Newly minted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a hard time getting inside the District of Columbia's Jefferson Middle School Academy last week when protesters briefly blocked her from entering. But at the end of her visit -- her first to a public school since taking office -- she stood on Jefferson's front steps and pronounced it "awesome."
A few days later, she seemed less enamored. The teachers at Jefferson were sincere, genuine and dedicated, she said; they seemed to be in "receive mode."
"They're waiting to be told what they have to do, and that's not going to bring success to an individual child," DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. "You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching."
DeVos, who has no professional experience in public education, is an avowed proponent of voucher schools, charter schools, online schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. Teachers across the country have been galled by what they see as her lack of faith in -- and understanding of -- the public schools that educate nearly nine in 10 of the nation's children.
Jefferson educators found her comments about their work hard to take: On Friday evening, the school responded to DeVos via its Twitter account, taking exception to the education secretary's characterization of Jefferson teachers.
"We're about to take her to school," the first of 11 rapid-fire tweets said.
The tweetstorm singled out teachers like Jessica Harris, who built Jefferson's band program "from the ground up," and Ashley Shepherd and Britany Locher, who not only teach students ranging from a first- to eighth-grade reading level, but also "maintain a positive classroom environment focused on rigorous content, humor, and love. They aren't waiting to be told what to do."
"JA teachers are not in a 'receive mode,'" the tweets concluded. "Unless you mean we 'receive' students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level."
An Education Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But DeVos weighed in on Twitter Saturday morning, saying Jefferson’s teachers are “awesome” and that they “deserve more freedom to innovate and help students."
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her visit to Jefferson, offered praise after the visit for the “dynamic classroom instruction” they both witnessed there.
Asked Saturday to respond to DeVos’ comments about Jefferson teachers, Wilson provided a statement:
I’ve worked in schools for my entire professional life — as a teacher, principal, and superintendent. I have learned from much experience what it takes to prepare students for college success. The teaching and learning at Jefferson will put our students on a path to college, successful careers, and beyond. I see that. Our teachers see that. Our students see that. And our parents see that. Defying expectations takes experience and a lifelong dedication to all students. DCPS is rich with educators who have this experience.
"I find it very interesting that the chancellor saw teachers that were pushing rigorous learning, students asking each other high-level questions and cultivating high-level responses, and teachers who take initiative and give their lives to the education of these children," said Jefferson teacher Caroline Hunt. "DeVos saw something so different. ... Maybe if DeVos knew more about education she would realize just how amazing the students, teachers and staff are."
Jefferson is five years into a turnaround effort and is one of the fastest-improving schools in the city's public school system. While fewer than half of students are meeting or approaching grade-level expectations, according to new Common Core tests, the school's growth has won it classification as a "rising" D.C. school.