America's Schools Could Be Partly To Blame For Donald Trump's Rise

A progressive foundation argues Trump's win is a wakeup call for educators.
Students protest the election of Donald Trump during a march in Washington.
Students protest the election of Donald Trump during a march in Washington.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

By now, Americans have heard a dozen or more theories why Donald Trump won the presidential election ― from the economic rage of the white middle class to the strategic failures of the Clinton campaign. The progressive Century Foundation is pointing the finger in another direction: at schools.

The American education system has focused on “market values” over “democratic values” for the past several decades, according to a new report from the public policy research center. Rather than preparing students to be responsible members of society, the report argues, schools have chiefly taught them to compete in a global marketplace.

“We’ve always had these two purposes of public education: preparing students to be workers in the marketplace and to be citizens in our democracy. I think for many years now the focus has been entirely on the market side because that seemed like where the threat was, with globalization and economic competition,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of the report.

This change made its way into explicit curriculum plans and implicit goals projected by school leaders and policymakers, the report says. Schools do not invest as much in civics education as they once did. The report ― which is titled “Putting Democracy Back Into Public Education” ― also sees a loss of such values in the rise of charter schools, weakening of teacher tenure, state takeovers of school districts and lack of action on school desegregation.

All of this, the report argues, set the stage for an “authoritarian” presidential candidate who “ran on a platform that consistently rejected mainstream liberal democratic norms.”

“I think sometimes, in order to get change, you need a tremendous jolt and we just got that last Tuesday.”

- Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation

The Century Foundation’s report doesn’t place the onus for Trump’s victory entirely on schools. It notes that polls generally suggest a rising mistrust of democratic institutions and even a growing willingness to accept military rule (although those people are still the minority). But it contends the education system must rethink what students are taught to value.

In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik 1 prompted the U.S. to invest more in science education. Kahlenberg hopes the election of Trump will spark a similar call to action for civics education.

“This shock to our system, I think, requires a comparable investment in civics education,” said Kahlenberg. “We have to teach kids a love of democratic values because the point isn’t that Trump had a certain position on trade or abortion or any other issue, but he was running against what had been broadly accepted constitutional norms.”

The report argues that students must learn to think critically and make informed decisions as citizens and future voters. They need to appreciate the factors critical to a functioning democracy, like civil rights.

Even if the federal government takes no action to inject democracy back into public schools, Kahlenberg is hopeful that schools and educators will do it themselves.

“I think sometimes, in order to get change, you need a tremendous jolt and we just got that last Tuesday,” said Kahlenberg. “If ever there was hope for reinvigorating civics education in this country, I think Donald Trump’s election provided it.”


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email:


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