Now What, Professor? Three Ways a Trump Presidency Could Be Good for American Education
by Jason Margolis - November 14, 2016
This commentary outlines three related ways that a Trump presidency could be very good for American education and how education professors can play a more important role in educational improvement.
As I write this, just hours after Donald Trump was declared president-elect of the United States, my social media feeds are lighting up with despair. Many of my friends and colleagues across the country on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are expressing deep anxiety, shock, and anger at the outcome of the election.
But these electoral results are what they are. The question is: Now what, professor? In this commentary, I outline three related ways that a Trump presidency could be very good for American education and how education professors can play a more important role in educational improvement.
A DISMANTLING OF THE TESTING-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
In many ways, a Trump presidency is a repudiation of the elitist two party political system. Over the past 30 years, both Democrats and Republicans have worked to centralize power and control over schools, teachers, and students through increasingly oppressive systems of rewards and punishments (see Margolis, Meese, & Doring, 2016). The prevailing narrative has been that the only way to close the achievement gap is to identify where racial minority children and those teaching them are lacking and do not meet standards, then targeting interventions to fix these students and teachers.
However, the evidence shows that each time the American government has doubled-down on these types of policies, the results have become worse. After Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core our schools are more segregated, the income and resource disparity is wider, and the school-to-prison pipeline has only expanded. In the reality of schools, this prevailing paradigm represents the deficit model of education cloaked in a hug. Moreover, the textbook-turned-testing industry, led by the publicly traded British company Pearson Education, has essentially colonized American classrooms in determining how our teachers are certified and students are evaluated.
Donald Trump has said he will get rid of Common Core and the excessive testing that accompanies it. This potential development provides an opportunity for American educators. What could a more local view of education look like? How might we examine students and teachers not through the lens of what they lack, but imagine them for the potential they have to offer? Pursuing the answers to these questions is long overdue in the education field and we should embrace this moment as an opportunity needing to be seized.
A SIGNIFICANT REFORM OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BUT NOT AN ABOLISHMENT
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has also mentioned getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), though this has not been one of his primary campaign promises. Instead, I believe he is tapping into the justified sentiment against those who are making national education decisions as being too far removed from the actual spaces where the impact of these decisions are lived. Instead, he proposes giving back control to the states and other local entities.
A potentially significant reshuffling of resources associated with educational research, development, and reform implementation provides the possibility for a much-needed breakup of the failed monopoly that has governed this sector over the past 30 years. Increasingly during this time period, the DOE funding sham has gone something like this: (a) a couple of high-level bureaucrats insert language around funding priorities (e.g., Must demonstrate impact on student achievement as measured by test scores); (b) review boards are constructed of elite insiders seeking to maintain positionality for themselves and a small circle of friends; and (c) a narrowing slice of funding is consumed by a decreasing number of educational elites who have created, and personally benefit from, this system.
The results have been catastrophic as we have traded individuality and innovation for standardization and conformity. Many of our best teachers leave this mind-numbing educational system and many students individual greatness goes unnoticed and unseen, even becoming invisible.
Meanwhile, educational researchers continue to chase these grants and seek publication of their work in tier one peer-reviewed journals. If read by anyone, this research is mainly read by colleagues who funded the research, or those who managed to get their name included as third author. Tenure and promotion committees then skim these publications for impact factor. Advancements in learning theory make little or no impact on educational policy, let alone educational practice.
In April, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) held its annual meeting in Washington, DC; a city where, ironically, educational researchers could not be more irrelevant. As we swallowed our per diem meal allotments, no one from the top educational decision makers listened to what we uttered. A Trump presidency provides an opportunity to shake up this failed system. An emphasis on greater local control provides a paradigm shift that could enable educational researchers to have more impact. Specifically, the DOE could encourage a diversity of projects, outcomes, and methodologies. It could also foster community engagement, innovation, and the praxis of theory-in-action in the milieu of communities and schools.
A RE-DEFINING OF EXCEPTIONALISM IN EDUCATION
American teachers and students are trapped in a cycle of proving their value instead of engaging in the imperfect process of teaching and learning. They are subject to value-added algorithms that determine whether they are successful; the same elitist failed statistical models that predicted Donald Trump would lose the electoral votes by a landslide. Meanwhile, schools of education have become complicit in this insanity, allowing themselves to become bogged down with rubrics and matrices. This drains innovative and collaborative thinking in exchange for compliance with paper-pushing accreditors who have justified their existence by buying into the DOEs funding schemes.
Under a Trump presidency, there is an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive and diverse view of what is exceptional in education. Now is a moment to remind ourselves that one reason making America exceptional is that it does not have one standard for exceptionalism. There will never be enough boxes on a matrix, questions on a test, or pre-packaged and well-marketed curricula of research-based practices to encompass the greatness of who Americans are and, just as importantly, who we are to become in a fast-changing world.
I share the concerns of many of my friends and education professor colleagues who fear the continued rise of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. We must be vigilant, if not militant, against these evils.
But we also must acknowledge that a Trump presidency is what our country has chosen through its beautiful and imperfect democratic system. As an educational field and community, let us embrace this opportunity to break our cycle of irrelevancy. We can dismantle the failed policies of hyper-centralization and, perhaps most importantly, move out of our often-privileged zip codes, offices, and endless box-checking meetings to more meaningfully engage in local communities and schools. These are places where both high theory and national standards are often deconstructed moment-to-moment. By not having this level of engagement, we have clearly been missing something very important and real.
Margolis, J., Meese, A., & Doring, A. (2016). Do teachers need structure or freedom to effectively teach urban students? A review of the educational debate. Education and Urban Society. Advance online publication.