Education in the Trump Presidency

After a shocking end to the 2016 election, faculty experts assess the future

November 10, 2016
photo of election 2016 pin

As Donald Trump prepares to become the 45th president of the United States, the implications for education remain uncertain. We asked Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty to share thoughts and reactions to the election, during which Republicans maintained control of the House and Senate and — in an important local contest — a ballot question to expand the cap on charter schools was rejected by voters.

James Ryan, Dean of the Graduate School of Education:

In the coming days and weeks, we have the opportunity to show that the anger, bitterness, and divisiveness of this campaign do not define us. We can choose to remain hopeful and to continue our shared work to change the world for the better. None of us knows exactly what the future will hold, but one thing is clear — we all have a vital role to play in shaping it. The need to improve the state of education in this country has never been more important, and we must remain committed to that work.

Irvin Scott, Senior Lecturer on Education:

Across the country, students, teachers, principals, and staff members are helping each other make sense of the mix of raw emotions happening in communities, schools, and classrooms in the wake of the 2016 election. What makes this election especially difficult is that there are many feeling pain and loss, and others feeling jubilation and euphoria. To move forward, there must be a safe, and respectful, space for both — and therein lies a challenge.

I’ve been here before. I remember being a principal during the first anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. As a leader, I had to maintain the focus on teaching and learning, while creating an environment for those grieving. Locally here in Boston, educators are taking steps to strike this balance too. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang sent a letter to parents stating that the schools were committed to helping students and the community take advantage of this teachable moment.

As our nation and society faces these types of events and challenges, it is important to mark them as educators. I think the worst thing educators can do is act like nothing happened. Schools are a place where students live to learn, but also learn to live. And ignoring the environmental conditions that impact our lives is not learning to live. Nor is it helping us move forward or break out of our respective “bubbles."

We have been hearing that many people voted the way they did out of feelings of fear and frustration, and it is apparent that at the heart of the issue is the fact that we don’t understand each other well. I saw my home state, Pennsylvania, go from Blue to Red this election — and I am not sure I have a firm grasp on why. We need more conversations across colors — and not just those signifying political parties. Many view the election of Trump as a slap in the face, the latest in a long line of refusals to acknowledge historical inequalities, as well as systemic racial and economic injustices. We need to actively discuss those sentiments, and get those feelings out in the open if we have any hope of truly finding solutions.

We cannot just surround ourselves with those who are like-minded, or like-opinionated. What if, for example, there was a space where people felt comfortable sharing together why they voted for Donald Trump, or vice versa? That safe space is not likely to be on social media, but perhaps our schools and communities could facilitate those bridges. It could go a long way in helping us understand one another. We have to start somewhere, and that place is in connecting with each other.

There are those who are benefiting from perpetuating divisions in our nation with their rhetoric. We can sit around and complain about it, or we can do something. Let us choose the latter. For until we fix this, we’ll never live out our full potential as individuals or a “United” States of America.

Thomas Kane, Walter H. Gale Professor of Economics and Education:

As the mushroom cloud of uncertainty settles on Washington, D.C., educators should understand that the game moved out of Washington a year ago. The federal government handed the reins of K–12 education reform back to state and local leaders with the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015.

We will soon see whether governors, state commissioners, school boards, and district leaders are ready to step up and accept the challenge. For instance, some will take the failure of the charter cap increase in Massachusetts as a mandate to increase state spending on traditional public schools. However, it remains to be seen which reform measures (if any) Governor Baker and his supporters will attach to any such spending increase.

This spring, Massachusetts has an opportunity to spark local innovation, when it submits a plan for implementing ESSA. For instance, it must choose whether to allocate all the federal dollars by formula, or ask districts to compete for some of those dollars by declaring what reforms those dollars would fund. At this moment in our history, we need state and local leaders to take the lead in education reform. Washington is down.

Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education:

After a very divisive presidential election campaign, educators have much work to do to strengthen the social fabric of America. Our work is critical to the future of this democracy. The divisive narrative used in this campaign by President-Elect Donald Trump included appeals to bigotry and suggestions that the political process was corrupt, that the elections might be rigged, that the media is biased, or that politicians are corrupt. These ideas are likely to have left an impression on the public, perhaps fueling cynicism about politics and about the democratic process, and undermining the trust in institutions and in one another, across lines of difference, that is essential for the functioning of representative democracy. This cynicism is potentially harmful to the future of our democracy.

Educators should work in earnest to help students develop the skills and dispositions essential to building this trust in one another, in our institutions, and in the democratic process and to repair the damage caused by this campaign. They should also help students understand that democratic politics, imperfect as they are, work best when people engage with the process, and not when they disengage. This is a tall order for our schools looking forward, to help build the civic agency of all of our students.

Of particular concern is the bigotry exploited by Trump’s campaign, which undermines the very idea that there is strength in our diversity. We should look to our schools to help all students develop the dispositions to recognize the strength that our diversity represents and to advance opportunities for all. We need to recommit to the civic mission of our schools and universities, so they help students gain the knowledge and the dispositions that make democracy work — in the acts of ordinary citizens, in how we relate to one another, in how we collaborate, and in how we take responsibility to improve the communities of which we are a part. This opportunity, indeed this requirement of citizenship — that we all engage in democratic politics, as equals — is the genius of democracy, a genius that public schools were created to help realize. The recent campaign has caused some harm to these basic ideas, and educators should work in earnest to repair this damage to the democratic fabric of our society.

Paul Reville, Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration:

(Excerpted from TES. Read the full piece here.)

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory is anathema to the education establishment in the U.S., especially to the teacher’s unions who worked tirelessly to defeat him. For other, less partisan educators, the prospect of a Trump Administration is a slightly scary enigma. It’s unclear where he’ll take us on education, how much of a priority education is on his agenda, and what kind of leaders he’ll appoint. After all, Trump has no track record on education, and during the campaign, evinced little interest in the subject of schooling. He sometimes even seemed confused about the federal role in education.

Like Hillary Clinton, Trump paid disappointingly scant attention to education issues on the campaign trail, perhaps fearing, as she did, the alienation of potential voters who were feverishly caught up in various “education wars” over “hot button” issues like charter schools, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and testing. Nonetheless, Trump eventually overcame his reluctance and with characteristic bluster came to articulate his education agenda which is ultimately and mostly about school choice as the elixir required to make American public education “great again.”

To be sure, Trump touched on other education issues briefly and confusingly in some cases:  “Common Core is a disaster,” the curriculum is “dumbed down,” schools are “crime ridden,” “bring education local,” cut the US Department of Education “way, way, way back,” end “creative spelling,” “estimation,” and “empowerment,” bring down “union walls,” and so forth. But the jewel in the crown and the only detailed plan he presented focused on a $20 billion plan to introduce much greater choice and competition into U.S. education via various incentives to the states.

Policy advocates and practitioners will likely be confused for some time as to the Trump Administration’s intentions for K–12 schooling. Obviously, there are other topics on the domestic and international scenes which will consume his immediate attention. In education, his leadership choices will begin to tell the story. Expect him to select unconventional leaders like Ben Carson, whose education views Trump has publicly lauded, and choice champions who see his presidency as their opportunity to break the education “monopoly” and transform education in America. 

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.