School and Society in the age of Trump

By John McDonald

Despite tense times, a glimmer of hope for Dewey’s vision for schools

As a scholar, UCLA Education Professor John Rogers, has spent many an hour studying and thinking about the work of the noted educator and philosopher John Dewey.

Dewey saw schools as deeply connected to their communities and central to democracy. More than a century ago, in his famed work Democracy and Education, he wrote,“we may produce in schools a projection …of the society we should like to realize.”

Rogers believes deeply in and places great value in Dewey’s philosophy. But in this age defined by the presidency of Donald J. Trump, he finds educators raising concerns that some might see as a cautionary warning to Dewey’s approach.

“It appears at times as though in place of Dewey’s vision for schools, we instead are seeing society’s ills projected onto America’s high schools,” Rogers says.

Rogers is referring to the contentious environment he found in school communities across the country in his newest research, School and Society in the Age of Trump, a nationally representative survey of high school principals. Conducted by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA in  2018, the survey examines how a broad set of social issues at the forefront of the Trump presidency are felt and how they affect students and educators within America’s high schools.

At the mid-point of the Trump presidency, the research finds America’s high schools greatly impacted by political incivility and riven by untrustworthy information and the omnipresent use of social media. In this contentious environment, schools are struggling to address many of the same critical issues confronting the nation, including opioid abuse, immigration and gun violence. These issues are impacting students and schools and taking needed time away from the efforts of school principals to strengthen teaching and learning.

“These findings make very clear that schools are not immune from what is happening in their communities and across the nation,” Rogers says. “The flow of the nation’s harsh political rhetoric does not stop at the schoolhouse gate, but instead, propelled by misinformation and social media, is fueling anger, fear and division that is negatively impacting students, schools and learning.”

For the survey, the researchers asked school principals about five key challenges confronting their schools. In doing so, the research explores the impact on students’ experiences in America’s high schools and its affect on their learning and wellbeing. It also examines how high school principals throughout the U.S. responded to these challenges, and measured how the impact and responses differ depending on student demographics, geographic location, or partisan orientation of the surrounding community. A closer look finds the following:

A contentious school environment

Photo: Heather Mount, Unsplash

Responding to the survey, almost 9 in 10 principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community. An overwhelming majority of principals’ report problems such as contentious classroom environments, hostile exchanges outside of class, and demeaning or hateful remarks over political views. More than 8 in 10 principals report that their students have made derogatory remarks about other racial or ethnic groups, and more than 6 in 10 principals say their students have made derogatory remarks about immigrants. In interviews with principals, the most commonly reported instances of racial hostility echo President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, with several principals recounting stories of White students chanting “Build the wall!” to demean and threaten students of color. Principals also say that the boundaries of public school grounds have been breached by ideologically driven animus pointing to examples of vitriolic and ‘inflammatory” attacks on teachers and schools and social media pages reflecting a “local atmosphere characterized by bullying, hate speech and indoctrination.”  In the words of one principal, “…across the board, we have seen what could be considered kind of a breakdown in civility.”

Untrustworthy Information in America’s High Schools

Photo: Elijah O’Donnell, Upsplash

The tensions confronting schools are intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information across schools. The omnipresent use of social media is also fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and their communities. In this environment. students struggle to discern fact from opinion, identify quality sources, or participate in inclusive and diverse deliberations on social issues. School climate suffers as students use social media to call one another names or spread rumors.

The vast majority of high school principals surveyed and interviewed report experiencing problems at their school related to the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information. Principals across a broad cross  section of schools also highlight ways that students’ abilities to access and share unfiltered and untrustworthy information through social media platforms has upset both classroom learning and school climate

One principal said they arrive at class committed to “outrageous” viewpoints. The result can be “polarizing” with students using the information as weapons against each other. Rancorous battles over competing “truths” play out both inside and outside of classrooms.
Perhaps the most substantial impact of social media has been the surge of cyberbullying at schools. More than nine in ten principals in the survey report that students have shared hateful posts on social media. “Social media” says Dean Swan*, a principal in Ohio, “is destroying school safety and climate.”

The Opioid Crisis in America’s schools

The opioid crisis did not begin with the election of Donald Trump, but it has continued to play out in communities and states across the nation during the first two years of the Trump administration. Eleven million Americans misused opioids in 2016, resulting in 42,249 deaths from overdose, or more than 130 deaths every day. Sixty-two percent of high school principals in the survey reported their schools have been impacted by the opioid crisis.

Principals said opioid addiction in students’ families has resulted in student concerns about their own well-being or the well-being of family members, lost focus in class or missed classes. Parents and guardians have had difficulties in supporting students and participating in school activities. “I think every one of our kids would probably say they know someone who either is addicted or was addicted to opioids,” says Michael Rayne, a high school principal in a small town in Pennsylvania.

