Inherit the Wound. Trump’s Education Pick on Science

January 31, 2017

Trump’s pick for Education Secretary has been confirmed.

Parrot’s anti-science meme about “critical thinking”. Code word for creationists, others, who would have you believe fifth graders should “critically” evaluate the considered consensus of the National Academy of Science, and every professional science organization on the planet.


At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, responded to a question about whether she would promote “junk science” by saying she supports science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.”

This seemingly innocuous statement has raised alarms among science education advocates, and buoyed the hopes of conservative Christian groups that, if confirmed, DeVos may use her bully pulpit atop the U.S. Department of Education to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.

DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design, the doctrine that the complexity of biological life can best be explained by the existence of a creator rather than by Darwinian evolution. Within this movement, “critical thinking” has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.

Candi Cushman, a policy analyst for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, described DeVos’ nomination as a positive development for communities that want to include intelligent design in their school curricula. Both the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and Betsy DeVos’ mother’s foundation have donated to Focus on the Family, which has promoted intelligent design.

“Mrs. DeVos will work toward ensuring parents and educators have a powerful voice at the local level on multiple issues, including science curriculum,” wrote Cushman in an email.

DeVos has not publicly spoken about her personal views on intelligent design. A more nuanced outgrowth of creationism, the approach lost steam after a federal court ruled a decade ago that teaching it in public schools would violate the separation of church and state. Greg McNeilly, a longtime aide to DeVos and an executive at her and her husband’s privately held investment management firm, the Windquest Group, said he knows from personal discussions with DeVos that she does not believe that intelligent design should be taught in public schools. He added that her personal beliefs on the theory, whatever they are, shouldn’t matter.

“I don’t know the answer to whether she believes in intelligent design — it’s not relevant,” McNeilly told ProPublica. “There is no debate on intelligent design or creationism being taught in schools. According to federal law, it cannot be taught.”

That assurance provides little comfort to those who worry that DeVos’ nomination could erode public schools’ commitment to teaching evolution.

Hearing DeVos refer to “critical thinking” was “like hearing old catch phrases from a nearly forgotten TV show that never made prime time,” Michigan State University professor Robert Pennock told ProPublica. Pennock has written several books and articles about creationism and intelligent design, including “The Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism” (2000), and has testified as an expert witness that intelligent design should not be studied in public school science courses.

“She evaded what should have been a simple question about not teaching junk science,” Pennock wrote in an email. “More than that, she did so in a way that signaled her willingness to open the door to intelligent design creationism.”

Ann Reid and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education recently wrote in Stat:

A few loud voices dismissing science can be enough to intimidate teachers into diluting their treatment of evolution and climate change, permanently short-changing a generation of science learners.

DeVos is likely to take a quieter approach. She hasn’t taken strong positions on either evolution or climate change, and likely won’t focus on them as curriculum issues. But if her views on school choice are implemented, even more students may be miseducated. DeVos favors letting parents use publicly funded vouchers to send their children to private and religious schools where, in contrast to public schools, creationism can be taught without violating the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state.

During Senate hearings Tuesday on DeVos’s nomination, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked point-blank if a DeVos-led Department of Education would side with students or with purveyors of junk science. She evaded answering — but conspicuously used the “critical thinking” catchphrase beloved by creationists and climate change deniers alike.

Others in the Trump administration have been more outspoken challengers of climate change and evolution.

During the campaign for president, Donald Trump repeatedly called climate change a hoax. His recent claim that “no one really knows” is a scant improvement.


While evolution was not as much in the headlines during the campaign, Vice President-elect Mike Pence once saw fit to denounce evolution on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Support for teachers

The federal Department of Education has little power over what teachers are required to cover. Science education standards are set at the state level. Evolution is generally integrated into current standards and textbooks, and climate change — a relative newcomer to American science education — is increasingly included in them.

But just including evolution and climate change in standards isn’t enough. Teachers must feel confident when presenting the material in their classrooms. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Only 54 percent of American science teachers teach climate change forthrightly, while only 28 percent do the same for evolution.

The rest? Some deny the science outright and present climate change denial or creationism. Others compromise by skipping the topic, omitting key elements, or downplaying the solidity of the evidence.

Among the most powerful reasons for their reticence is teachers’ perceptions of the attitudes toward these socially contentious topics in the communities where they teach. Nationally, only about two-thirds of Americans accept that human activities are responsible for recent climate change, and a similar percentage accept that human beings have evolved over time.

No wonder she hates public education. Would be an automatic fail.

Huffington Post:

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the nation’s education system, Betsy DeVos, appears to have copied lines from statutes and other sources in her written answers submitted to a Senate committee, according to a copy of the document and a review of those other sources.

The lifting of passages was first reported by The Washington Post, though The Huffington Post had been alerted to these instances by sources opposing her nomination. It could cloud DeVos’ nomination, though Republican senators have stood by her even after what was widely considered a shaky committee hearing.

In her submitted responses to Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, DeVos did not cite or footnote the phrases or sentences that, at times, she copied verbatim. For example, in response to a question on whether she believes federal funds should be directed toward mental health, academic and support programs for schools, DeVos’ first sentence is practically identical to a statement from a deputy assistant attorney general with the Justice Department.

“Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive and grow,” DeVos wrote.

And here’s what Vanita Gupta, former acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in May: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow.”

Elsewhere in her responses, DeVos appeared to take a line straight from the Department of Education’s website.

“Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made a determination about the merits of the complaint,” DeVos wrote.

Biggest newspaper in the state that knows her best.

Detroit Free Press:

Make no mistake: A vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education is a vote to end public education in this country as we know it.

This isn’t conspiracy theory, or ideologically driven slander. Look at DeVos’ own words and actions, over her long career advocating against traditional public schools; her funding of an ideologically driven pro-charter lobby; her willingness to spend whatever it takes to ensure her policy preferences become law.

DeVos is unqualified in every respect to serve as head of this critical department, and the U.S. Senate must vote Tuesday to reject her nomination.

West Michigan billionaire DeVos hasn’t worked in public education, public administration, or even in mainstream education reform. She’s demonstrated a refusal to value outcomes over ideology. But she’s contributed millions to the Republican Party and Republican candidates, to the pro-school-choice lobby she essentially founded, and to like-minded candidates whose careers she has financed.

All at the expense of public school students, mostly black, mostly in Detroit — children a world away from the Grand Rapids area where the DeVos family makes its home.

But nor has she spent her considerable wealth and influence advocating for better schools outside of Detroit; report after report shows Michigan schools are falling dangerously behind, that serious investment and course correction are required to stop this slow slide to the bottom.

DeVos has called traditional public schools a “dead end,” a government “monopoly.” Husband Dick DeVos said the couple bemoans the role public schools have played at the heart of American communities — replacing, they believe, the church as the central institution of American life. She has advanced or lobbied for programs that draw taxpayer dollars from those schools, always to those schools’ great detriment, to fund unregulated charter schools or to provide public-money vouchers for private education.

There’s nothing inherently destructive about charter schools. Properly managed charters can be a viable alternative for parents with few options. But that’s not the kind of charter school DeVos has championed — and nor can an education secretary’s educational advocacy be so one-sided. In Michigan, charter schools can be run by for-profit operators. Charter schools can siphon public money for decades, taking taxpayer dollars without making good on the promise of better results.

“My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee,” DeVos wrote in 1997, in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

We’ll beat this back as we did a hundred years ago.


7 Responses to “Inherit the Wound. Trump’s Education Pick on Science”

  1. I think she was confirmed by the Senate panel…not the full Senate yet. Keep calling senators.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    As a former science teacher and school administrator, I have had first hand experience with all the code word and dog whistle BS outlined in this terrific post. The handwriting is on the wall in letters big enough to be seen from space, and the old cliches about “if it smells like a skunk, etc….” were never more applicable. Devos will be a disaster for American schools (although because of that she WILL be an excellent minion for The Pussy Grabber as he 1984’s our education system).

    Anyone who is not very familiar with education and teaching should focus on what is happening down on the front lines, i.e., on what is said here.

    “Teachers must feel confident when presenting the material in their classrooms. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Only 54 percent of American science teachers teach climate change forthrightly, while only 28 percent do the same for evolution.

    “The rest? Some deny the science outright and present climate change denial or creationism. Others compromise by skipping the topic, omitting key elements, or downplaying the solidity of the evidence.

    “Among the most powerful reasons for their reticence is teachers’ perceptions of the attitudes toward these socially contentious topics in the communities where they teach. Nationally, only about two-thirds of Americans accept that human activities are responsible for recent climate change, and a similar percentage accept that human beings have evolved over time.”

    Pay attention to “Among the most powerful reasons for their reticence is teachers’ perceptions of the attitudes toward these socially contentious topics in the communities where they teach”. Teachers are hired and fired at the local level, and those who teach “scientific truth” in some places without strong tenure protections are vulnerable to retaliation from the bible-thumping mouth-breathers on their school boards.

  3. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    China is going to whup their asses on education.

    Gaokao: Can you pass China’s grueling college entrance exam?

    I consider myself to be pretty highly educated, though skewed to science and computing.
    I got 1 right. 😦

  4. redskylite Says:

    This topic looks extremely worrisome, let’s hope that professional educators can limit any negative impacts on education in the interests of the young and truth, and orders do not become dogmatic.

    Under the new regime I can envisage big brother watching, micro management, increased audits and bureaucracy, all taken with plenty of firing and fear, but maybe the American spirit & systems are robust enough to endure the worst. I sincerely hope so for all our sake.

    To go completely off topic, but bearing in mind Mr Sinclair’s work on the “Dark Snow” project I add this piece on recent findings of high levels of black carbon in Siberia reported in Interestingly the highest source was deemed to be transport.

    High levels of black carbon found at remote site in Siberia

    The researchers were able to identify the source of the black carbon by looking at its isotopic fingerprint—different sources produce different isotopes. Regular black soot, for example, has very little carbon 14. Such testing revealed that coal burning was the second largest source of black carbon in the region, though they noted things changed by season—during the summer, burning biomass was the biggest source.

    The researchers suggest that it is important that all sources of climate change be accounted for if accurate predictions and models are to be made—a critical factor for figuring out how to reverse what is occurring.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The Siberian black carbon is indeed a worry. I have touted the excellent book Fire and Ice. which examines the black carbon problem in the Himalayas and South Asia, where it is contributing to the disappearance of glaciers and the “brown cloud” that so often pollutes the northern reaches of the sub-continent and makes scientists worry about disruption of the monsoon. The Arctic doesn’t need another contributor to its rising temperatures, but it is a worldwide problem that needs to be looked at more closely everywhere.

  5. Sir Charles Says:

    The last time the western world had a leader like that the folks were calling him the “Führer”.

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