It’s an open secret that Donald Trump and his administration are not friends of public education. His choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has scant understanding of, and even less appreciation for, the contributions that public schools, imperfect though they are, have made to our nation.
And while I hope you are registered to vote and are supporting progressive candidates who can take back our country, gaining control of both Houses of Congress won’t be enough to make America respected again. We must make major changes in the basic structure of our public schools because schools are partially responsible for the fix we are in. Not the changes Secretary DeVos wants, but radical changes nonetheless.
Because, irony of ironies, it was public education’s deeply flawed “sorting” machine that helped Trump get elected. Let’s start with who would have won the 2016 presidential election. Approximately 130 million voters went to the polls in 2016. Clinton received 65,844,954 votes to Trump’s 62,979,8790, but more than 100,000,000 Americans of voting age did not cast ballots. In fact, if “not voting” had been a choice, it would have won the popular vote in every presidential election since at least 1916. While many thousands of adults have been disenfranchised by virtue of criminal records, Americans generally have a bad habit of not voting. The turnout in what we like to believe is “the world’s greatest democracy” generally hovers around 53 to 54 percent. It has dipped below 50 percent three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote.
Who are these non-voters? Rather than scorning them for their indifference, I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. Feeling that they have no stake in our government, they don’t vote. And why should they? Schools taught them that they were insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down and stay uninvolved.
Yes, I am holding public schools at least partly responsible for low voter turnout, because public education, an efficient sorting machine, is undemocratic to its core. Schools sort young children in two basic groups: a minority of “winners” who are placed on a track leading them to elite colleges, prominence, and financial success–and everyone else. While the majority aren’t labeled “losers” per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated, and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society. Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort that is almost always led by the now grown-up “winners” from their school days?
Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, schools have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as “winners” bound for college or “losers” headed somewhere else.
Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” may have made matters worse. In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement—as measured by student test scores. Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations. This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and continued throughout the Bush and Obama Administrations. What I call “regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.
This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce the results our nation claims to desire. Scores on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate. For example, a survey reveals that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of U.S. senators.
Reducing kids to test scores has produced millions of high school graduates who did not develop the habits of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passions. Largely because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. This is not the fault of their teachers, because decisions about how schools 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.
But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called “the poorly educated,” but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not “poorly educated,” “undereducated,” or “uneducated.” They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so facts and figures can be regurgitated back on tests.
The sorting process used in schools has another result: it produces elitists (in both political parties) who feel superior to the largely invisible “losers” from their school days. Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 presidential election. Candidate Clinton’s calling Trump supporters “A bucket of deplorables” was a gaffe that probably cost her the election. However, in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her schools had identified her as a “winner,” one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she would not identify with the people who had been energized by Donald Trump. Most pundits, reporters, pollsters, and politicians fell into the same trap.
Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but we must learn to postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?” Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?” That may strike some as a steep hill to climb, but it’s essentially the question that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently, asking, “What is Susan interested in?” “What gets George excited?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?” Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world. And a larger supply of informed voters.
While the country can survive four—perhaps eight—years of Donald Trump, our democracy must have schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.
(I expand upon these themes at greater length in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.)