Ashley Hopkinson/EdSource Today
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to Russell Middle School 8th-graders in Milpitas about their science lesson.

MILPITAS – In her first visit to the San Francisco Bay Area as U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos toured Thomas Russell Middle School on Thursday to find out about its “personalized learning” program.

DeVos visited a public high school in Oregon on Wednesday and continues to be interested in finding out how schools are serving individual students well, especially in “unique and new and interesting” ways, said Elizabeth Hill, DeVos’ press secretary.

She said the Education Secretary wants to promote innovation in all schools, without placing an emphasis on which type of school it is – public, charter or private. Russell is a public school operated by the Milpitas Unified School District.

The school, Hill said, is “known for its individualized learning model.” She added that DeVos was “in a mode to learn,” after she launched a “Rethink School Tour” last month.

But press was kept at a distance from the controversial federal official during most of her visit, so although she told reporters at the end of her tour that she “learned a lot,” it was unclear specifically what was unique about what she saw.

“I got to see creative approaches toward empowering students to take control of their learning,” she said.

Milpitas Unified Superintendent Cheryl Jordan said in a follow-up phone interview on Friday that DeVos saw personalized learning happening in a social studies class, where some students were working on collaborative projects, some were working independently and some were meeting with the teacher one-on-one to talk about their goals. The school uses the personalized learning online “platform” developed by the Summit Public Schools charter system, she said.

The DeVos team contacted Brian Greenberg, CEO of the nonprofit Silicon Schools Fund, seeking suggestions for possible schools to visit, Jordan said. Since Russell has received an $85,000 grant from the organization to support its personalized learning program, Jordan said Greenberg suggested the Milpitas school.

“Brian Greenberg asked us if we would be willing to have Betsy DeVos come and visit and of course, we said, ‘yes,’ because it’s a great opportunity for her to see the great work that public school educators do in meeting the needs of our kids,” Jordan said. “That was his thought too – to see how a traditional public school is really innovating. It isn’t just about a personalized learning platform, but it’s really about engaging our learners and giving them unique experiences that are going to impact their learning for the long run.”

In a science class, reporters were instructed to stay in the back of the room, where it was difficult to hear the conversation between DeVos and students. She sat with some who were learning about genetic traits passed down through generations by working in groups on drawings of dragons.

When DeVos asked students about their dragons’ traits, one boy said his breathed fire. He also said he thought it was supposed to male, but he wasn’t sure. Reporters were told to leave the room before DeVos was finished visiting the science class.

Other reporters watched DeVos work on a portrait in an art class. But the press was not allowed to follow along on DeVos’ tour or hear what administrators told her about their educational program.

Betsy DeVos, U.S. Education Secretary, speaks briefly to reporters during her visit to Thomas Russell Middle School in Milpitas.

When asked why she chose to visit this particular campus on a West Coast tour that would wrap up with a trip to Seattle on Friday, DeVos said “it was highly recommended.” 

Jordan began describing personalized learning to reporters, but was pulled away before she could finish. Personalized learning involves allowing students to work at their own pace, small group activities and projects, she said.

After the tour, DeVos met privately with school and district officials. Paul Cao, a Milpitas High Advanced Placement Government teacher, told reporters before the meeting that he planned to participate in the discussion and hear what DeVos had to say, even though some of his colleagues had suggested that he should boycott the session, due to her controversial stances on education issues.

“I think you need to have a seat at the table in order to effect change,” Cao said, adding that he considered DeVos’ visit an opportunity for constructive dialogue.

Since her appointment, DeVos has sparked controversies by promoting school choice, including vouchers that could be used to send students to religious or charter schools. She has also drawn criticism from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for rolling back campus sexual assault protections under Title IX, as well as protections for student loan borrowers.

During a brief press conference at the middle school, DeVos defended her Title IX decision, saying she is gathering input before deciding how to move forward on the policy.

Outside the school, about two dozen protesters held signs such as “Protect our schools,” “Shame on you, Betsy,” “Take back education,” “DeVos 4 Profit, Not People,” and “Invest in our Nation, Fund our Education.” About half were from DeAnza Community College in Cupertino, while others included a sexual assault victim angry with DeVos’ decision to roll back Title IX protections and some senior citizen activists concerned about her promotion of school choice.

