The Trump Plan Actually Makes a lot of Sense for Education

The Trump Plan for Education Makes a lot of Sense

Whenever I hear people say, “education hasn’t changed in 100 years,” I’m always amused.  These people have no idea how many truly fascinating and innovative reforms have come and gone, and come and gone — all long before you or I were even born.  

Take one initiative which at its height affected 15% of the schools in the country.  It was called the Trump Plan.

No, not Donald Trump.  J. Lloyd Trump.

Back in the late 1950s — right around the time The Donald was collecting his first million (courtesy of the savings bonds his father had prepared for him) — Dr. J. Lloyd Trump was a professor of education at the University of Illinois.  He was also a member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In the late 1950s, they developed a committee called the Commision on the Experimental Study of the Utilization of the Staff in the Secondary School in response to a nagging problem facing public schools.

People always look back at the 1950s as some idyllic time in American public education, but if you go back and read the history, you realize that 1950s-era schools still struggled with the same intractable, inherent issues we puzzle over now.  

Like teacher shortages.

Here’s J. Lloyd Trump, writing in the early 1960s:

“The changes urged in this report result from studies which themselves grew out of the search for solution to a nationwide problem: how to improve education despite an acute shortage of teachers.  In 1955, a year before the studies began, 45,000 more teachers than were readily available were needed in high schools.”

Look at that.

The problem was so bad that the Association of Secondary School Principals established the Commision in 1956.  They spent four years of studying new ideas from “nearly 100 junior and senior high schools across the United States.” All of this was bankrolled by the Fund for the Advancement of Education and The Ford Foundation.  

“The World faces a simple fact,” Trump writes plainly.  “It may not long survive as we know it.”

“The practical question is” Are the schools ready for the job?  There is considerable reason to say they are not.”

Trump calls the Commission’s findings no less than “the story of the coming of a new kind of secondary education in America” in response to “a complex of problems which have never been experienced, collectively, before.”

So what were their ideas?  What was the Trump Plan?

***

In 1959, during the study, Trump wrote a hugely influential booklet — it wasn’t very long — called Images of the Future.  Its ideas became known as the Trump Plan.  Here are its opening words:

“The secondary school of the future will not have standard classes of 25 to 35 students meeting five days a week on inflexible schedules.  Both the size of the groups and lengths of classes will vary from day to day. Methods of teaching, student groups, and teacher and pupil activities will adjust to the purposes and content of instruction.”

Reading these words from 1959, I was struck by how modern they sound.  Of course, Trump was wrong about the schools of the future — they do have standard classes and inflexible schedules.  But it was surprising to read such a radical idea being proposed so long ago during an era we think of as stodgy, homogeneous, and traditional.

The Trump Plan was anything but traditional.  

***

Flexible Class Sizes and Meeting Times

Trump’s whole idea is that learning should happen in three different settings in high schools: large-group lectures, small group discussions, and individual study.  Let’s say you’re taking American Lit junior year. Sometimes you’ll meet in a huge group — like 100 or even 200 students — all the American Lit students in the same grade, together — to hear lectures.  Other times, you’ll be in groups of 15, discussing ideas. Still other times — a lot, by our current standards — you’ll be off on your own working during the school day. The big lectures, the discussion groups — it sounds a lot like college.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Not only should class size be flexible, but so should the weekly schedule.  Trump proposed dividing up the school day into short (30 minute) modules (“mods”) of time.  That allows the same class to meet for different lengths of time per week. For example, English class might meet for 30 minutes on Monday for a big introductory lecture, but then for 90 minutes later in the week, for a long extended period of writing time.  

Both of these ideas make a lot of sense on paper.  For example, Trump defends his large-group lecture idea by reasoning that it’s a waste of time and money for two teachers to give the same lecture to five groups of twenty students.  Instead, pool their kids and give one lecture to 200 students at once if you have the space. Same goes for his idea (and here’s where it feels really modern for those of us in Vermont) that time should be a variable.  Trump believes that scheduling classes should be flexible — where and when the large groups and small groups meet should be up to the discretion of the instructor. Again, this makes a lot of sense. Why should classes always last for the same amount of time?  We are so trained as teachers to fill the time we’re given — instead of teaching for the amount of time we need.

That’s a big, big difference.

***

The Four Kinds of Teachers

Trump doesn’t stop there.  Because this report is really about using staff more effectively, he drives deeper, proposing a new, four-tier model of a teaching force — one that looks much more like a hospital’s than a traditional school’s:

Regular teachers:  Trump advises two different levels here: teacher specialists and general teachers.  The general teachers only help with discussion sections and aren’t always full-time.

