Trump's Educational Vision
In this Friday, May 6, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Eugene, Ore.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
I believe Trump has an educational vision. I really do.
Given that Trump is now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, scrutiny of his policy proposals will only increase. The problem is that everyone seems consistently befuddled by his unpredictable, contradictory and just plain oddball policy missives.
Whiteboard Advisors’ latest “Education Insider,” for example, offers useful policy insights and perspectives about the current presidential campaign from “those in the know,” with predictions on everything from Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education to key policy priorities to the probable diminished spotlight on educational issues during the campaign.
Yet it all feels so “inside the beltway,” as the issues discussed mirror traditional policies a heck of a lot more than anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth. Trump has spent a lot more time, for example, extolling how smart he is than discussing ESSA or the FAFSA; my guess is that such braggadocio will actually make education a hot topic throughout the campaign.
This disconnect between Trump’s declarations and our analyses, I suggest, is because we are all playing the wrong policy game. We continue to focus on the actual content of his proposed policies and in so doing, we want to throw our hands in the air, point out his lack of comprehension of educational policy, and decry that his agenda “can be explained in 52 seconds.” Which, well, it can.
But Trump really isn’t interested in actual policies. Our attempt to make sense of Trump’s policy positions is kind of like using tarot cards to figure out whether aliens truly built the pyramids. We’re using the wrong tools for the wrong question.
Instead, we should focus on the big picture, by which I mean that we can decipher what Trump truly cares about vis-à-vis education if we realize that the notion of “success” is the skeleton key to all of his pronouncements. Thus whether we’re talking about Trump University or his own education at Wharton or his oft-repeated complaint that our students are at the bottom of international test comparisons, what comes up again and again is the notion of “winning.”
Success, and success only, is what matters. That’s why Trump announced that Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, would be “very involved” in educational policymaking: because Carson has been extremely successful in his life, and it just so happens that he spent over 30 years at Johns Hopkins. Presto, Carson as educational guru. That’s why Trump continuously derides the Common Core. It makes no difference that the President has no authority over it. The Common Core signifies the seemingly faceless technocracy of forged and thus bland and mediocre consensus. Presto, for Trump, it’s gone. That’s why the liberal arts are out and online learning is in; because the latter is all about success while the former is, well, for losers not interested in getting jobs.
So what does all this mean for Trump’s educational vision? Here are three thoughts:
First and foremost, it’s all about the vision. So while I understand and respect why education insiders may view Carson, Andreas Schleicher, a director for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or former Florida and Indiana education chief Tony Bennett as Secretary of Education material in a Trump administration, I’d actually place my bet on an outsider with a real success story who, like Trump, is dismissive of the seeming status quo. Think of folks like Paul LeBlanc, Sal Khan, or Wendy Kopp. Their stories and accomplishments have deep resonance for Trump’s ideals of success.
Second, Trump would care about good teachers. He wants success, and in such a vision, success comes from great teachers in the front of the classroom. A Trump vision would include lots of talk about the incentives of higher salaries, of getting rid of regulations (and unions) that seemingly prevent bad teachers from being laid off, of greater latitude for alternative pathways into teaching coupled with higher standards for gaining certification, and of technology that will help teachers and schools get even better. For Trump, the notion of “world-class” schools will be inextricably linked to a “let the market decide” mentality.
Third, and linked to the two points above, Trump would focus on cost-cutting and efficiencies of scale. If Trump is anything, he’s a businessman. And America’s education systems are deeply inefficient. So be prepared for lots of discussions about “disruption” and “innovation” and “fixing a broken system.” If you want success, there’s no better way to do so from a business perspective than to find emerging best practices with clear cost-savings like online education, “personalized learning,” and data- and learning-analytics. Moreover, the appeal of Trump’s rhetoric of “winning” provides a powerful counterpoint to education as stuck in an industrial age model and unable to provide a high quality education for all.
There is, of course, much more that can be teased out from these three initial thoughts, especially as they are inter-connected and indicative of and emblematic of an entire paradigm of governance. But one step at a time. He’s still just a nominee.
And to that point, I should end by making clear that this vision is, indeed, just a vision. As Former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY) aptly phrased it, one may campaign in poetry but need to govern in prose. The laws of reality will apply even in Washington, D.C.: Trump and his Secretary of Education will have to work with real people, policies, precedents and procedures within a massive bureaucracy that is glacial in pace and deathly allergic to change.
Trump’s visions may never become reality. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a vision.