Incoming Education Secretary: High Standards Matter

President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education has ignited considerable speculation about the impact her confirmation may have on the future of high, comparable interstate education standards. Much of the uncertainty surrounding Ms. DeVos’ views has arisen because of her own seemingly conflicting statements.

Almost immediately after she became the announced designee, Ms. DeVos issued an unambiguous statement regarding Common Core: “I am not a supporter – period.”

Yet, at the same time, she offered a full-throated endorsement of raising the academic bar in schools: “I do support high standards, strong accountability, and local control…I believe every child, no matter their zip code or their parents’ jobs, deserves access to a quality education.”

It may be difficult to ascertain from these statements what, exactly, Ms. DeVos’ position is, but regardless, it’s important that her public statements be evaluated in the context of existing federal law. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) forbids Washington from either encouraging or discouraging states to adopt specific learning goals or assessments. In fact, the law requires states to develop plans to show full ownership of their standards and accountability systems.

Moreover, the Executive Branch has little control over what education standards states decided to use, a reality broadly acknowledged by most education experts. The only way the Secretary of Education could “repeal” comparable academic standards is by executive fiat – a maneuver that would violently contradict the President-elect’s pledge to increase local control and directly infringe upon the rights of states that have chosen to use comparable standards.

States have overwhelmingly embraced a comparable and more rigorous baseline of education standards. And states are moving on from any further divisive debates over labels. Instead, they are focusing on raising classroom expectations even higher to prepare young people for the demands of college and careers. Importantly, they are seeing the fruits of that work now as student mastery of critical subject matter is beginning to improve in a measurable way.

Donald Trump is the President-elect, and as such, it is his prerogative to nominate a Secretary of Education. Her expressed support for higher standards and local control is encouraging, and we intend to work with her and the states to defend standards and accountability so that we can continue building on the progress that’s been made.

Jim Cowen is the Executive Director of the Collaborative for Student Success.