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 representative sample of over 500 public high school principals from across the country and found that 89% report that “incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community.” Eight-three percent of principals note these tensions are fueled by “untrustworthy or disputed information,” and over 90% 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. 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% 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, forty 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. 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.
“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 Twenty-first Century.
You can download both a summary and the full report here