It was the first time that Ms. DeVos has offered her opinions on the quality of state plans under the new law, which freed states from the punitive and prescriptive federal mandates of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act.
But what Ms. DeVos called “tough love” policy experts and observers called the ultimate display of a frustrated federalist. The address, they said, is an example of a self-described education reformer wrestling with the limits of her influence in an agency whose power she wants to curtail.
“I think she’s having an identity problem,” said Sandy Kress, who served as senior education adviser to Mr. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act.
Mr. Kress noted that Ms. DeVos had been critical of her predecessors, calling Mr. Bush’s education law a “stick,” and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top policy, which incentivized state reform with cash, a “carrot.” But he noted that she had not identified any tool that she would use to effect change in the nation’s schools.
“Being a federalist does not exclude you from the role of leadership,” Mr. Kress said. “She needs to stand for something, rather than showing up at a place like a regular citizen opining on things.”
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he believed that not since the administration of the elder George Bush has an education secretary been a true federalist. That education secretary was Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is now a senator. As the chief architect of ESSA, he ensured the “local control” components of the bill.
George W. Bush’s administration was so aggressive in driving education policy that Mr. Bush reset the expectation of conservative leadership in the department, Mr. Petrilli said.
“We’ve been conditioned for the last 30 years to expect a secretary of education to be out front on education reform, using various federal levers,” he said. “Betsy DeVos is trying to lead from behind.”
Ms. DeVos’s criticism of the state plans echoed that of several groups that say her office’s implementation of ESSA has been too lax.
Democrats and civil rights groups say Ms. DeVos has approved state education plans that do not properly measure the performance of minority students, an allegation she denies. But in her speech, she mentioned the fact that several governors, the majority of them Republican, had refused to sign the plans their states submitted to her office because of what they saw as lackluster achievement goals.
“Just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students,” Ms. DeVos told the chiefs. “Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won’t pass muster around kitchen tables.”
Education chiefs bristled at Ms. DeVos’s assessments, which they saw as painting them with too broad a brush.
“All states are doing far more than Sec. DeVos recognized,” tweeted Matthew Blomstedt, the education commissioner in Nebraska, a state whose governor refused to sign its ESSA plan. “She delivered a ‘tough love’ speech that demonstrated why the USDOE is out of touch with the good things actually happening in states and schools.”
Policy experts agreed with the substance of the speech, but said it was too little, too late.
“She should look in the mirror,” said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm that led a group of policy experts in an independent review of plans last year. “There were several points in time she could have shared her concerns and improved plans.”
All plans have been submitted, and 35 have been approved. In announcing the batches of approvals, Ms. DeVos noted only that they complied with the law.
Ms. DeVos had signaled unwavering support for the autonomy under the ESSA law, and even issued a pared-down template for states to complete following a vote by Congress last year to rescind regulations that specified accountability measures in the law. But since then, she has not used much of her power over budgets, guidance documents or even a public relations campaign to promote opportunities for innovation and specificity under ESSA, critics say.
“She lowered the bar, they met it, and now she seems frustrated by that,” Mr. Aldeman said.
Ms. DeVos told state chiefs that they met the lowest bar — compliance — and that many plans fell short of furthering ESSA’s primary goals of innovation in educational programming to lift student achievement, as well as increasing transparency about school performance.
For example, she said, only two states, Louisiana and New Mexico, opted into a program that allowed them to use millions in otherwise restricted federal dollars to provide new educational programs, like online courses, for struggling schools.
She also said that some states “proposed accountability schemes that were so complicated, schools would be accountable to no one.” In one case, she said, a state “took a simple concept like a color-coded dashboard and managed to make it nearly indecipherable.”
In her speech, Ms. DeVos praised “bright spots,” like Nevada, whose state education chief, Steve Canavero, said he was encouraged by the speech.
“The core message I heard is a message that I continue to hear from the other folks who are in the bleachers of the education space: You have to continually think about ways to innovate, and think about ways to best serve kids,” Mr. Canavero said.
Ms. DeVos reiterated that she would not fall into “the trap of a top-down approach” of her predecessors.
“The Department of Education doesn’t write laws, it implements them,” she said. “Congress did its job. We’re doing ours. And now, you get to do yours.”