Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education who has profiled vital and challenging American classrooms, the work of teachers, and the role of public schools to extend opportunity, added a post to his blog this week about new research from a group of his colleagues at UCLA: School and Society in the Age of Trump.
Rose explains why he believes this report is so important: “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 us. 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.'”
The report isolates current social issues and problems that are increasing pressure across American high schools for students, teachers, and school administrators:
- political division, incivility, and hostility;
- disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources;
- the impact of the opioid crisis on families;
- the threat of immigration enforcement; and
- the threat of gun violence in schools and neighborhoods.
When the researchers surveyed high school principals and compiled the data, they discovered that today’s political atmosphere is undermining the climate inside the school: “In eighty-three percent of schools these tensions are intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities.”
Students also carry with them to school the effects of three widespread and very concrete conditions in their lives outside school—the opioid crisis, heightened immigration enforcement, and widespread gun violence.
The opioid crisis is most seriously affecting students in predominantly white schools in small towns and rural areas. Nearly a third of principals interviewed in the study reported the occurrence of fatal overdoses in families of students in their school community. “Principals say opioid addiction in students’ families has resulted in student concerns about their well-being or the well-being of family members, students losing focus in class or missing classes, parent and guardian difficulties in supporting students, and a lack of parent and guardian participation in school activities.”
Heightened immigration enforcement affects students in school, despite that even undocumented students have a Constitutionally protected right to an education and cannot be arrested at school. Students bring to school their anxiety about the potential arrest of family members: “Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016… the rhetoric and actions of the president and his administration have dramatically heightened the vulnerability of children and taken a toll on their physical and mental health and education… 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 or undermined the ability of parents to support student learning… More than half of principals report that immigrant parents and guardians have been reluctant to share information with the school. Students and parents are reluctant to discuss their citizenship status with school personnel… Eight in ten principals surveyed report partnering with community-based organizations that provide services for immigrant students and families, while five in ten report connecting families to legal services.”
The study confirms: “Almost all of the high school principals we surveyed and interviewed report that their schools have been impacted by the threat of gun violence… Schools with large proportions of students of color have been affected most. Principals dedicate more time addressing problems associated with the threats of gun violence than any other challenge they currently face.” Schools receive threats of violence, and students lose focus in class or miss school due to “concerns with gun violence at school or in the surrounding community.”
The problems are widespread: “Virtually every school, regardless of region, community type, or racial make up was impacted by these challenges.” “The principals who participated in our study come from schools that reflect the rich diversity of public high schools across the United States. Virtually every one of these principals experienced at least one of the five challenges addressed in the study. Often they experience several challenges at once… Schools enrolling predominantly students of color are most impacted by the threats of immigration enforcement and gun violence. Predominantly white schools are most impacted by the opioid crisis.”
The researchers worry that proactively addressing such a complex and intertwined set of problems is challenging the ability of administrators and teachers to respond in a comprehensive way: “It was rare for principals in our study to respond to the threat of gun violence in a manner consistent with the comprehensive public health model of school safety—which represents the consensus approach within school safety scholarship. That model emphasizes establishing a school climate in which students feel a sense of connection with and responsibility toward one another. It also entails investing in counselors, psychologists, and social workers who can identify students in need of counseling and provide mental health services.”
The report’s primary recommendation is that schools, “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.” Much of the challenge is a matter of lack of capacity, not lack of concern: “Principals report spending extra time on supervision, school discipline and community outreach related to school incivility and challenges with untrustorthy 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 the challenges. Some principals have intervened with immigration authorities on behalf of students and families. Others have sent backpacks full of food home for the weekend, 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.”
School and Society in the Age of Trump presents a picture of the American high school that should concern us all: “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. 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 opioid misuse, threats to immigrant communities, and gun violence, increases the possibilities for division and distrust amongst students and between educators and the broader community.”