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Michael Stratford of Politico reported that Betsy DeVos has enlarged her stake in a controversial company called Neurocore, which claims that its biofeedback methods cure a range of ills, including ADD and autism.
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On her financial disclosure form, DeVos acknowledged that she has an investment in Neurocore worth between $5 million-$25 million. In her latest purchase, she added between $250,000-$500,000. She stepped down as a member of the board but was not required to sell her shares. According to the New York Times, she and her husband are the chief investors in the company.
It is bizarre that DeVos was not required to divest her holdings in this company, which is a direct conflict of interest with her role as Secretary of Education. She oversees the spending of billions of dollars for special education. She signed an agreement that she would do nothing to affect her financial involvement in this company, but that is insufficient. The Secretary of Education should not hold stock in a company whose value will be affected by decisions she will inevitably make.
The reviews of the company and its claims by outside experts raise questions about DeVos’s judgment. Her refusal to divest her holdings raise questions about her ethics.
The New York Times contacted medical experts to inquire about Neurocore and determined that none of its studies have been peer reviewed.
A review of Neurocore’s claims and interviews with medical experts suggest its conclusions are unproven and its methods questionable.
Neurocore has not published its results in peer-reviewed medical literature. Its techniques — including mapping brain waves to diagnose problems and using neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, to treat them — are not considered standards of care for the majority of the disorders it treats, including autism. Social workers, not doctors, perform assessments, and low-paid technicians with little training apply the methods to patients, including children with complex problems.
In interviews, nearly a dozen child psychiatrists and psychologists with expertise in autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., expressed caution regarding some of Neurocore’s assertions, advertising and methods.
The Washington Post sent a writer who had written a book on learning science to experience the program, then to check with medical experts. He was underwhelmed.
SO WHAT DOES IT SAY that our education secretary is backing Neurocore?
For one, it seems that feeble science doesn’t bother DeVos. The budget document released by her department on Tuesday emphasizes that education decisions should be informed by “reliable data, strong research, and rigorous evaluations.” But like her boss, President Trump, DeVos apparently isn’t one to let evidence get in the way of what she wants to do. A recent study of school vouchers by DeVos’s agency showed that one program dragged down math scores by as much as seven points. Still, DeVos champions voucher programs, dismissing her opponents this past week as “flat-earthers.”
We don’t yet have any indication that DeVos intends to introduce neurofeedback into the nation’s public schools. But her enormous investment in Neurocore is ethically inappropriate. It means she has a financial stake in a particular approach to education. Some brain training companies promote themselves specifically for the classroom, and a few K-12 schools have begun partnering with brain training companies. Oaks Christian School in California provides neurofeedback with the help of an outside vendor, and Universal Academy in Dallas recently signed a contract with the firm C8 Sciences (which promises that it “can close the achievement gap in low performing schools and enhance focus, memory, and self-control to greatly improve academic outcomes!”). For his part, Murrison denies that Neurocore has any plan to go into schools. But the company’s marketing clearly targets children — and their distressed parents.
And certainly the DeVos family has used its connections before to open doors for Neurocore. DeVos’s father-in-law owns the Orlando Magic, and the basketball team has hired a division of Neurocore “to reach performance levels not previously achieved,” according to the company. Quarterback Kirk Cousins’s brother works for Neurocore, and the Washington football player swears by neurofeedback. “I see brain training as being that next thing, the next frontier,” he says on one of the company’s promotional pages.
At the very least, DeVos appears to be dangerously naive about what it takes to help people learn — especially children with special needs.
He concluded that Neurocore is “a Trump University for people with cognitive struggles.”
Jan Resseger wrote in plain language that DeVos had invested in “quack medicine.”
It is a curious that a woman who is a multi-billionaire is still investing, still looking to get even richer. Five billion or so is not enough.
But it is downright alarming that the ethics officer at the U.S. Department of Education did not direct her to divest herself of her financial stake in this company, whose net worth is directly affected by the actions of the U.S. Secretary of Education.