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Learning in the Trump Era

by Pedro A. Noguera
University of California, Los Angeles,
Los Angeles, California

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Education has not been a priority for the Trump administration, and this may be a good thing. Though he spoke about education during his campaign, and promised during the early days of his administration to promote alternatives to “government schools” (aka public schools), since taking office education has been a back burner issue. Like Obama, Trump has proclaimed that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, and though he never spelled out what that meant (neither did Obama) at the minimum, it suggested the issue would be a priority.

After a year in office it’s clear that other issues are more important: war (and threats of war), the economy, immigration (the wall?), hurricanes in Houston and Florida, investigations into Russian hacking of the 2016 election, and of course, healthcare. All of these issues have consumed so much of the President’s time and attention, there’s been little space left for what to do about reading, writing and arithmetic.

For those who have feared what the Trump administration might do to re-make education, neglect might be a good thing. Signs that education would be a low priority for the administration became clear when the administration announced its budget priorities in May and stated its desire to cut 9.25 billion dollars (13.5%) from the US Department of Education. With few resources at her disposal there’s little wonder why it’s been difficult for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s billionaire Secretary of Education, to drive the department in a direction consistent with her conservative, Christian values.

Of course, this doesn’t mean she isn’t trying, nor should we conclude that the US Department of Education (USDOE) has been completely dormant. Though it might appear as though she hasn’t accomplished much since her controversial appointment, there is a reason why she faces protests at many public appearances and now receives special protection from the U.S. Marshals Service, at an average cost (so far this year) of $1 million a month. She has used her bully pulpit to promote school choice, the conservative panacea for all that ills American education, even when the subject isn’t relevant to the audience she’s been invited to address. For example, at an appearance at historically black Bethune-Cookman University, where many of the students turned their backs on her, she went so far as to assert that historically black colleges and universities were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”; an odd claim given that these institutions were founded precisely because blacks were barred from attending white colleges.

Such misstatements are of course less consequential than the actions she would like to take and has taken at the Department of Education if she could get her way. Though Republicans criticized the Obama administration (and to some degree the Bush administration) for infringing upon states’ rights through policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, under DeVos the US Department of Education has tried to have it both ways; claiming they want to reduce the role of the federal government in mandating education policy to the states, while also attempted to use ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), to influence state policies related to standards and accountability.

The USDOE, like many other departments in the Trump administration, has yet to fill many key posts. Those that have gone through have raised eyebrows and ire in some quarters. She appointed a woman who opposed affirmative action to lead the Office for Civil Rights (Candice Jackson), then on September 2nd she announced that she would appoint a former Dean at DeVry University, Julian Schmoke (DeVry is a private, for-profit college with slightly more credibility than Trump University) to serve as head of the unit charged with investigating fraudulent loans. The fact that DeVry was required to pay a fine of 100 million in 2011 for issuing questionable loans was apparently not a disqualifier for Schmoke.

Other actions by the USDOE under Trump/DeVos have been suspect but barely newsworthy:

  • They reinstated hefty collection fees for some borrowers who have defaulted on federal loans.
  • DeVos tapped the chief executive of a private student-loan company to run the federal government’s trillion-dollar financial aid operations.
  • The department took quick action to implement a bipartisan initiative to help low- and moderate-income college students get year-round access to Pell grants (after Congress approved the measure).
  • DeVos backed the administration’s decision to cease protecting the rights of transgender students and directed the Office for Civil Rights to consider transgender students’ discrimination complaints on a case-by-case basis.

In keeping with their war on science, the Republican controlled House of Representatives is also considering the Rooney Amendment, the Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act, 2018 (H. R. 3354), which would slash federal funding for the non-partisan Institute of Education Sciences (IES) by one-third, undermining the agency’s mission of advancing independent scientific evidence, statistics, and data.

