Federal Commentary

What You Had to Say About K-12 Policy and the Election

January 19, 2017 7 min read

Reflections from educators and K-12 advocates on the political landscape

In the months and weeks leading up to and following the presidential election, Education Week Commentary received dozens of submissions from educators, policymakers, and public education advocates who speculated: What did the presidential election campaigns and outcome reveal about our country? What did they teach students? And what will a Trump administration mean for K-12 education?

Here are a handful of takeaways from these submissions in which the authors consider the role of schooling in the American political system.

A Focus on Civics Education

Nora Howe is a program associate at Generation Citizen in New York. Thomas Kerr-Vanderslice is the executive director at Generation Citizen in Rhode Island.

Classroom discussions about elections allow students to voice their broad range of emotions and provide an opportunity to air and rectify the inaccurate information surrounding the results. Most importantly, conversation can help to clarify that the political trajectory is a long one. Whether or not the students agree or disagree with Donald Trump, they still need to engage—now, perhaps more than ever. If nothing else, this election has demonstrated the importance of an engaged and educated citizenry. The only road to such an outcome is giving students the chance to become civically engaged early on.

Expose Students to Politics

Brian Brady is the president of Mikva Challenge in Chicago. Louise Dube is the executive director of iCivics in Boston. Scott Warren is the CEO of Generation Citizen in New York.

Over the past 30 years, civic education has been squeezed out of public schools as educators struggle to meet state core mandates in STEM and language arts. When civics does exist, the subject often focuses on rote memorization of facts and barely addresses the responsibilities of citizenship. This freezing out of civics from the curriculum, more than anything else, is why less than 50 percent of young people voted in the presidential election, and why young people believe by a 2-to-1 margin that volunteerism, and not the political process, is a more effective way to make change. Simply put, we cannot expect young people to show up to vote in a presidential election if their only exposure to politics happens on a singular day once every four years. We need to actively expose them to information and political processes before they can vote.

The Important Role of Educators and Schools

Jonathan Silin is the editor-in-chief of the Occasional Paper Series at Bank Street College of Education in New York.

In times of transition, our job as teachers is to help kids separate fantasy from reality, panic from thoughtful reflection, the difficult moment and the long-range perspective. We are used to asking our students a familiar set of questions: What do we know? What do we want to find out? Where are there reliable sources of information? How can we reconcile and/or live with different points of view?

A presidential transition is no different. We are practiced at keeping our ear to the ground listening for and responding to the emotions beneath the surface narratives, asking critical questions that power our sense of safety and threat, belonging and alienation, agency and constraint. While all teachers have not lived through momentous political shifts such as those occurring today, we are all experienced at acknowledging unsettling realities and offering the support that our worried students demand of us.

Schools Should Promote Change Within Communities

Arina Bokas is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine. She lives in Clarkston, Mich.

No matter where we fall in our political choices, we feel that there is only one truth, and it’s of course on “our” side. Social media is overflowing with offensive comments and labeling. There is anger toward fellow Americans who have exercised their right to vote according to their beliefs; there is anger toward those who are scared by election outcomes. Meanwhile, anger and fear are dividing our communities and setting a rather dismal example for our children.

I believe that in order to nurture sensitivity to perspectives and the feelings of others, we must proactively bring diversity to our schools by working with families and members of the community together. It’s one holistic learning environment. Schools, which are frequently seen as a representation of local authority, have a real opportunity to become a source of awareness, influence, and change within their communities. To do so, they must design intentional partnerships, wherein families, community members, and schools develop trust, learn together, combine resources, and share decision-making power.

A New Policy Path

Stephen Mucher is the director of the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.

Responding to the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” both political parties rallied to define ambitious new standards and asked teachers to hold students to higher expectations. Reformers loosened tenure protections and promoted the removal of ineffective teachers from classrooms. At best, new policies demonstrated the essential importance of good teachers. But this policy path, now well-worn in the absence of other trails, has taken us as far as it can. Too many reform educators in both parties have ignored evidence that their policies have exacerbated racial and economic segregation, fostered an overly technical conception of teaching, and produced widespread dissatisfaction among teachers.

Make Rural Education a Priority

Dilara Sayeed is the chief education officer of Golden Apple Foundation in Chicago.

As an urban-based educator, I realize that to begin to heal the political divide, equitable resources will have to be provided to both areas of poverty, urban and rural. We must now face the challenges that rural America encounters every day, one issue at a time. In education, the goals of student achievement, graduation, and college enrollment are universal, but there are differences among urban, rural, and suburban communities that require further exploration and better understanding. Research on issues of rural education has been sparse. Are 21st-century skills for today’s students urban-centric, or do they apply to rural communities as well? Have high school graduation rates increased in rural counties? Does a college degree lead to financial or professional success for rural young adults as well; and, if so, is the number of college-going students increasing?

A Failing Ed System

Dan Sarofian-Butin is a professor in the department of education and community studies at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

So I want to thank Donald Trump. I want to thank him in that his victory made many issues visible. As we now know, about half of us voted for Trump. Half of us voted for a man who embodies a world where discrimination, falsehoods, and incivility are tacitly accepted if not downright approved. Half of us wanted, for whatever reason, a category-five storm. This half included lots of folks whose education has failed them; it also, though, included many folks who graduated from some of our finest colleges and universities. This is a sobering and uncomfortable reality. Schools and colleges have always embraced and extolled a civic mission to enhance students’ civic engagement and civil conduct. And, seemingly, we have failed. What are we therefore as educators to do? How are we to act?

Keep Education Access Equal

Sarah Moore is a partner and James Patrick is an associate attorney at the law firm Fisher Phillips in Cleveland.

Any time the power dynamic in Washington shifts from one political party to another, there is a potential for considerable consequences in the education arena. Although the fate of the U.S. Department of Education may, in fact, hang in the balance, an overhaul of the federal regulations that require equal education access for all students is unlikely. However, there will undoubtedly be an impact on how these regulations are interpreted (e.g., in terms of addressing transgender students).

Consequently, Trump’s election doesn’t signal a carte blanche opportunity to ignore the core of the equal educational access aspects of federal law. Educational institutions should continue to do what is morally right and legally required, such as implementing compliance programs, fostering equal access, and addressing on-campus allegations of harassment and sexual assault. On these points, there must be no debate and a unity of purpose.

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