I might know more about education than Trump's nominee for Education Secretary.

Betsy DeVos is Donald Trump's nominee for Education Secretary. Here are some facts that emerged from yesterday's Senate confirmation hearing:

  • She called the public school systems a "dead end" even though she did not attend a public school, did not send her children to public schools, and never taught in a public school. 
  • She has no experience with college financial aid- either from the personal or administrative side.
  • She does not understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • She doesn't know the difference between proficiency and growth as it relates to student learning (an important distinction and a major debate in education today).
  • She supports Trump's plan to rescind gun-free school zones and refuses to say that guns do not belong in schools.
  • She refuses to say that she will enforce the gainful employment rule - a law that prevents fake institutions of higher learning like Trump University from receiving federal dollars.
  • She claimed that her 14 year position as Vice President of family.org, an anti-LGTB organization, was a "clerical error."

I think we deserve a whole lot better than this.  

To her credit, she also acknowledged that the behavior described by Donald Trump on that bus with Billy Bush constitutes sexual assault. I'm sure that if pressed, she would attribute his bragging as "locker room talk" or some other nonsense, but at least she acknowledged that if it actually happened, Trump would be labeled as sex offender. 

The again, we all knew that already.

If you want to have a say in education, become an educator

Attention politicians, policy wonks, educational advocates, professors of education, and anyone else who wants to have a say in education:

"Every human being who wants to have an opinion of American education ought to spend some time as a substitute teacher."

- Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute, who served as a substitute teacher for a year in order to write his book and understand the challenges and rewards of teaching

If the teacher tells you that your child is not gifted, it’s more likely that it’s the teacher who is not gifted.

The most common response to a piece I wrote last month entitled 12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents was a suggested addition to the list. It was phrased in many ways, oftentimes sarcastically, and it generally went something like this:

Your child is not as gifted as you think he or she is.

There was a reason I left this particular item off my list:

It’s stupid. It’s shortsighted and narrow minded. It’s unproductive. It’s adversarial. It’s not true.

This is not to say that I haven’t heard this sentiment expressed many times in my 17 years as a teacher. But whenever I hear a teacher express this idea, I push back immediately, and I push back hard, for three reasons.

1. Parents are supposed to think that their child is gifted.

It’s only natural for them to think more highly of their child than the rest of the world does. Their child is the most important thing in their life. They will invest more time, money, and energy into their child than anyone or anything before or after. It makes sense for them to believe that the person who they love the most in the world is gifted in some way.

And we all deserve to have someone in our lives who believes in us above all others. It should be our parents. They should be our champions. To think that parents should feel differently is short sighted and stupid.

2. Wouldn’t it be a better world if every teacher thought like parents and assumed that every student in their class was gifted in some way?

I’ve taught about 350 students in my 17 years as a teacher, and I have yet to meet a kid who I didn’t believe was gifted in one way or another.

In fact, some of my most accomplished students were the ones for whom learning came the hardest. Their gift was not intellect but effort -  a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed.

Give me a student gifted in effort over a student gifted in intellect any day. 

I assume that every one of my students is gifted, and this assumption has served me well. When a teacher sets remarkably high expectations and demands more from his students than ever before, students perform better. The research on this is irrefutable. 

Yet history is littered with presumptuous, ignorant,  and arrogant educators who assumed that their students wouldn’t amount to much and were later proven wrong.

Albert Einstein. Helen Keller. Robert Strenberg. Thomas Edison. Louis Pasteur. Enrico Caruso. Ludwig Beethoven. Leo Tolstoy. Louisa May Alcott.

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Many more. Too numerous to count. Myself included.  

Each of these men and women were told by teachers that they were hopeless, half-witted, and doomed to a lives of mediocrity.

It turns out that it was the teachers who were hopeless, half-witted, and mediocre.

As a teacher, why not err on the side of gifted? Why not assume the best? Expect the best. Demand the best. Give students the chance to shine by assuming that they can and will shine.   

3. Why promote an adversarial relationship with parents?

If a parent thinks that their child is gifted, and you – for whatever reason – disagree, why not find some middle ground?

Yes, it’s entirely possible that your child is gifted, and if he begins working to his fullest potential, we may start to see more evidence of that. Let’s find a way to make that happen.

There’s no reason to quash a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child. The teacher-parent relationship is one of the best tools available in my teaching arsenal. When it is strong and trusting, learning increases. Behavior improves. But that relationship only exists because I understand how parents feel about their children, and I embrace those feelings.  

Yes, your child is gifted. I’m not sure about the scope of that giftedness, but let’s get your child working as hard as possible and find out together.

That strikes me as a more productive and respectful position than the smarmy “You’re child isn’t as gifted as you think” response that so many teachers who responded to my initial piece seemed to default to.  

Every child in my classroom is someone else’s whole world. I try to remember this at all times. When I do, it’s never too hard to see every child in my classroom as gifted in some way.

“Fun” is the word most often missing from education today. It’s practically nonexistent.

I have many goals as a teacher, but my primary goal, is to make school a fun and memorable place that kids want to return to daily.

I want my students to despise Saturday and Sunday.

I want them to lament the approach of summer vacation.

Lofty and perhaps unattainable goals, but ones I strive for daily.   

If my students love school, I have won.

To that end, I have an endless array of strategies to make every day a little different, a little special, and most of all, fun for my students.

