President Trump and Public Education

A popular explanation for Donald Trump’s surprising victory has to do with a widespread failure to pay attention to working class whites and their economic dislocation, the result of a changed economy, technology and governmental policies that favored the poor and the non-white.  Campaigning as a populist, he rode that wave of discontent to victory on November 8th.

While that is undoubtedly part of the explanation, I believe we should also be looking at another important cause: The low expectations that schools have had for students since “A Nation at Risk.”  That 1983 report’s dire warnings about “a rising tide of mediocrity” frightened us, and in response, we put all our eggs in the basket of student achievement–as measured by student test scores.  For years now, we have practiced what I call “Regurgitation Education” with the goal of raising test scores.  This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.

Reducing kids to numbers has produced several generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion.  (Ironically, many of the millions of kids who dropped out without completing the full 12 years of indoctrination may be better off, because they avoided the groupthink of conformist education.)

Because children live up or down to our expectations, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. Mind you, I am not faulting teachers, because decisions about how schools should operate are not made in classrooms.  It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else.

Our schools, and the people who run them, are set up to sort. Essentially, they ask about each child “How intelligent are you?” (using test scores as the measure). They then divide children into groups, essentially ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ with most children falling into the latter category.

Rather than learning how to learn (and learning to love learning), most young people have been expected to give back the right answers and put in the seat time, for which they are rewarded with a piece of paper called a diploma. However, never having participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship, are they graduating from school prepared for life in a democracy?  Or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians?  Can they weigh claims and counter claims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s and their own self-interest, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

The election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, after a campaign of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, nativism, anti-intellectualism and denial of science, is proof positive that we are now paying the price for having denied generations of children an education built on inquiry and respect for truth.

The country can survive four years of Donald Trump, but our democracy cannot afford schools that fail to respect and nurture our children. It is within our power to create schools that ask of each child “How are you intelligent?” and then allow and encourage them to follow their passion.  If we fail to change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.

22 thoughts on “President Trump and Public Education

  1. You are right on target as usual John, Low test scores=failure=low paying jobs= poverty=childhood stress for kids=low test scores= etc etc and no one learns to think deeply and question. The design is not an accident


  2. John, I agree that part of what led to Mr. Trump’s victory was an over-emphasis on test scores. You and I also agree about the value of helping each youngster learn how she/he is “smart” or what her/his talents, special skills may be.

    However, as you know, the St. Paul Open School, a k-12 district option in St. Paul, Mn begin in fall 1971 – more than a decade before “A Nation at Risk.”

    Open School was a strong advocate of personalized learning – of helping each youngster learn about their special gifts/talents, etc, and honoring youngsters for what made them special. The school was a strong advocate of combining classroom work with community service, of using the entire world as a place to learn, of close collaboration between educators, community and families, of multiple forms of assessments. This included a “competency based” approach to graduation with the vast majority of requirements tied to actual real world demonstrations of things like the ability to provide service to the community, or show that you knew how to be a careful consumer, or that you knew how to provide first aid in key situations, etc. etc.

    From the beginning Open School encountered significant opposition from colleges of education – many of which refused to allow students to “student teach” at the school, despite great interest. There is a rigidity among some in colleges of education toward innovation developed by people working day to day with students.

    We also encountered opposition from many other educators. They did not like the idea of offering options to families – even options within a district.

    In sum, there was considerable opposition by some in teacher preparation programs and some working in K-12 schools to offering a progressive approach to education as an option. There was considerable opposition to providing an option that encouraged thinking about how to analyze and then solve problems, and to actually test those ideas by trying to solve real problems (air pollution, hunger, questionable decisions by news media, lack of respect for people of different races, etc etc).

    Al Shanker wrote in 1988 that k-12 teachers who tried to create new options within public education often were “treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move outside the lockstep.” He was right.

    So while I agree that an over-emphasis on test scores (and not enough appreciation for helping each youngster learn how she/he is talented) is part of the problem, I think it’s important to acknowledge and challenge the intense opposition within education to offering options and progressive approaches to learning.


