As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos walked into the STEM lab at Holy Comforter Episcopal School in Tallahassee Tuesday, fifth-grade students were already busy connecting colorful Lego pieces and punching information into their Apple computers.
At one table, two girls were creating a little robot that could push itself up on two extended legs. Across from them, two boys showed off their nearly completed robotic alligator to the education secretary.
“Are you ready for programming?” the lab teacher asked. “Almost,” one of the boys replied. “We just have to put the rubber bands on.”
DeVos watched intently. One by one, each robot came online and sprang to life, spinning, chomping, and bounding up and down on their tables.
A couple hours later, on the other side of town, DeVos visited classrooms at Florida State University School, a top-performing, university-run charter school more commonly known as Florida High.
As she leaned over one table with her questions, a student started explaining the lighting circuits his group had built.
“I think I’ve just learned more about circuits from you than I ever have in my whole life,” DeVos said after the boy had finished.
The two school visits were part of an ongoing national tour for the Education Secretary. She’s visited nearly two dozen schools so far, and six of them have been in Florida—more than any other place outside of Washington D.C.
DeVos’s press secretary, Liz Hill says they’re not trying to shine extra light on the Sunshine State–it’s just that Florida, “has done a lot of innovative things.”
Between lego robots and the “maker space” class (a hands-on class about materials and construction) at Holy Comforter, and the electronic circuits and space-flight simulator at Florida High, both schools today were examples of innovative approaches to teaching.
DeVos says other schools should be taking note.
“I think [these schools are] examples of what a lot of schools should aspire to be,” she said. “We need to recognize the fact that far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things very similarly to 100 years ago and the world today is much different.”
Like many Devos school visits, these ones were also accompanied by protesters who complain that traditional public schools cannot be innovative when they are starved for funding. And, in fact, some of the innovation at the schools the Secretary visited were funded by donations or grants that aren’t available to every school.
But DeVos believes that school leaders who adopt this mindset are more concerned with system-level funding than with meeting the needs of individual students.
“We should be focused on what students need as individuals. Not on systems. Not on buildings,” she said. “Instead of focusing on the infrastructure, let’s focus on what individual students need and require to be able to learn and become everything that they can be.”
DeVos has also been criticized for visiting private schools instead of focusing on traditional public schools. But her spokesperson pointed out that different kinds of schools offer new ideas and solutions to schools that are struggling.
DeVos’s visit comes as Florida is finalizing its federally required education plan, due September 18. Based on her apparent soft-spot for the Sunshine State, it’s likely that plan, and the funding tied to it, will breeze through her department’s approval process.
Lane Wright is a father of three in Tallahassee, former press secretary for Governor Rick Scott, and current editor for Education Post, a national education nonprofit focused on creating better conversations around improving our schools.