I believe that “fun” is the word most often missing in education today. I believe that if teachers sought to make the school day more fun for their students, learning would increase exponentially.


A few months ago, I received a note from a student that let me know that I was on the path of accomplishing my goal this year, at least for her.   

Dear Mr. Dicks, 

As you can tell I am not here today. I am out sick because I threw up many times. I was determined to go to school. . . Until I threw up again. Then I realized, “Oh no! I need to go to school. I really did. Something might happen when I’m not there! Something always happens!” My mom told me I should stay home, but I told her what you always say. . . "You never know what you could miss out on if you miss school!" Then I threw up again. So I guess I’m staying home. Don’t do anything too fun today. Please?

Cost effective way of attending college

The New York Times recently ran a piece on the soaring cost of college:

For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.

NPR offered this visual of the increasing costs of higher education:


With justifiable concern over the high cost of a college degree, I find myself constantly reminding people that there are alternatives to the traditional accumulation of debt in pursuit of a college diploma, including the slightly unorthodox path that I took to college.

I began my college career at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT at the age of twenty-three. I stated college later than most, primarily because the path to secondary education had never been made apparent to me.  Throughout my childhood and during my entire high school career, the word college was never once uttered to me. Not by parents, not by teachers, and not by guidance counselors. For reasons that I will never understand, it was universally determined at an early age that I was not college material. 

So even though I graduated in the top 5% of my high school class, I found myself rudderless and lost after graduation with no plan for the future. I quickly moved out of my childhood home, a process that had begun two years earlier when my parents gave me bath towels, flatware and a microwave oven for my birthday (making it clear what they expected of me), and embarked on a five year journey of difficulty and heartache that ultimately led me back to school.

I attended Manchester Community College for two years, earning an Associates degree in liberal arts. I have attended three other colleges and universities since my days in Manchester, earning degrees at each one, but the best education I ever received was at MCC.   

After graduating from MCC, I enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Trinity accepted all but one of my community college credits, meaning that I effectively received two years of Trinity College credit at a community college price.

At the time, tuition at Trinity was about $38,000 per year.

The cost of my two years of community college? Less than $5,000.

A savings of more than $70,000 for the two years.

As a result of my academic performance (top 5% of the class again) and involvement in the MCC community (President of the Honor Society, member of student council, a Truman Scholarship finalist), I was offered immediate acceptance and a sizable scholarships at a number of outstanding schools in the area, including Yale University, but I opted for Trinity College for a number of reasons.

Most important, Trinity was only about fifteen minutes away from home and work. While attending MCC and Trinity, I worked about 50 hours a week managing a McDonald’s restaurant, launching my DJ business and tutoring in the writing center on campus, so proximity to home and work was critical if I was going to succeed.

Trinity also had a program that specifically catered to non-traditional students. Though it did not change my course work in any way, Trinity’s IDP program was designed to help integrate the non-traditional student into campus life as much as possible, and the program made me feel more welcomed and accepted than any of the other colleges I was considering.

Trinity was also a member of the Greater Hartford Consortium of Colleges, affording me access to a number of colleges in the greater Hartford area. This allowed me to earn a degree in English from Trinity while simultaneously earning a teaching degree at St. Joseph’s College, an all-women’s school in neighboring West Hartford that had a solid reputation for turning out excellent teachers. Thus I earned two degrees at two different institutions for the price of one.

Enormous savings.

I attended Trinity College (and St. Joseph’s College) for a total of three years, meaning that I spent a total of five years in college while most traditional students spent four. But I graduated with two degrees (three if you count my Associates degree from MCC), making the extra year well worth it.

I received a number of scholarships from Trinity based upon my academic performance at MCC (another enormous benefit of attending community college first), but I was still responsible for well over half the cost of tuition during those three years of school. I paid for this with student loans, Pell grants, and personal savings, graduating with about $16,000 in debt.

Don’t get me wrong. $16,000 is a lot of money, but it’s not an overwhelming amount of money when paid off over time. Six months after graduating, my loan payments amounted to less than $300 a month.

Absent any parental support or college savings, the cost of a college education could have been astronomical for me. Paying the full cost of four years at Trinity College without the benefit of scholarships would have left me with a debt exceeding $100,000. Though I certainly had to make sacrifices in order to earn my college degree, I did so without crippling my financial future.

While it would have been wonderful to attend college immediately after high school and live on campus for four years, this was simply not a possibility for me after high school. I did things a little differently, and though it set me back by at least five years in comparison to my peers, I also feel like I was much better prepared for college when I finally made my dream a reality. I had spent the previous five years before college struggling immeasurably. I had been homeless, jobless, penniless and had experienced the crushing sadness that comes with the belief that you have no way of making your dreams a reality. When I entered my first college classroom in the fall of 1994, I was ready to work and prepared to excel.

There are many roads to college. Some are easier than others. Some are costlier than others. The crippling debt that so many students graduate with today is not required in order to be successful. It is a choice that is made by students who do not want to compromise on their road to higher education. I respect their decision. I sometimes wish I had made the same decision. But the crushing debt that follows graduation should not come as a surprise. A college education has a cost attached to it, and that cost is made clear before a person ever signs a student loan agreement.  

I remind my students almost every day that anyone can find a way to pay for college, regardless of their family’s financial means. All they need is the desire to succeed and the willingness to work.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.