Trump’s Rise Is a Wake-up Call for Education Reformers

Allow me to let you in on a little secret from deep inside the nation’s policy making machinery: Policy elites view the rise of Donald Trump—the candidate and everything he stands for—with equal parts alarm and revulsion. That’s probably not much of a secret. A campaign that draws its oxygen from anti-elite sentiments probably doesn’t expect much attention or affection from think tanks and serious people in education reform. Not surprisingly, there hasn’t been much.

ednext-blog-april16-pondiscio-trumpBut it’s well past time to start thinking seriously about education reform in the Trump era. Even if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes the one piece of real estate destined never to be festooned with the candidate’s surname, the restive 2016 campaign should serve as a wake-up call. Broad swaths of Americans feel disconnected from public institutions and are convinced that policy makers don’t understand or much care about them.

Education policy has done little to bridge that divide. When downwardly mobile white, working-class Americans hear us talking about education reform, it’s a fair bet they don’t think we’re talking about them and their children. And they’re not mistaken. The priorities and language of reformers—achievement gaps, no-excuses schools, social justice, and the “civil rights issue of our generation“—betrays a focus on fixing schools attended by urban, low-income families of color.

Those looking for advice on how to bring disaffected Trump voters back into the fold—or the economically disconnected in for a landing—might wish to start with a copy of Education for Upward Mobility, a new book edited by my Fordham Institute colleague Mike Petrilli. (I contributed a chapter on elementary education and literacy.)

There are myriad recommendations in the book, which Mike boils down into three major themes: First, balance our fixation on college completion with renewed attention to career and technical education; next prioritize the needs of “strivers”—the low-income students who are working hardest to make it to the middle class; finally, encourage all students to follow the “success sequence”—including delaying parenthood—as the surest means of avoiding pitfalls that push kids off the path to upward mobility.

I strongly agree with Mike that ending education reform’s “college or bust” mentality is the right place to start. On the one hand, encouraging college-going makes a great deal of sense. The wage premiums associated with college completion make it the nearest thing in education to an economic sure thing. Even when a recent graduate has trouble landing a good job right after collecting his degrees, he can expect to earn as much as a million dollars more over the course of his career than someone whose education ended with a high school diploma.

But college-for-all is another example of the kind of unrealistic, aspirational moon shot (like every child reading on grade level by 2014) that education reform seems powerless to resist. Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute notes that of children from families in the bottom third of household income, a mere 14 percent of children will complete four-year degrees. “Even if we could double that proportion, there would still be a large majority of poor and working-class kids needing another path to the middle class,” Petrilli points out. That’s simply too many to ignore.

“A better approach for many young people would be to develop coherent pathways, from high school onward, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level,” Petrilli writes. “This can start with [career and technical education] or apprenticeships in high school.”

I also strongly agree with the book’s plea not to forget the strivers. As a teacher, I often felt encouraged—tacitly and sometimes overtly—to focus my energies on my students who were below grade level. Those who were at or above “proficiency” were, from the perspective of test-driven accountability policies (and the classroom practices those policies encouraged), already where we needed them to be. But the strivers are also our “best customers.” Parents who send their children to school every day in uniform, with homework neat and checked, and for whom the voice of a teacher is the word of God, are signaling a belief in the transformative power of education. If their children do everything that is asked, yet graduate from high school unprepared for college what comes next, parents feel betrayed. That’s on us. We’ve earned their contempt.

The last recommendation is the most controversial—but arguably the most potent. Suppose you knew there was something you could teach kids that, if it were learned and followed, would give them a 98 percent chance of breaking out of poverty and into the middle class. You’d probably say it’s not just important to teach it, but that we had a moral obligation to do so. OK, here’s the formula: 1) Stay in school and graduate, 2) get a full-time job, 3) get married, and 4) don’t bring a child into the world until you’ve completed steps 1–3.

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of Brookings dubbed this the “success sequence.” On the one hand, it feels awfully personal. On the other hand, schools are prescriptive about all kinds of personal habits and behaviors, from teaching small children to share to warning older kids about the dangers of drinking and smoking (to say nothing of district-mandated sex education and HIV prevention programs). The data is what it is: Violate all three “success sequence” behaviors and you have a better than three-in-four chance of living in poverty. Follow all three and now you have a three-in-four chance of reaching the middle class.

Still squeamish? “As so often happens with the nation’s social problems,” observes Haskins in Petrilli’s book, “society must fall back on the schools to help young people, especially the disadvantaged ones, make better life choices.”

The 2016 campaign has been a wake-up call for America’s elites generally and its policy elites specifically. It’s time for a course correction.

—Robert Pondiscio

This post originally appeared in Flypaper and in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

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