The One Question Nobody Is Asking About Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Lance Forbes, Leadership, People Comments

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Originally posted at Forbes.com

There have been few developments since the election of President Donald Trump that have generated as much heat as his nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education … and that’s saying something. Measured reactions about DeVos have been rare, as both Left and Right have cast her ascension to the top job at the Department of Education in the boldest of terms. Point your browser to the right, and you will read how DeVos will break the iron grip of teacher’s unions and transform the efficacy of America’s schools; aim your Twitter feed to the left, and DeVos will all but set actual fire to America’s schools by selling out poor children to greedy corporate titans who seek to run charter school like the sleaziest of slumlords. While the opinion page of Fox News labels DeVos “an inspired choice,” the New York Times editorial board headlined its opposition thusly: “Betsy DeVos Teaches the Value of Ignorance.”

Opposition to DeVos can be intensely fact-based, aimed squarely at the combination of a lack of any experience with an ideological commitment bordering (or maybe surpassing) incurious rigidity. So, too, can support, as cases can be made for the policy choices DeVos represents regarding school choice (whether via charter schools or voucher programs).

Mostly, though, it has been hysterics that have ruled the conversation, and it’s clear that isn’t going to be ending anytime soon, as today’s episode showed. What was a protest movement to prevent DeVos’ confirmation by the Senate has now evolved into a resistance force physically preventing America’s Secretary of Education from being able to enter a public school in America’s capital city. (Ideological opponents like prior Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, both tweeted opposition to this tactic.)

Throughout this entire drama, amidst the questions of policy preference and the influence of wealth, one question has been ignored by both the opposition and supporters alike: Can she lead?

It is easy to get caught up in the weeds of policy debate and the volleys of partisan tribal warring and forget this much more anodyne but no less important question. The Department of Education is a small cabinet-level agency by Federal Government standards, but it is still a large organization with over 4,000 employees. If Secretary DeVos is going to do anything to America’s schools — for good or for ill — it will be through the actions of those 4,000 people. Getting the people in that large organization to reverse course and move in a radically different direction will not be as simple as having different beliefs and priorities. Secretary DeVos will have to do several things as the new leader that will be monumentally harder than merely surviving a Senate confirmation hearing:

Establish Credibility

Secretary DeVos’ lack of personal experience with any public school, anywhere, for any reason, is well documented. The department employees she now leads all know this as well, and it is likely very different than their experiences. Working for the Department of Education at any level of government is not likely a career choice for anyone not experienced with and believing in the mission of America’s public schools. If Secretary DeVos hopes to get anything done, she will have to find ways to bridge the public school experience gap and earn the listening of her new employees to what she has to say.

Build Trust

While credibility is what opens ears, it is trust that opens minds. Set aside the public protests and partisan fights. If the department’s army of career education professionals don’t trust Secretary DeVos’ motives behind her contrary views about the current system of public education, they won’t follow her up the mountain of Change she is tasked with scaling. This challenge is not just limited to the federal employees working on public education. Any real change DeVos hopes to achieve will require the trust and cooperation of state and local public education professionals across the country. Building trust among that group, over whom she does not have the power over things like employment and pay, will be as hard as it will be crucial.

Persuade Skeptics

The real challenge in leading is not in motivating fellow believers in the cause to do the work necessary to bring it forth. “Preaching to the choir” is hardly a challenge, after all. The true test of a leader is in getting the cooperation and expenditure of effort of those who disagree with either the mission or the tactics … or even both. Making decisions is what leaders do, but decisions alone do not make following happen. Leading isn’t lobbying either, where resources and access are the name of the game. Even if she succeeds in gaining credibility and building trust, Secretary DeVos won’t make any impactful change unless she can convince the administrators, policy makers, and teachers serving America’s school children that they should not only listen to her, and trust her; she also needs them to agree with her, at least enough to participate and compromise in order to fulfill the challenge and promise she delivered to her new team on Wednesday:

My challenge to you is simple: Think big, be bold and act to serve students. And I will promise you this: Together, we will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.

What Betsy DeVos believes about the policy of “school choice” is known. Whether Secretary DeVos can actually do this leadership task remains to be seen. This is an important question to keep in mind. Leadership is an amplifier, after all, increasing the impact of both positive and negative actions taken. If Secretary DeVos isn’t up to harnessing the amplifying power of her new role as leader, then the scope of the change she can accomplish will be diminished. If she isn’t an effective leader, Betsy DeVos will neither save American public education, nor destroy it.

Can she lead? Until we know, perhaps some national calming down is in order.