OPINION: Replace Betsy DeVos with educator who embraces equity and diversity

Education professor recommends social justice advocate Kevin Kumashiro for new secretary of education to upend status quo

President-elect Joe Biden is getting a lot of recommendations on a nominee to replace Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

In this guest piece, Rouhollah Aghasaleh, assistant professor in the school of education at Humboldt State University in California, suggests Kevin Kumashiro. More than a thousand educators and organizations recently wrote Biden in support of Kumashiro, who is a noted expert on education, social justice and equity and author of the new book, “Surrendered: Why Progressives are Losing the Biggest Battles in Education.

The former dean of the school of education at the University of San Francisco, Kumashiro founded and directed the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education. He also authored “Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture” and “The Seduction of Common Sense.”

Aghasaleh earned his doctorate from the University of Georgia. You can see earlier blog pieces by him here and here.

By Rouhollah Aghasaleh

Since the creation of the Department of Education in 1979, 14 secretaries (including acting) have led the smallest cabinet-level department that employs less than 5,000 employees and operates less than a $70 billion budget.

These relatively small numbers have diverted public attention from the secretary’s critical role and has made it one of the least contentious cabinet positions. However, overseeing significant education funding such as Head Start and Title I grants that support districts with large numbers of low-income students, investigation offices like Title IX, as well as a robust indirect authority to influence state and local policy makes this role a significant one as it impacts lives of 3.7 million teachers, 76.4 million students, and more than 20 million post-secondary students and instructors.

Rouhollah Aghasaleh, assistant professor in the School of Education at Humboldt State University.

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As education remains a major factor in social mobilization to both socialization and conscientization ends; i.e., maintaining a problematic status quo or supporting those who have been historically marginalized, the political influence of educational leadership should be taken more seriously. As many educators look forward to learning about the Biden’s cabinet appointments, they have started to speculate, debate, and endorse candidates for the next secretary of education.

The next secretary of education should be:

  • Teacher and teacher educator: In July 2019, Biden asserted that teachers are “the most important profession in the United States” and promised that they “will never find in American history a president who is more teacher-centric and more supportive of teachers”—a promise that the transition team is supposed to consider. Creating “a much more teacher-centric education system,” as promised by Biden, requires a leader who has lived as a public-school teacher and has insider’s knowledge and first-hand experience about both being and becoming teachers from within the profession. This mission needs someone who can analyze the complex education system both on micro and macro levels. Someone who has a sense of the current schooling, curricula, and teacher education, including accountability culture and assessment industrial complex.
  • Methodical about educational reform: In September 2020, hundreds of educators and scholars of color released a statement against failed educational reforms. They stated that billionaire philanthropists’ “reform initiatives have not systematically improved student success, are faulty by design, and have already proven to widen racial and economic disparities.”  They added, “...mega-philanthropy in public education exemplifies the 21st-century shift from traditional donating that supported others’ initiatives with relatively smaller grants, to venture financing that offers funding pools of unprecedented size and scale but only to those who agree to implement the funders’ experiments.” Interestingly, this is an area that the previous leaders, both Democratic and Republican, have shown weakness in the past few decades as they have gone along with overhauls that seek to run public schools like businesses. Public-education advocates like Carol Burris have echoed the same concern about hedge-fund managers funded, Democrats for Education Reform, that converge with what DeVos has championed, including charter schools and school vouchers, the restriction of unions, value-added teacher evaluation, as well as the portfolio model. These benevolent reforms are difficult to vet without having the expertise to analyze why progressives are losing the biggest battles in education.
  • Anti-oppressive: While the student population has become more diverse and the nation has got more aware and responsive to the systemic oppression foregrounded by movements such as Black Lives Matter, America’s school system has remained racist to the core. Many educational scholars have argued that the schools and curriculum function similarly to law enforcement in terms of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. On another level, teachers’ population continues to lag the increasing diversity. More importantly, the teacher education main and alternative paths, which are controlled by for-profit testing corporations, reinforce the disparities. The National Association for Multicultural Education is an example of educational organizations that have criticized the inherent bias of Teacher Performance Assessments (edTPA). More than 2,300 educators, scholars, and organizations demanded education against white supremacy and advocated for anti-racist education in a recent statement provoked by a White House Executive Order. The signatories emphasize that “A race-conscious curriculum does not detract from academics; on the contrary, particularly for students of color, who are now the majority of U.S. K-12 students, it increases learning, retention, and graduation.” Most recently, the American Educational Studies Association organized, energized, and united scholars, activists, and teachers for the Day of Action Against White Supremacy in Schools, Colleges, and Universities. Defunding the police, as demanded by Black Lives Matter protestors, could translate into undoing the harm that weapons of math destruction (standardized testing) have done in America’s schools.
  • Familiar with but not fallen for technology: In September, the California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education released a research brief on The Shift to Online Education During and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic, highlighting issues of inequities and injustices in online education. The pandemic only accelerated a trend that tech companies had started to replace traditional schools by offering digital content, free or affordable hardware, and curricular guidelines. In higher education, some have even predicted that most colleges will die out, and the survivors will partner with giant tech companies. This trend needs a leader who understands the role of technology, its affordances, limitations, and the politics and economy of instructional technology. This is a delicate job to utilize technologies that serve education not the other way around. In other words, we might end up living a reality where the future of college looks like the future of retail or find another way forward for a higher education that is sustainable, resilient, and free.

Sharing these priorities, more than a thousand educators wrote to President-Elect Biden and the Education Transition Team endorsing Kevin Kumashiro for the U.S. Department of Education. Signatories include 20-plus presidents and vice presidents of the American Educational Research Association, fellows of the National Academy of Education, eminent scholars, current and former deans of higher education, and national and local educational organizations and leaders.

The letter is a testimony on Kumashiro’s legacy to leverage research to transform the public debate about education, his analytical capacities, and leadership experience that has mobilized various constituents for collective action as an advocate of public schools and of educational equity.

Biden’s choice for the department of education could be a status-quo neoliberal Democrat or someone like Kevin Kumashiro who can accomplish a winning inside-outside strategy to realize the potential of public schools.