In this age defined by the presidency of Donald J. Trump, our nation is increasingly divided and our political atmosphere highly charged. The contentious environment contributes to other societal problems, even as it makes it increasingly difficult to deal with them. America’s schools are not immune from this division and incivility and are similarly challenged to address a range of issues that confront our society.
– From “School and Society in the Age of Trump” report
That is the start of a new report titled “School and Society in the Age of Trump" that looks at how school principals are dealing with — and how students are affected by — social issues that have been prominent during the Trump presidency: 1. political division and hostility; 2. disputes over truth, facts and the reliability of sources; 3. opioid addiction; 4. the threat of immigration enforcement; and 5. the threats of gun violence on school campuses.
The report, written by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, details findings from a nationally representative poll taken of hundreds of high school principals. And it includes recommendations for school leaders to consider.
This post about the findings was written by Mike Rose, a highly respected research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Rose is the author of books that include “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrates the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well. Other books he has written include “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education,” “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America” and “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”
By Mike Rose
Schools are porous institutions — what happens in society at large plays out in classrooms and hallways — so the disturbing findings of a masterful new report “School and Society in the Age of Trump” should not surprise. But they do, in their scope and severity.
John Rogers and his colleagues (Michael Ishimoto, Alexander Kwako, Anthony Berryman, and Claudia Diera) at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 500 public high school principals from across the country and found this:
* 89 percent reported that “incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community.”
* 83 percent of principals note these tensions are fueled by “untrustworthy or disputed information,” and over 90 percent report students sharing “hateful posts on social media.”
* Almost all principals rate the threat of gun violence as a major concern, and one in three principals report that their school received in the previous year threats of mass shooting or bombing or both.
There’s more: In schools with a sizable immigrant population, principals report the significant negative effects that federal immigration policy and its associated anti-immigrant rhetoric have on student performance and family stability.
And schools that are in the areas of the country hardest hit by the opioid crisis are directly affected by addiction, overdose, and family devastation.
These extraordinary challenges interact and are cumulative. Over 90 percent of principals report confronting at least three of the problems I just listed: incivility, false information, threats of gun violence, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, and the opioid crisis. This is the world of the American high school today.
Rogers and his colleagues provide a rich analysis of the survey data and contextualize it with relevant research on political climate, gun violence, etc. But what makes the report come poignantly alive are the many comments offered by the principals themselves.
There was room on the original survey for written comments, and, as follow-up, 40 principals were selected to be interviewed. The reader gets a strong sense of the pressures these challenges place on principals, the various ways they try to respond, the political tensions many have to navigate in their communities, their frustrations and their breakthroughs. For example:
From a principal of a Michigan high school located in a congressional district that leaned toward Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election:
There’s a greater divide than there has been in years past between liberals and conservatives—which I think everybody sees. Things that are going on outside the school setting obviously affect school, and students’ thoughts, and students’ beliefs. There’s a different tone. I don’t want you to think that the sky is falling. As society goes, school goes. So [a] breakdown in communication [and] civility in general society, plays itself out in a school setting, or it has opportunity to.
High school discussions are what they are. You get good discourse depending upon the class, depending upon how skilled the teacher is, depending upon the level of students. But across the board [we’ve seen what] could be considered kind of a breakdown of civility—a lack of understanding or empathy for people who are on the other side of an issue that you don’t necessarily agree with. You see some of that come out in class discussions—a lack of civility that used to be there. Kids struggle with being civil with one another in their discussions based off perceived facts or understandings or knowledge they have about a given situation....
From a principal at a predominantly white school in Pennsylvania:
We had a group of students wearing the Confederate flag to the school on a regular basis, and our school is predominantly white with a small group of African American and Hispanic students. This wearing [of] the Confederate flag had a deep impact on those [students] of color. [Our] response was twofold: [First], ensure to the students that were offended by this that it was not a representation of our school culture—it was a representation of a few people’s opinion—and that they were safe within our school. [Second], help the others that were expressing their first amendment rights to [recognize] the fact that, sometimes, your beliefs can have a negative impact on others.
You need to be sensitive to other people’s opinions and perspectives. This group of kids that has been displaying and wearing the Confederate flag has pretty entrenched values. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge for our school. It has not risen to the level of violence yet but I feel it percolating and I’m hoping that our conversations back and forth between the groups of kids on both sides can keep it from getting violent.
The report concludes with recommendations for school leaders that gain added weight from the lived experiences of the many principals who speak directly to us. They are:
1. Establish and communicate school climate standards emphasizing care, connectedness, and civility and then create practices that enable educational systems to document and report on conditions associated with these standards.
2. Build professional capacity within educational systems to address the holistic needs of students and communities and extend this capacity by supporting connections between school-based educators and other governmental agencies and community-based organizations serving young people and their families
3. Develop integrated systems of health, mental health, and social welfare support for students and their families.
4. Create and support networks of educators committed to fostering care, connectedness, and strong civility in their public education systems.
“School and Society in the Age of Trump” offers a compelling and thought-provoking composite portrait of the American high school principal that becomes as well a portrait of our country at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.
You can download both a summary and the full report here.