The toll has been profound—almost one-third of principals interviewed report fatal overdoses occurring within their school community, often including recent alumni or within student families. Many principals also described how students’ lives are upended when parents become addicted, impacting their mental health and also often resulting in extreme financial hardship. And many principals feel unprepared for dealing with the crisis. They are also concerned about the potential of opioid abuse among students.

“I hate to even say it,” says Eric Jasper, a principal in Michigan, but while “we’ve not had any current students pass away or have any major issues directly with opioids … I’m just scared that that’s going to change at some point in the future.”

The Threat of Immigration Enforcement in America’s High Schools

In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, students across the country have experienced mounting uncertainty and fear over their family’s immigration status. A “climate of fear” pervades many immigrant communities, creating stress and anxiety for parents and children alike.

More than two-thirds of the principals surveyed report that federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have harmed student well-being and learning, and undermined the work of their schools in general. Principals also say students from immigrant families have expressed concerns about their well-being or that of their families due to current policies or political rhetoric related to immigration, and that students from immigrant families often experienced difficulty focusing on class lessons or missed school altogether. They also note that immigrant parents and guardians have experienced difficulty participating in school activities or supporting their students’ well-being and academic progress at home, and that immigrant parents and guardians have been reluctant to share information with the school.

“This is Serious Fear”

The impact of the heated rhetoric about immigration on students is likely underreported. “This is serious fear,” says one principal. A number of principals said that students and parents are reluctant to discuss their citizenship status with school personnel, particularly in areas most immigrants perceived to be most affected by immigration status. Interestingly, principals whose schools are located in Congressional districts that voted strongly for President Trump in 2016 are less likely to report student concerns due to immigration policies than principals in Congressional districts that voted strongly against President Trump.
“A lot of those [immigrant] students were very stressed out,” says principal Todd Phillips in North Carolina, and the main ‘stress out’ was some of our president’s words and pronouncements.”

The Threat of Gun Violence in America’s High Schools

There were 1,611 gun-related homicides of 15 to 19-year-olds in the United States in 2016. An average of twenty students are killed each year on K-12 campuses, representing 1-2 percent of all youth homicides. Between the school shootings in Columbine, Colorado in 1999 and Parkland in 2018 there have been shootings at 193 schools, affecting more than 187,000 enrolled students.

Photo: Natalie Chaney, Unsplash

Almost all of the high school principals surveyed and interviewed said that their schools have been impacted by the threat of gun violence. About 92 percent of principals say their school has faced students concerns about the threat of gun violence in school or surrounding community, lost focus in class or missed school time, and parent and community member concerns about the threat of gun violence in the school or surrounding community. From California to Connecticut, principals said said that, in comparison with all other challenges, this topic (gun violence) “has captured the most attention,” represents the “largest stress,” and poses the “gravest concerns.” And while the threat of gun violence impacts schools across all demographic and regional categories, schools with large proportions of students of color have been affected most.

Principals say they spend more time addressing problems associated with the threats of gun violence than any other challenge they currently face. As one principal said, “It’s probably the first thing I think of every morning and every night,” says George Mull, a principal in rural Missouri.  “You know, God forbid, but what if?” One in five principals interviewed recounted incidents involving firearms on campus, an experience another principal says “scares her all the time.”

The Impact on Students, Principals and Schools

“The challenges confronting our communities are not separate from our schools, and may fall hardest on our students,” Rogers says. “When high schools experience societal challenges, it is students themselves who bear the brunt of the impact.”

Photo: Heather Mount, Unsplash

Across the survey, principals said that these societal challenges resulted in students losing focus in class or missing classes altogether. Many students feel greater anxiety, stress, and vulnerability as a result of forces outside the school. Additionally, parental opioid misuse and aggressive immigration enforcement have both resulted in greater material deprivation for young people including unstable housing, insecure food supplies, and a lack of other necessary supports.

“They also have a direct impact on the lives and work of school principals, taking away from time needed to address the needs of students and strengthen teaching and learning,’’ Rogers says.

School principals are also affected. The average principal in the study reports spending six-and-a-half hours a week addressing the five societal challenges examined in the survey. That time represents lost opportunity costs, taking time away from efforts to meet students’ academic needs and enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

“The response of some school leaders has been nothing less than heroic,” Rogers says.

Principals report spending extra time on supervision, school discipline and community outreach related to school incivility and challenges with untrustworthy information and social media. Across the challenges, many principals say they spend extra time talking and meeting with students and parents, connecting students and families with community and social services, and planning and providing professional development to help teachers address challenges confronting their schools and faced by students and families. Some principals have intervened directly with immigration authorities on behalf of students and families. Others have sent backpacks full of food home for the weekend with students, or dug into their own pockets for money to help pay utility bills or help with rent for students whose families have been affected by opioid abuse.