As important as these issues are, since the election of Donald Trump, the biggest day-to-day challenge for educators are not so much the policies that have been adopted by the USDOE, but rather the statements and actions of the president himself. Perhaps the most significant of these was the recent decision to eliminate DACA (aka the Dream Act), an executive action that will turn 800,000 young people who were raised in the US into fugitives unless Congress steps in to find a way to extend the protections ordered by Obama. Despite the fact that DACA has been supported by a broad array of business and religious leaders, many of whom were prominent Trump supporters, the president has once again prioritized appeasing his base which can’t seem to get enough of his anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.

Beyond DACA, the President’s rhetoric and actions have raised a number of difficult questions for educators: How do teachers who call upon their students to respect each other explain the President’s actions when he calls on his followers to throw out hecklers at his rallies, or belittles one of his opponents on twitter? For an educator who seeks to avoid politicizing the classroom how do you speak fairly and objectively about the President when he is caught repeatedly in several obvious lies and unsubstantiated assertions? How would a thoughtful educator who has admonished students not to bully or demean others explain that it’s still not right even when the President of the United States engages in bullying politicians (“little Marco”, “Lying Ted”, and “Crooked Hilary”) who disagree with or oppose him? How does a teacher explain his frequent degrading and targeting of vulnerable groups (e.g. Muslims, Mexicans, the transgendered, etc.), his vilifying of journalists as “enemies of the people”, and who equivocates when called upon to condemn his Nazi and white supremacist supporters?

Educators teach students to support their assertions with logic and scientific evidence. How does one explain a president who denies the existence of climate change? What does an educator who would prefer to avoid politics altogether do when nearly everyday Trump uses language that is inflammatory, dangerous, and even bizarre?

His actions and statements can’t be ignored or even dismissed as a joke because, like it or not, he is the president of the United States, and his actions and words have real consequences. At times it seems as though the outrageous statements made by Trump are an intentional distraction; a smoke screen intended to keep us from paying attention to the far more dangerous and far reaching actions of his administration. There may be some truth to this. Who is paying attention when the Secretary of the Interior eliminates regulations that once protected rivers and lakes, when the Energy Department expands subsidies to the coal industry while eliminating those that were used to incentivize the use of wind and solar energy, or when the Justice Department reverses an order barring local police departments from obtaining and using military weapons? These actions will have a major long-term impact on our future, but they are far less newsworthy than the latest crazy tweet issued by the president at 5am.

We are all receiving an education in politics and civics under Trump. Since his election the number of recorded hate crimes has soared, and many of these incidents have occurred in schools. Mimicking the Commander and Chief, some children feel it’s alright to chant “Build the wall” when competing against Latino children, to call Muslim students terrorists or spray paint swastikas on their lockers, or target Jews, blacks, Asians or gays, for bullying and mistreatment.

While Trump may not be impeached, his administration will not last forever. There will undoubtedly come a time in the not too distant future when we will look back upon the Trump years and ask ourselves how we allowed this to happen? Already, some educators blame themselves. Perhaps if we had done a better job teaching students how to distinguish between fake and real news, if had we promoted critical thinking rather than a regurgitation of facts and information, if had we actively encouraged rigorous debate based on evidence and well-reasoned assertions, maybe Americans would have been less easily manipulated and more intelligent voters. Most of all, had we studied US history without the goal of promoting patriotism but with a willingness to confront ugly truths, maybe we would be less inclined to hold onto myths, lies and distortions that have been passed down over generations.

The question for us now as we attempt to make it through the next three years of a Trump presidency is not merely to figure out how best to resist the dangerous, heartless and reactionary moves of the Trump administration, but to also offer reasonable alternatives for what should be done instead. In the field of education that must begin with a renewed willingness to embrace critical thinking and scientific inquiry, tolerance for difference, and empathy for others, based on recognition of our inter-connectedness, inter-dependence and common humanity. Ultimately, it is by practicing and reinforcing values such as these that it will be possible for America to survive and recover after Trump.

About the Author: Dr. Noguera is a distinguished Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA and an author of Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 29, 2017.

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