Education in the Age of Trump

Trump signs Executive Order on Education.
Trump signs Executive Order on Education.

Last Wednesday President Trump signed yet another executive order, this one aimed at decreasing the role the federal government plays in education, handing states, local school districts, and parents more power. The same day this order was signed I found myself at the Harvard School of Education attending a conference titled “Under the Trump Administration, What Is Next for Education?” wondering what was next. After all, public education is important to those of us who have or know kids in school--nearly everyone--just as important as a border wall or health care, even though it gets a lot less ink or tweets.

According to the president, "The time has come to empower teachers and parents to make the decisions that help their students achieve success." This grand statement presupposes that we--parents, teachers, and students—land on the same page when it comes to defining “success.” Which, it turns out, we do not.

According to a national survey conducted by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard School of Education, our notions of success are out of sync. This survey finds that “a large majority of youth across a wide spectrum of races, cultures, and classes appear to value aspects of personal success—achievement and happiness—over concern for others.” While most parents and teachers say their top priorities include developing caring children (Bowman et al., 2012; Suizzo, 2007), that’s not the message we’re sending our kids. 80% report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. They also say their teachers prioritize achievement over caring.

Having just shepherded two kids through the stressful and highly-competitive contest known as “applying to college,” I’m afraid that’s the unintended message my kids got from me too. Like most parents, I want my kids to get a good education, so that means they have to perform well in a traditional educational setting. It never occurred to me that they might be getting this message at the expense of something as fundamental as caring.

Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation who also attended the event, says she’s worried that a divisive political climate combined with a competitive academic environment is pushing caring, civility, and empathy further into the background of what’s important to us as a society.

So, with the prospect of more control over education in our hands, it’s time for parents and teachers to be crystal clear about our definition of success, and more importantly, to understand how education prepares kids to achieve it.

Where Are Kids Learning How To Be Successful?

As adults argue over the mechanics of education--charters, vouchers, Common Core, and more—kids are finding places other than school to learn. Turning to the Internet for up to nine hours per day, many kids use this time to pursue their interests and hobbies. This is called “connected learning” and it lets kids combine personal interests, peer relationships, and achievement in academic, civic, or career-relevant areas.

“Connected learning” might include watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, viewing Snap Stories, and connecting with like-minded others in social spaces. While traditional education increasingly fails to engage many students as they enter middle school and beyond, this interest-driven, out-of-school learning is becoming more popular with device-carrying kids (most of them). So perhaps in addition to talking about charters vs. vouchers, policy makers and parents also need to discuss how to harness new technologies for learning rather than focusing on them as a distraction to education.

Sandra Cortesi, Director of Youth and Media at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, was a moderator at the event I attended. I asked her what she thought about the current state of informal vs. formal learning,

While traditional, classroom-based education still vitally important, we need to acknowledge that students are spending a significant amount of time engaged in online connected spaces outside of school. These digital spaces offer unlimited opportunities for youth to explore their interests and expand their education. Caregivers and educators must gain a better understanding of these informal learning environments and, more importantly, encourage young people to contribute to these vibrant learning spaces.

I see this phenomenon of offline learning happening with my own children and those I teach. While much of the traditional school day is spent memorizing and being tested, the learning that really excites them seems to be happening online. For instance, my daughter has become something of an expert on food and sustainability, gathering a vast array of knowledge from the podcasts and documentaries she finds online. This is a passion she will have figure out how to formalize in a public college setting.

I asked Cortesi if she thought schools were providing kids the support and scaffolding they need to formalize informal learning.

“We have not reached that point yet,” she said. When I asked her how we can get there, she answered like someone who truly gets it, “We have to hack the system. This includes making every effort to familiarize educators and caregivers with digital learning environments, and support those who will go the extra mile to advance this new era of online learning.”

How Parents and Teachers Can Hack the System

While waiting for education policy to catch up with the actual education, what can parents and teachers do to hack the system? Well, for starters:

  • Agree at the your most “local” level—your own family or school—what “success” means to you. Talk to your children and/or students about how to achieve this success. (Here’s a great resource: Raising Caring Children)
  • Find out if your children/students have passions and hobbies they are pursuing online (do you even know what they’re doing online? If not, this video can help). Talk to them about their interests and encourage and make time for their online explorations.
  • Help your children/students link their online passions and interests back to their formal education. Are there degree programs, technical schools, or other offline opportunities that might “formalize” their interests? This is a good time to turn to the Internet and research this together.

We stand at a strange crossroad right now where adult conversations about education seems strangely disconnected from the actual education many kids are pursuing via their own devices (pun intended). How we solve this education conundrum might play a big part in how we also fix public education.

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