I believe Trump has an educational vision. I really do.
Given that Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee, it behooves us to look beyond his unpredictable and contradictory policy missives. We can't just throw our hands in the air, as if determining his positions is like using tarot cards to figure out whether aliens truly built the pyramids.
I think there's actually a way forward if we focus on what Trump truly cares about: success. Forget his public policy pronouncements and focus instead on how much Trump values the emotional resonance of individual personalities and their success. (Which, by the way, is not to be confused with expertise, which requires deep knowledge of specific content and sustained and deliberate practice towards mastering such content. But I'm quibbling. Onward and upward...)
All of his educational pronouncements can thus be seen through this lens, from the value he placed on Trump University to his own education at Wharton to his oft-repeated complaint that our students are at the bottom of international test comparisons. Success 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 thirty years of his life at Johns Hopkins. Presto -- Carson as educational guru. It thus also becomes clear why Trump would continuously deride 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.
So what does all this mean for Trump's educational vision? Here are three thoughts:
First, Trump would choose a Secretary of Education with a real success story, someone who is connected to education and yet, just like him, 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 and all have lived in the sphere of federal educational policymaking for years.
Second, Trump would actually care about 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, and of technology that will help teachers and schools get even better.
Third, Trump would focus on cost-cutting and efficiencies of scale. If Trump is anything, he's a business man. And education is deeply inefficient. (Which doesn't mean it's ineffective, but that a very different discussion.) Thus 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.
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 Mario Cuomo aptly phrased it, one may campaign in poetry but need to govern in prose. The laws of reality will apply even in Washington: 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 thus not become reality. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a vision.