Ashley Hopkinson/EdSource Today

Students from DeAnza Community College in Cupertino protest a visit by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Thomas Russell Middle School in Milpitas.

Some students leaving school were surprised to see protesters and to find out that DeVos had visited their campus.

Gilbert Arregun, 13, said students were only told that “somebody important” was visiting.

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  1. Martha S. Lyon 9 months ago9 months ago

    Proponents of digital learning -- some of whom admit to being financially invested in what could become a $6 billion industry if schools decide digital learning is effective -- claim we need to buy what they're selling so students will be prepared for the great "social and economic challenges" ahead. Well, before all Californians jump on that bandwagon, think carefully and deeply about the following: --- Other than nuclear war, what great "social and economic challenges" needing … Read More

    Proponents of digital learning — some of whom admit to being financially invested in what could become a $6 billion industry if schools decide digital learning is effective — claim we need to buy what they’re selling so students will be prepared for the great “social and economic challenges” ahead.

    Well, before all Californians jump on that bandwagon, think carefully and deeply about the following:

    — Other than nuclear war, what great “social and economic challenges” needing innovative teaching can we expect to be greater or more difficult than what Americans faced going forward after Oct.,1929 and Dec. 7, 1941?

    — Pre-1970 students received a far superior, ZERO-homework K-6 education than anyone has received since, because that out-of-date system provided a better education in the most important areas than the post-1970 system created by all their failed reforms.

    — The system they claim must be bulldozed is NOT the good pre-1970 system from the industrial era that only needed improving instead of replacing but the post-1970 system made inadequate by the failure of all their new, innovative methods — the new math, the look-say method of reading, awards/trophies because everyone is special — rather than unique — when, to improve confidence and self-esteem, awards must be earned through accomplishments.

    — Since standardized tests are mostly about reading and comprehension, including math, improving academic performance requires we FIRST improve language and cognitive skills in the early grades.

    — Superior cognitive (independent thought; refined, complex thinking) development requires superior comprehension skills.

    — Superior reading comprehension ability requires mastering language, improving cognition, and increasing cultural literacy — skills which are inherent to a good education and without which all the $ and innovation in the world won’t be able to improve academic performance in the upper grades.

    — Since all of life and learning are dependent on excellent language skills, well-developed cognition, and cultural literacy (knowledge – see work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.), it follows that mastering these areas improves one’s quality of life and increases opportunities for success.

    — THEREFORE, improving education (curriculum, methodologies) in K-6 is the KEY to improving academic performance in grades 7-12 and beyond.

    — Improving education isn’t rocket science, but, FIRST, the problems must be defined accurately. Saying poverty causes low or poor academic performance may sound logical, but is it? Aren’t there countless stories of great success despite a childhood in poverty? Americans are too quick to accept the easy answers. Besides, when poverty is largely responsible, we don’t have to break a sweat over it nor feel guilty about it, because we didn’t cause poverty, and we, as individuals, can’t fix it.

    —- Isn’t it just a little unthinkable that most if not all the individuals making critical decisions about how to improve public education have NOT analyzed why the post-1970 reforms failed when the answers can reveal what to improve and how to improve it . . . duh!

    — Once armed with enough information about why the previous reforms failed, doesn’t it make sense to accurately define each problem and issue? After all, solutions cannot be found for what hasn’t been identified and defined. With this information and data from older boomers and the previous generation about what worked best, and concrete information on curriculum and methodology from local, district and/or state administrators, one can determine the components of the pre-1970 industrial-age system which absolutely must be re-implemented in K-6 classrooms, such as sentence diagramming to teach comprehension of complex text and writing (sentence construction, phraseology and punctuation), phonics for its ability to teach kids how to pronounce unfamiliar terminology for a lifetime, normal math which involves fewer steps than the method currently being taught, and cursive writing so people will still be able to research and verify facts using historical documents, like old letters and old census records, which I guarantee have not always been transferred correctly to online records.