  3. That curricula have narrowed, that there is an outsized emphasis on test scores, on getting the “right answer,” that there is a reductionist approach to education, etc. – all of this has been foisted on public schools by elected officials and non-elected influence peddlers (Gates, Waltons, Broad, etc). It is part and parcel of the policies and philosophy that have captivated both major parties. Schools have little power (or resources) to change on their own. There has to be a bigger movement, as Naomi Klein describes here, to change what is being done to our children and our teachers.


    • Naomi Klein (who you recommended) insists that Secretary Clinton’s message was “all is well.” It’s hard for me to understand how a person could have listened to Secretary Clinton and think that was her message.

      Also having worked in and with schools for 45 years, I strongly disagree with the assertion that “schools have little power or resources to change on their own.” Yes, schools exist within cultural expectations and legal requirements. But there are a vast array of public schools in this country, using a wide variety of philosophies (Montessori to Core Knowledge to project based). Educators have far more power than you suggest.

      I don’t think failure of many schools is the only reason Trump won. But I think the failure of many schools to help students understand what they can do well and help students see how they can make a positive difference contributed to the fact that there are millions of deeply frustrated Americans. Those people unfortunately were receptive to the simplistic assertions, anti immigrant and anti “other” message that Trump presented.


  4. One of the real ironies, John, is that A Nation at Risk wasn’t simply alarmist — it was wrong. The US is still, by far, the world’s leader in innovation, finance and in most if not all areas in which the report’s writers warned we were destined to be overtaken. It wasn’t as intentionally misleading as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but it was wrong and the consequences have been just as disastrous.

    The risks our society are facing today, however, are very real — and they have nothing to do with the “academic outcomes” that reformers have been obsessing about ever since A Nation at Risk. Our real risks are environmental and socio-political and our doubling and tripling down on test scores has made it all but impossible to address these risks through public education. The election exposed the risk and the results have driven it home. We can change this, but only if we can wrest the focus of accountability from narrow measures of academic progress to the more important measures of what will truly help us all survive in the 21st century. What good will it do for our schools on the coasts to rock the tests if they’re under water in 30 years?


    • We agree. However, I don’t think Washington has a clue, whether GOP or Democrats. The solutions will be found at the local level and perhaps by a few visionary state leaders, IMHO


    • Environmental and socio-political are polysyllabic smoke that obscures the stupidity of “build a wall” or “throw them out” or “keep out Muslims,” since the wall, the throw, and the Muslims are all contestable in both city, state, and federal legislatures, courts and executives, and will, most surely, go longer then four years in their contest. It is such polysyllabic obfuscation that lets naive rhetoric obscure real and substantial progress in local and state circles. There have been many, many options to mitigate test results as the exclusive metric of student “performance.” There are many, many ways of organizing and inspiring student creativity other than texts and tests. And technology like this report, your response, and my response to yours are emblematic of many new ways for us on the coast to mitigate or subvert the ignorance of the inland islands of idiocy. We’d better do it soon, as you note, or we’ll be swimming in their excrescence.


  5. John – as usual, your observations and comments are very insightful and in this post you are right on the mark. The discrepancy in voting between college-educated and non college-educated whites was remarkable – and frightening.


  6. Sadly John, although it hurts (since I was involved with the writing of “A Nation at Risk”), I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say here. My wife Anne doesn’t care at all for all the school-bashing we get. But she said in the middle of the campaign that if she has one criticism of schools it’s that too many graduates are so badly informed or completely uninformed about what’s going on in the world. We watched a video just this week in which one college student after another couldn’t identify Joe Biden or Ronald Reagan but every one of them identified Kim Kardashian in an instant. (And behaved as though that entitled them to extra credit!)

    “Regurgitation” education? Yes. Pithy and on point. I’ll “tweet” this blog and try to get it into one of the Roundtable’s upcoming newsletters.


