Over the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of discussion of “what the election means for X.” As my colleague Kaitlin has written about previously, given the very limited attention to education policy issues during this campaign, and the fact that Donald Trump has released few specific policy details on any issue, it’s hard to say right now in a practical sense what Trump’s election is likely to “mean for education,” though Chad highlighted some potential implications earlier. More broadly, I think that the election as a whole, and Tuesday night’s results specifically, offer a few broad themes that those seeking to improve education policies and options for low-income kids should heed as they think about how to move forward in the current political climate:
1. The center-left consensus no longer defines the parameters of political debate. The parameters of our national policy debates over the past quarter century have been largely defined by a center-left consensus that valued globalism over tribal and national identity politics; viewed economic growth as a driving force for progress; saw free markets, innovation, and use of data and evidence as key to enabling that growth; viewed meritocracy as a positive goal; and saw education as a crucial tool for advancing inequity and helping buffer the rough edges and disruption created by market and innovation forces. The education reform movement of the past two decades largely emerged from and was shaped by that consensus, and its arguments reflect many of the same assumptions and values. It’s been clear for some time now that that center-left consensus was fraying — last night’s results, however, make it impossible to ignore. If education reformers are going to continue to make progress towards their goals for kids and schools, they are going to need to find ways to frame arguments for a new political dynamic.
2. The ascendancy of tribalism. One of the biggest ways in which this election breaks with the 90s-era consensus is in the elevation of tribal and national identity politics as driving political features. This quote from political journalist Molly Ball is particularly compelling:
This is not an election about policy. Possibly none of them have been, and we’ve all been fooling ourselves our whole lives. I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas. Maybe they were always about issues of identity and tribe and people’s sense of where the interests of their group lie and who they identify with.
George Packer makes similar points in a recent New Yorker article. The education reform movement has historically given short shrift to the power of tribal identities in driving behavior. The movement argued that privileged Americans should look against their narrow interests to support policies and investments that improve the educational and life outcomes for poor children from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds. There’s been a lot of attention lately to the ways that education reformers have at times been tone deaf or worse on issues of racial and class identity.
More broadly, however, the education reform movement has sought to build its case on appeals to logic, evidence, data, and abstract ideals while paying too little attention to the role that a much broader array of identities and allegiances play in shaping how most citizens actually judge issues and agendas. Consider Diane Ravitch: both her past academic historical work and her most recent blogging and advocacy reveal an approach to the world that is fundamentally grounded in and driven by issues of identity, allegiance, and personal loyalties. She’s certainly no Donald Trump. But they share a common rhetorical strategy of dividing the world into good people who agree with them and bad people who don’t. Labeling opponents “corporate reformers” isn’t about criticizing their ideas — it’s about guilt-by-association tied to allegiance and identity. And the huge following Ravitch has built illustrates the power of that framework for driving how people judge education issues. Unless education reformers pay more attention to the power of tribe, allegiance, and identity — in all its various forms — they’re forever going to struggle to win minds while losing hearts.
3. The decline of data, evidence, and evaluation. As noted above, education reformers have set a lot of stock in data, evidence, and evaluation — both as tools to inform decisions about educational practice and policy, and to make the case for their proposed policies. Tuesday’s results illustrate the declining efficacy of data-based arguments to inform voters, however. A huge number of Americans voted for a candidate whose blatant disregard for facts and data earned him a historically unprecedented number of PolitiFact “Pants On Fire” ratings and the first ever “King of Whoppers” title from FactCheck.org. The defeat of Massachusetts’ charter school referendum — preventing expansion of charter schools in a state where there is powerful evidence that they produce phenomenal results for kids — shows the declining power of evidence to sway voters’ views on education issues.
4. Fear of loss is a more powerful driver than hope for the future. When people write the post-mortem on this election, they’re likely going to talk about an enthusiasm gap between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters, or between Democrats and Republicans who held their noses as they voted for their parties’ candidates. I was particularly struck by last night’s data showing high levels of turnout in rural counties that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. I’m not an expert, but part of what I think we’re seeing here is that Clinton supporters were motivated by both fear of Trump and excitement about electing the first woman president — but they weren’t existentially convinced that their way of life was under attack. That’s part of why so many Clinton supporters were shocked when Trump won. Many Trump voters, on the other hand, do believe that their way of life and the America they know is fundamentally under attack by feminists, immigrants, and others who hold different values than they do — and that came through in the results.
There’s much economics and psychology literature on how the prospect of losing what you currently have is more motivating to people than the prospect of future gain. People who believe that their way of life and deeply held values are under existential attack are always going to be more motivated than people who are driven primarily by hope for future progress. That’s always going to be a challenge for progressives. But it’s also a challenge for education reform: People who fear that proposed changes are going to cause loss — whether it’s through job loss, closures of schools that have historically served their communities, or loss of privileges that come with being able to buy into a wealthy school zone — are going to be very motivated. Whereas the people with the most to benefit from those changes are often diffuse, not well organized, and may not be confident the changes will actually produce promised results. And there’s some reason to believe that this dynamic–specifically suburban voters’ fears that charters would threaten their privileged local schools–contributed to opposition to the Massachusetts charter referendum. More broadly, education reforms are inherently facing an asymmetric fight and need to plan accordingly.
5. Pay more attention to rural communities. I’m as sick as anyone of the endless articles attributing Trump’s success to the economic woes of white working class men harmed by trade. Data during the campaign clearly showed that Trump supporters had higher incomes than the national average or than Clinton supporters, and were not disproportionately from areas affected by trade or immigration. Trump’s margin among college-educated white voters Tuesday should also put that to rest. That said, we shouldn’t write an important topic off just because people are paying attention to it for the wrong reasons. This election has brought much-needed attention to the very real challenges facing the rural, white, working class in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Many of those issues are deeply embedded in education — both in the sense that economic and family instability create challenges for schools educating students, and in the sense that schools have at times contributed to and must play a role in addressing some of the challenges these communities currently face. As research by my Bellwether colleagues notes, there are significant gaps in educational attainment and aspirations for rural students, and rural schools face unique issues. But rural education has been largely ignored by education reform efforts and in debates over education policies. As a result, many recent policy strategies are largely designed with assumptions of an urban or suburban context. Going forward, I hope that this increased recognition of the challenges facing rural, white working class families can also translate into new, smart thinking about how to best help rural schools meet the needs of these children and families.