Column: Call on teachers for answers

Paul Ruth

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary digs a sore point at the intersection of education and politics. For many years there has been a push to apply leadership and accountability to schools without regard to the school as a unique institution.

It can sometimes be referred to as the business model touting how the free market will solve the inequity existent in education. Plenty has been said about the qualifications of DeVos to be the education secretary, but the lowest point is how many politicians felt she would be a decent choice for schools. As the phone campaign against DeVos demonstrates, there is a disconnect between the officials devising policy and the people working in schools.

Leaders walk the reality in the everyday struggle to improve. In this particular case, improvement is accountable to students. Students are the recipient of policy and perceived outcomes. Students become the working and voting public. Despite various accountability forms that attempt to make teachers and schools accountable to politicians, the classroom teacher is always accountable to her or his students first. The goal of a leader in this field should be to empower the classroom teacher.

In Michigan, for instance, school closures and the threat of them devastate communities and coerce teachers to become subservient to an administrative office. Teacher shortages point to a lack of confidence in the field. Punitive testing shackles curriculum to a narrow and ignorant vision of success.

The reality leaders must face is the experience of the field they lead. The classroom is the pinnacle experience within the education system. In the end, it will come down to the teacher and the student. It does not seem as if DeVos has a grasp on such an experience. Her background dictates that she has never had the teacher-student experience from the point of being a teacher. She expressed to the Department of Education that even though people may differ, we should still come together.

Except without adequate experience, she should be in the primary role of listening to those with the pinnacle experience in the field. She pledges to listen, but can she understand the long struggle of improvement? In what ways is she able to bridge this gap of understanding? The test of a leader is the challenges faced by what they lead. It seems the biggest challenge for DeVos is understanding how to empower teachers to do their best work.

Schools are unique in that they are the physical embodiment of an ideal. The business model of education supplants the notion that all students should receive a fair education. In a business model the workers are accountable to their leader from middle management to maybe even a CEO. Teachers are accountable to their students, not to politicians, and this is what creates the ideal of fairness.

Education is not a field of molding students and society, but providing the opportunity for people to become what freedom allows them to be. It comes back to the teacher-student relationship and empowering teachers to allow freedom to ring in every pupil they teach.

Paul Ruth is a teacher at East Detroit High School and an adjunct instructor at St. Clair County Community College.