:
Curiosity boosts achievement. Studies reveal that curiosity leads to…greater learning, engagement, and performance at work.
Curiosity can expand our empathy. When we are curious about others and talk to people outside our usual social circle, we become better able to understand those with lives, experiences, and worldviews different than our own.
In a satirical article in the New Yorker, DeVos is depicted as having said:
I had never watched ‘60 Minutes’ before, but I can tell you this, I will never watch it again. I have better things to do with a half hour of my time. [It is] very unfair of her [Leslie Stahl] to ask me so many questions about education.
I am glad they pointed out it was satire. It’s a crying shame that it just doesn’t seem so farfetched that the current Secretary of Education would say that. With some of DeVos’s responses to queries during her confirmation hearing or any number of subsequent interviews, some of the responses DeVos gives appears to be outlandish.
I once met Secretary DeVos. I was invited to speak to her as a part of a small group of educators, mostly principals, who were there to provide feedback and advice. Although, I was initially reluctant to participate, I thought it prudent to share my experiences and insight and those of my community. I walked away knowing with a high level of certainty that the current U.S. Secretary of Education was deeply uninterested in learning about schools, teaching, and learning.
Devos entered the conference room to participate in what she described as a listening and learning session for her without a notebook or a writing utensil. She came with no notes, no annotated articles, or questions. I was stunned.
I have had the good fortune of meeting and speaking with four U.S. Secretaries of Education; Ron Paige, Arne Duncan, Dr. John King, and, in 2016, Betsy DeVos. She was the only one of these four who didn’t ask questions.
Every time I met with one of the former U.S. Secretaries of Education, I left feeling that they had a deep sense of the work, were well read about the issues, had articles and data that they would share and ask for opinions, and were curious about practitioners’ experiences.
My meetings with former Secretaries Dr. John King and Arne Duncan had very different feels. They were both inquisitive, had notebooks or binders, articles with annotations, asked tough questions, asked for feedback, posed scenarios, and took notes. DeVos did none of those things during our meeting.
When I met with DeVos. She smiled, nodded, and appeared to be over her head and not the least bit interested in considering or challenging our feedback with data or other educators’ experiences.
However, the one thing I can say about DeVos is she’s remarkably consistent. Her confirmation hearing, my meeting with her, and her interview on 60 Minutes, etc. all displayed the general unawareness and lack of curiosity about solutions, contexts, or causes of entrenched problems she is supposed to help solve. Growing into a job is not abnormal, but consistent with her boss, unfortunately, Mrs. DeVos won’t grow into her role as a leader.
At the end of the day, the children in America’s public schools are increasingly more diverse and less affluent than DeVos’s inner circle. Public school students don’t need pity, but they do need someone interested in them.
DeVos isn’t at all curious about these students or what can help them be more successful. That is most unfortunate.
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.