Photo: U.S. Department of Education. US Department of Education CC BY 2.0

Regardless of their schools’ region, community type or racial makeup, virtually every principal said that their school was impacted by at least one of the five societal challenges examined in the survey. More than nine in ten principals in the survey report experiencing at least three of the challenges and more than three in ten said their school experiences all five challenges.
But certain types of schools are more likely to be impacted by particular challenges. Racially mixed schools are most likely to be impacted by all five challenges and most impacted by untrustworthy information and political division. Schools that enroll predominantly students of color are most impacted by the threats of immigration enforcement and gun violence. The opioid crisis hit hardest among predominantly white schools and most severely in the Northeast. Predominantly White schools are roughly twice as likely to be harmed by the opioid crisis as those schools predominately attended by students of color. The threat of immigration enforcement is greatest in the West, especially in urban areas among schools serving students of color.

School racial demographics and political leanings of the surrounding community may also shape the impact of some societal challenges and the response to them. For example, principals in schools where most of the students are White are far less likely than principals in schools predominately attended by students of color to talk about tolerance toward immigrant youth.

“Given that principals in these predominantly white schools are the most likely to report incidents of students making derogatory remarks about immigrants, it is possible that some principals in these schools believe that messages promoting tolerance toward immigrant youth will not be well received in their community,” Rogers says.

The findings also show that principals in predominantly White schools located in congressional districts that voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, are least likely to have spoken with their student body about promoting tolerance and respect toward immigrant youth. The result is that schools that are most likely to produce hostile environments for immigrant students are situated within communities whose political dynamics may contribute to these students receiving the least support from principals.

A deep and cumulative effect

“It is important to note that when multiple challenges occur within a school site, they interact with one another in complex and mutually reinforcing ways,” Rogers says.

He notes that it is likely that political division makes schools more vulnerable to the spread of untrustworthy information, just as the spread of untrustworthy information often contributes to division and hostility. And the fear and distress associated with threats to immigrant communities, gun violence and opioid misuse, increases the possibilities for division and distrust amongst students and between educators and the broader community.

Responding to the Challenge: Hope in the work of principals

The research conducted for School and Society in the Age of Trump makes troublingly clear that school principals in the age of Trump face substantial obstacles.

As Aaron Nash, a school principal in New Jersey says, the “divisive, hateful climate of the country,” frequently seeps into schools with “a horrific effect.”

And the survey analysis seems to suggest that that political dynamics in the broader community often discourages principals from working to ensure tolerant and inclusive learning environments.

Yet while most U.S. high school principals struggle to address the most pressing needs of the moment, in the work of some you can see the effort to lay the moral and civic groundwork for a better future. And in that effort you can perhaps see a glimmer of the hope of Dewey’s vision for schools and communities.

You can see it in the work of Chris Berry, a principal at a school in Alabama serving mostly White students in Alabama, who characterizes his work and that of his peers across the nation as that of “public servants” seeking to ensure that “our teachers are doing their jobs preparing our students … to be productive members of society and to give back, to take ownership of the school, to take ownership of their community.”

Or in that of Phil White, a principal in Connecticut, who like many principals recognizes that helping students receive sufficient support requires them to be embedded within “well networked organizations” and connected to an array of “other community resources.”

And that of Michigan principal Eric Jasper, whose efforts to make his campus safe and prevent gun violence draw upon a public health model that emphasizes systems and supports to promote safety and root out problems at their source to ameliorate the threat of violence. It’s an approach that calls for principals to establish a school climate in which students feel a sense of connection with and responsibility toward one another.

Other principals spoke of seeking to enhance civic agency by deepening students’ and community members’ understandings of rights, through community-building endeavors, and by inviting young people to play a role in social change.

In these and in other efforts, Berry and other principals are embracing a long-term view of the relationship between school and society. One in which by cultivating social relationships and commitments, public schools can overtime, develop more caring and community-minded adults.

“It is a vision that Dewey would appreciate,”  Rogers says.

UCLA Education Professor John Rogers

“Schools and society share the same great task of promoting strong civility in the age of Trump. But schools and school leaders will not be able to mitigate the effects of these issues on their own, and the solutions will require more than material supports.  What is needed are education and social policies that address the fear, social isolation, and distrust that currently exists and are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  If public high schools in the U.S. are to prepare young people to grow into compassionate and committed community members, our society and our schools need to exhibit care, support connectedness, and promote civility in their communities, and across social, political, and racial divides.”

School and Society in the Age of Trump is based on an online survey conducted in the summer of 2018 by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy Education and Access (IDEA) of 505 high school principals whose schools provide a representative sample of all U.S. public high schools. UCLA IDEA also conducted 40 follow-up interviews with principals who participated in the survey and were selected to be representative of the larger pool of schools. The research was led by UCLA Education Professor John Rogers, who is also the Director of UCLA IDEA. The full report, including a full summary of key findings with recommendations, is available here.

* The names of school principals quoted in this article have been changed to meet privacy guidelines of the survey.