DeVos Proposes Online Learning as Solution on Her Rethink School Tour

By Cait Etherington
October 19, 2018

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently traveled south as part of her Rethink School tour.  The tour brought her through parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In all of these states, public school students continue to perform under national averages. As expected, DeVos used the tour to promote online learning, but not everyone agrees that online learning can fix the broken public education systems in these southern states.

Many Public Schools in the South Continue to Struggle

It is likely not a coincidence that DeVos’s Rethink School tour headed south. All four states on her tour have struggled with teacher shortages, low test scores, and low graduation rates for decades. In terms of achievement, for example, students in all four states on DeVos’s tour continue to lag behind. In 2017, the percentage of fourth grade students in Louisiana who performed at or above the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficient level in mathematics was 27%. In Georgia and Alabama, students did somewhat better with 31% meeting NAEP proficiency levels, and in Georgia, 35% of students met the NAEP proficiency benchmark. The national average, by contrast, was 40%, but in some states, the average is much higher (e.g., in Massachusetts, over half of fourth grade students (53%) met NAEP proficiency levels in math).

In terms of spending per student, all four states on DeVos tour also report lower spending levels than other U.S. states. In New York State, $22,366 was poured into each student in 2016. By comparison, in 2016, Mississippi invested only $8,702 per student, Alabama invested only $9,236, Georgia invested only $9,769, and Louisiana invested only $11,038. The low levels of investment per student naturally also impact teacher salaries. In 2017, an elementary teacher in New York State made on average $80,540 annually. By contrast, in Georgia, the average elementary teacher reported a salary of $54,870 and in Mississippi, elementary teachers reported annual average salaries of just $44,230. This means that in 2017, Mississippi’s elementary teachers were making on average about half of what their counterparts made in New York State.

While the huge discrepancies in per student funding and teacher salaries are striking, when one digs deeper, there is also evidence that credentials, training and certification also vary greatly from north to south. While many states in the Northeast strictly prohibit uncertified teachers from working in schools, even as substitutes, in cash-strapped schools in the south, especially in rural districts where principals often struggle to attract qualify staff, it is not unusual to find a high percentage of teaching positions filled by uncertified substitute teachers. In one Mississippi school district visited by DeVos on her Rethink School tour, 63 permanent positions are currently being filled by substitute teachers.

Secretary DeVos Promotes Online Learning During Rethink School Tour

Not surprisingly, DeVos, a strong advocate online learning and of virtual charter schools, used her Rethink School tour to once again promote technology-based educational solutions. Among the programs DeVos promoted directly on her tour was the Global Teaching Project, which is currently being used to enhance students’ learning in several under-achieving Mississippi schools, including Holmes County Central High School. At Holmes, which DeVos visited on her tour, students are currently receiving extra support in AP Physics via the Global Teaching Project.

To be clear, the Global Teaching Project is not an online charter school. In fact, as stated on the organization’s website, “The Global Teaching Project is . . . meant to be a resource to help students excel at a challenging curriculum, to help teachers teach advanced subjects, and to permit lifelong learners to continue to grow in knowledge and develop new skills.”

While not everyone agrees with DeVos that online learning is a viable way to help under-achieving schools better respond to student needs, blended learning solutions, such as the Global Teaching Project, may be part of the solution. According to the Hechinger Report, in 2017, 527 students in Mississippi took the AP Physics I exam and only 175 passed. There is hope that the additional instruction made available via the Global Teaching Project may help a higher number of students pass AP Physics. However, as James Henderson, Holmes County Superintendent, emphasizes, there are still many things that initiatives like the Global Teaching Project can’t fix, including crumbling school infrastructure and this includes out-of-date school science labs.