(This is interesting — the notion of two different levels of teachers.  Sort of like the distinction in some districts with “Master Teachers.”)

Instructional Assistants:  These people grade assignments, set up labs, confer with students about progress, provide the teachers with reports, and generally do what Trump calls, “aspects below the professional level of teachers.”

(This category sounds a lot like nurses, compared to doctors.)

Clerks:  These people make photocopies, grade objective tests, “keep records” (one imagines they could update gradebooks these days . . . ), take attendance (oh, god, please do!) and “other clerical duties.”

(Wait, teachers could have secretaries?)

General Aides:  These folks supervise students while they’re at school — during independent study, in the cafeteria, etc.

(This is the age-old complaint of every teacher who has to sacrifice an hour a week to supervise lunch duty: “Can’t we just pay someone to do this?”)

***

Once again, this section makes a lot of sense.  Can you imagine if teachers had someone to grade their papers for them?  I remember years ago reading off-handedly that the famous math teacher Jaime Escalante (he of “Stand and Deliver” fame) hired a grader out of his own money in order to free up time to prepare lessons.  Can you imagine — someone to grade our work for us?

I wonder:  Would teachers want this?

Sure, it would remove our biggest time burden, the part of teaching most of us hate the most.  But would it rob us of our familiarity with individual student learning trends?

(Well, not if these same assistants would be writing up reports for us to read about student progress, right?)

And can you imagine if we had someone to enter our grades for us?  It’s no secret that Proficiency Grading requires us to double and sometimes triple report — a huge tie-up of time for teachers.  If we could outsource this work to data entry managers, wouldn’t this save us tremendous time and annoyance?

***

The Trump Plan was amazingly influential.  By the early 1970s, fully 15% of American schools were using some variable — particularly the flexible schedule, which was termed the “flex mod.”

Of course none of these changes lasted.

By the late 1970s, the flex-mod schedule had almost vanished from U.S. schools.  So had any other vestiges of the Trump Plan. The problem of course was that the Trump Plan, while innovative and daring, in many ways represented the height of technocratic disconnection.  It looked great on paper, but out the real world, it fell apart.

I mean, how do think it went having 100 9th graders sitting in a room together listening to a lecture?  I’m going to go with, “A complete and utter disaster.”

Same goes for the flexible schedule idea, which sounds like a total logistical nightmare.  Our students struggle to remember what day it is (and sometimes, after a week with teenagers, I do too).  Inflexible schedules exist for a reason — they’re predictable. And when you’re dealing with crowds of moody adolescents, some small measure of predictability is, you know, kind of a good thing.

And what about the different levels of teachers?  

This never got off the ground.  Basic opposition comes from both sides.  The anti-teacher side says, “Teachers are menial workers anyway and don’t deserve secretaries.” This is a strain of thinking that fundamentally does not see teachers as professionals.

The other side, the pro-teacher camp, says, “This is just J. Lloyd Trump trying to deal with a teacher shortage by putting a bunch of less qualified people into our schools.  We need to circle ranks and make sure only certified teachers are in front of kids.”

For my part, I think that having too many cooks in the kitchen can be more trouble than it’s worth.  Imagine the discrepancies when you’ve got a major assignment given by a teacher that’s then graded by someone different, and possibly less familiar with the content and requirements.  And then a third person entering the grades? Sounds like it’s probably just quicker to do it myself.

***

The flex-mod schedule soon enough gave way to the Reagan Revolution and A Nation at Risk, which spawned a whole new “back-to-basics” era — more core classes, a return to traditional schedules, and a call for more teacher certification requirements.  By the 1990s, schools were experimenting with block schedules — a way for teachers to use time more flexibly within traditional classes, thanks to longer periods of time — while maintaining the predictability of a traditional bell schedule. Today, most schools in New England employ some form of this plan.

Still, the ideals of the Trump Plan live on in education today, albeit in much humbler forms.  I see echoes of it in the concepts of “flexible groupings” within whole classes. I see it in the advent of the “workshop model” in English teaching — with its division of class time into whole group mini-lessons, small group discussions among students, and independent work time — all divided up into small “modules” of time during a longer (70-90-minute) period of class time.  

This is the way of bold new innovations in education.  They burn brightly for a time, then seem to die out — only to be absorbed into the existing system, refined by busy educators eager to cull what works and apply it to what they’re already doing.  They rarely change the existing structure of the system, but modify it and enrich it in small but often meaningful ways.

That’s why, the next time that someone says education hasn’t changed in 100 years, you can just ask, “What about the Trump Plan”?

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