When Betsy DeVos became Secretary, she left the board of Neurocore but did not give up her multimillion dollar financial investment. Ulrich Bosera signed up for Neurocore services in Palm Beach, Florida.


He describes what happened to him, then concludes:

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.

[Betsy DeVos wants “choice” for special needs kids. In Asia, we saw what that can mean.]

Brain training companies use the veneer of science to promise effortless fixes. In the case of Neurocore, the firm claims that the intervention is “easy,” just a matter of watching TV in its offices a couple of times a week. Other companies peddle games, promising that some online diversions can boost intellect.

But as I wrote in my book on the science of learning, gaining expertise of any kind is difficult. Indeed, some researchers, such as psychologist Lisa Son, believe that more difficult forms of learning are better forms of learning. This explains why quizzing yourself has been shown to be far more effective than re-reading at helping people understand and retain information: It makes the learning experience a little more strenuous.

The same is true for treating cognitive disorders such as ADHD or anxiety: Interventions that work typically cause some personal strain. Effective treatments are often emotionally difficult (like talk therapy), require a lot of personal investment (like behavior modification), come with uncomfortable side effects (like Ritalin) or simply take time (like working out). This makes promises of “fun” and “easy” solutions seem tone-deaf at best, cruel at worst.

Still, scared and anguished parents, hunting for hope, will open their wallets, even if an approach has little scientific support. “A lot of times in autism, families are so desperate for an answer, they literally will take a website as evidence” for a treatment, Tom Frazier, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, told me. “It’s very concerning.”

In his book “Autism’s False Prophets,” pediatrician Paul Offit goes further, pointing out that unproven claims do more than fritter away time and money. They can injure both the healthy and the already sick. “The false alarm about vaccines and autism continues to harm a lot of children,” Offit writes. “Harm from not getting needed vaccines, harm from potentially dangerous treatments to eliminate mercury, and harm from therapies as absurd as testosterone ablation and electric shock.”

I’ll admit that before I stepped into Neurocore, I had little intention of signing up for the company’s treatment. I had read too many articles skeptical of brain training to think that I should pay for its services. But it took talking to experts and a visit to Florida to discover that the firm was also hurtful — a Trump University for people with cognitive struggles. By wrapping weak science in sleek packaging, by promising something that it cannot fully deliver, Neurocore offers false hope to people who need honest help. In this regard, what’s most remarkable is that DeVos, the nation’s foremost pedagogue, is behind it all, promoting a form of education that doesn’t actually seem to educate.