    — Since the best learning is through teacher-student and student-student interaction and kids are already spending too much time alone staring at a screen, do they really need to spend their school day in front of a keyboard and screen?

    —- Personalizing education a little can be effective, but since, contrary to what proponents imply, there are only three learning styles — visual, auditory and kinesthetic (learning by doing, which we all use) — it need not and should not be a school’s only focus.

    — Since, as proponents seem to think, all students already have the self-knowledge and insight re: their futures to know their personal interests and goals and have the self-discipline to take control of their own learning by designing their own learning pgm (what and how they learn), why does the program direct them to spend time figuring out what they already know about whom each is?

    — If teenage and pre-teen students know so much about themselves and have the knowledge, skills, and self-discipline to direct and control their own learning, teachers and parents are no longer needed. Do we really have a new breed of children who can do better for themselves on their own? Hardly. We already have a horrific problem with today’s extremely rude college students, who, to their detriment, believe only they know what’s right and what’s best. Maybe districts should save $ by replacing teachers with a functional robot in every classroom.

    — Inasmuch as (1) the frontal lobe (emotions, self-control) of the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 20-30 with age 25 being the average; (2) many developing children don’t have a solid handle on personal goals and interests until after high school; (3) it’s more common for young people to discover or change their interests and goals while in college and/or after some work experience while one’s talent(s) and passion may not be discovered until many years later; (4) a majority of students under age 18 or 20 usually lack the interest and/or motivation to seriously pursue anything that takes them away from dating, making themselves look better, sports, and just hanging out and, even if motivated, they don’t have near enough knowledge and experience to direct their own learning to their benefit, and (5) what are the consequences of entire generations of citizens not knowing at least something about certain subjects because, as a rebellious, confused, antsy, half child-half adult teenager, they were permitted to decide what courses to take and what subjects to study, do you really think personalized education as described by proponents is going to benefit anyone in the long run?

    — Since studies show children under 6 learn best through play and pushing them academically offers NO long-term benefit (by 3rd or 4th grade, they are no longer ahead of other kids), why has Common Core developed 90 academic standards for kindergarten and pre-K classes are being pushed to learn?

    The bottom line is that parents, teachers and principals need to unite to research and evaluate these matters on their own before jumping on any particular bandwagon and demand from your districts and state what you’ve learned is best . . . like hiring autonomy for principals. Since the first attempt at improving education gave us and our children over 40 years of inadequate education, for which there have been seriously negative consequences that I hope the public recognizes and employers are compensating for through revised training programs, make proponents of digital learning provide concrete evidence that their claims about learning are accurate and their solutions effective.

    Once you apply some independent thought to all aspects of education reform, you may find most problems are not difficult to solve when correctly defined, which may mean we’re all being sold a bill of goods. Human needs, human brains, and human desires have remained essentially the same for centuries. Today’s students and those from subsequent generations won’t experience some drastic change that only technology can address just because they’re living in a new era.

    The curriculum and methods from the industrial-age education system, which helped me become the technically proficient writer and great thinker I am, will do the same for today’s students. With those skills, they can easily figure out the rest and be successful at anything; without them, performance in the upper grades will decline because students spent too much time staring at a screen or remain stagnate.

    NOTE: In the early 1920s, Thomas Edison announced that the film industry would revolutionize education and textbooks would be gone in ten years. Later, television was expected to revolutionize education, but all those classroom TVs have been sitting unused for decades.

    What, then, makes anyone think digital technology will be different? It’s just something new, but new isn’t always better and a method or thing being old doesn’t mean it isn’t still effective, useful or beneficial. There are components of the industrial-age system that are so effective as they are that spending time and $ searching for something new and innovative to replace them would be a colossal waste of time and resources. Kids don’t need digital learning to be prepared for the future (they already know more about it than we, anyway); they need superior cognitive development and mastery of all aspects of language and communication. They need to learn the original, longer way of doing things before using the easy ways — remember, in the movie “Independence Day,” the characters had to resort to a very old way of communicating — Morse Code — after the enemy infiltrated all their technology. Easy ways and shortcuts are “easy come, easy go.”