    James Harvey
    National Superintendents Roundtable


  7. John,

    You are the first I’ve seen, in print, to advance this premise. I’ve been thinking it for some time as well. Perhaps this is the first major consequence of a couple of generations of truly bad policy about schooling and assessment. There’s more going on here than just disaffected older white guys.

    Have you read George Packer’s The Unwinding from a couple years back?


    Curtis Johnson


  8. We have what you call authoritarian education because it serves the authoritarians! As long as education is controlled by local school boards, authoritarians will prevail. What we have serves their purpose.

    Change threatens even the most stable of human beings. Flipping education from teacher centered to learner centered is the most radical of changes. For many it flies in the face of their common sense and their own experiences. Even demonstrating that learner centered approaches are more successful is not enough. And measures of success will be difficult to obtain and present, and raise issues of believability, something at the core of Trump’s campaign. As an aside, it now appears that Trump’s call for change was really a call for the end of change, a return to the old ways, yes the authoritarian ways.

    It could be that the technological age will bring about this change with or without adult consent ( 🙂 ). Children will have access to the technology and learn on their own. Maybe not the best way, but at least a pathway.


  9. Larry
    I know you have served on a school board, and so I am reluctant to disagree with you, but I have no faith in change coming from the top (Washington), and history suggests that most state leaders are reluctant to do what their state constitutions mandate: be in charge. So that leaves school boards, parents and community members.
    The gist of my forthcoming book is that change is essential on many levels (Subtitle: “A 12-Step Program to Rescue American Education”), and that complex process simply cannot be led from DC. While I wouldn’t rely on school boards to do all or most of the work, they have to be deeply involved.


    • Well, if it is the hands of local school boards, we are in deep trouble. Some will perform admirably, some miserably. And most… mediocrity ! A bell curve if you will 😉

      Board members reflect their communities. They must be incentivized to demand better outcomes and educated about how to achieve those outcomes.

      And there will be a lot of people who be unbelievers.

      I look forward to your book and exploring ways to accomplish better things for children. It will need to be a multidimensional effort, all beginning at the same time.


  10. I beg to differ. I taught both AP chemistry and environmental science. While I strongly disapprove of federal programs like Common Core and No Child Left Behind (education policy should be left up to the states, not the federal government), I do believe that a good standardized tests (like the SAT and the AP tests) very effectively measure skills that students need to succeed both as college students and citizens. I also believe that teachers that feel “constrained” by these good tests either lack the imagination to cover the objectives in a way that stimulates interest or simply cannot handle the fact that equal treatment results in unequal outcomes (Sorry, not everyone can be a doctor or electrical engineer). This critique does not apply to teachers under the yoke of No Child Left Behind because this policy resulted in a dumbing down of the curricula to comply with a dumbed down test. Those teachers have my condolences. As for those who want to dismiss the value of the SAT, you can rant all you want, but high SAT scores predict high achievement in college. You don’t believe me? Here is the scatterplot:


    • Correct, I don’t believe you. Tests predict priviledge and don’t get back to teachers until 4 months later rendering them meaningless. Those who have childhood stress that actually slows the brain then do poorly on a singular test due to the addition of stress. Fail into oblivion and get lesser jobs and the cycle continues.

      More important, teachers never see the tests until it’s too late to use them for planning.

      SAT’s in college? Of course because colleges determine success by test taking similar to SAT’s That’s why we have the tea party. The ability to take a test lacking the ability to do critical hands on thinking. We used to call it book learned without a lick of common sense. Students must give the answers educators tell them to give. The right answers on the SAT’s While maintaining a brain that is flatlined.

      This allows the cycle of failure to exist. I call it the slavery based system of education. Designed by Thomas Jefferson to rake a few geniuses from the rubbish and throw the rubbish into the streets. Why? As George Carlin says, “they don’t want people who can think, they want people just dumb enough to run the machines” Of course when the machines are run by technology, that whole class of people are left without an education of value. And the good test takers control while everyday people get thrown into the streets like rubbish


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s