Did Public Schools Elect Trump? Will They Re-elect Him?

Our democratic republic is at risk, and I think our public schools are partially responsible.  Its elaborate sorting system has turned out too many adults who resent rather than value our nation and our struggle to create a more perfect union. 

While many of these adults voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I believe that many more did not bother to vote at all….and may in fact not even be registered to vote.

This is not new.  If “Not Voting” were looked upon as a choice (candidate), it would have won the popular vote in every Presidential election since at least 1916.  Only three times in the 15 Presidential elections since 1960 have more than 60% of the voting age population gone to the polls.  The turnout in what we like to believe is the world’s greatest democracy generally hovers around 53-54%. It has dipped below 50% three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1% of the voting age population bothered to vote.

Who are these non-voters? Should we scorn them for their indifference? Don’t they understand how many of their fellow Americans have died protecting their freedom and their right to vote?  Surely we can agree that not voting is deplorable behavior?

Not so fast.  I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. They do not feel that they have a stake in our government, so why should they vote? They were schooled to see themselves as insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down, stay uninvolved, and do their best to make ends meet.

I hold public schools at least partly responsible for our consistently low voter turnout, because public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core.  Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest 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 led by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? (It would take a candidate who understood their resentment to arouse them….which happened in 2016.)

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,” 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—those test scores again.  This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  “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. (And the state of Tennessee just affirmed this approach for its current students!)

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce results.  Scores on the 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 US Senators.

Reducing kids to test scores has produced 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. 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.  Did they graduate 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 counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

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 it 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 called her opponent’s supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables,’ and that gaffe probably cost her the election.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her school 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 let’s 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!

The challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is reach beyond the traditional party constituency and embrace those who have been neglected by schools and other institutions.  They need to believe that America belongs to them.

And going forward, our democracy must create more public 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.

5 thoughts on “Did Public Schools Elect Trump? Will They Re-elect Him?

  1. John
    I continue to maintain that our schools have failed to educate citizens who can think, who can think for themselves, who can think critically, who can work together collaboratively to solve problems and who will take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions. Until or unless we remedy this deplorable situation we will continue to have people who will make bad choices simply because they don’t know how to make an informed choice. Hope is on the horizon in some schools and in some communities but we need more widespread change and the sooner the better.


  2. Bravo, John. Here’s what I have to say to your blog: Y E S .

    American public schools have remained so much like their counterparts of 30, 50, and 70 years ago because there is an incredibly consistent through-line running from the highest policy circles right down to most classrooms and the ways teachers run them. The premises of that through-line reflect traditional thinking about how to organize and motivate people: largely through industrial-era theories of hierarchy, mandates, rule-following, compliance, carrots and sticks. That’s what most kids experience most days of their public education life. Why are we surprised when they grow up recognizing and valuing autocratic behavior rather than the messiness of democracy with its distributed responsibilities?

    The irony is that the rest of society has moved on. Companies and organizations worth their salt (and that have a future) have moved to different operating cultures that value empowering, enabling, and incentive structures based on mastery, autonomy, and purpose, rather than carrots and sticks. They shape their services and products around individual customers and clients, rather than insisting that those customers conform to what they want to offer. That’s how good hospitals work. That’s how so much that goes on outside of schools works.

    Gary is right, in his comment: there are plenty of examples of schools, districts, and CMOs (sorry, John but some of them are playing important roles as innovator-pioneers, after all) that have reimagined student success and are reinventing everything about how their students experience “school.” This can be done. The question and challenge is: how can this now reach millions of learners and thousands of communities in ways that aren’t crippled by our usual reductionist, dumbing-down, compliance-oriented scale-up processes.

    See this blog for more on that: https://www.nextgenlearning.org/articles/transformation-science-the-emerging-practice-of-next-gen-change-management

    And this one for more on what, exactly, this will take to bring it off: https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/next_gen_learning/2019/07/in_your_hands_lie_the_keys_to_igniting_next_gen_learning.html?r=634913679

    Thanks again. So well said. Our public schools can bring this off, and it’s the educators, this time around — not the policy folks, not the industrialists, and please not the psychometricians — who must and WILL lead the way.

    Andy Calkins


  3. School systems, by design, are a well structured cast system designed to educate the few while ignoring those students who don’t fit into the contrived parameters of what they call success.

    Envision a school where all children have equal access to a quality education taught in a way that is real to them, taken from “where they are” on their pathway to success at their best rate. Where learning opens doors to the dreams of every child, recognizing that no one will know where or when genius will unfold until it does.

    Imagine a school where assessment is not cheapened by the narrow scope of the standardized test but broadened to become a stepping stone for the whole child learning experience. A School where, as in life, learning is a constant flow of problem-solving experiences driven by the reality that failure is not only an option, but an integral tool, guiding students on their pathway to success. And where teachers are empowered to innovate in the best interest of their students.

    It is time for action! My contribution is a plan for systemic change in my new book “Stop Politically Driven Education”. At dot coms. therein is a total plan from top to bottom.


    • Excuse me Caplee, but it’s a “Caste system” not a cast system, and it’s elisions just like that that reveal the naivete of testing.

      In 1970 Caleb Gattegno, who would go on to over 100 other books on education, mathematics, and cognition, wrote What We Owe Children (now available at https://www.slideshare.net/educationalsolutions/what-we-owe-children-web-book), Gattegno had the revolutionary insight that babies could learn not only how to talk and argue, but how to structure a sentence, build a case, and handle verbal language (often in several different languages) within three to five years of their birth, with no pre-existing concept of language or communication at birth. He argued, quite compellingly, that if they learn that much without a formal teacher or a test or a set of external standards, our entire concept of education ignores their best skills and intuitive resources. Finally, he also argued quite compellingly that data recall, the kind of “thinking” that tests require, rely on our least reliable kind of memory, and that we remember problems solved far better, far longer, and to much more utility than parts of speech.

      In the US at least it’s just the “Silo Effect” of doing things the way “we always did them” rather than questioning those things for the next generation.


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