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Teachers Censor Themselves on Socio-Political Issues, Even Without Restrictive State Laws

Two-thirds of teachers across the nation said they were deciding on their own to limit discussions of political and social issues in class, including those in states without laws restricting such instruction, according to new survey results from the RAND Corporation.

Only about a third of survey respondents worked in one of the 18 states that enacted laws restricting how topics of race and gender can be discussed in classrooms at the time of the survey early last year. Over half of participating teachers who are not subject to those restrictions or local restrictions are still deciding to limit their instruction about political and social issues, said Ashley Woo, an assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and lead author of the new survey results report.

“Spillover from these state restrictions is happening even in school communities where maybe parents and family members might actually support instruction about political and social issues,” Woo said.

The nationally representative survey of 1,439 K–12 teachers, which was administered from Jan. 11 to Feb. 10, 2023, provides a quantitative look at what researchers and educators have anecdotally observed in the last few years: a shifting political climate across the country has affected how teachers approach certain sociopolitical topics in the classroom.

‘Unsurprising but disheartening’

Woo and her research team looked at state and local policy context as well as the local political climate within districts to see how these all influenced the decisions that teachers were making in the classroom.

The survey found that 51 percent of teachers nationally were subject to a state restriction, local restriction, or both. Local restrictions—broadly meaning messages, guidance, and directives given out by school or district leaders—came up as a pervasive reason for teachers to decide to limit their instruction, regardless of whether there was a state restriction in place, Woo said.

“For a teacher who’s working in any state with a restriction,” Woo said, “they might not expect their state leaders to come walking through their classrooms, but I think it is more plausible for them to think ‘hey, my principal, or even maybe my district leader, might poke their head into my classroom to see what I’m doing.’”

The survey also found that even in places where teachers are not subject to any restrictions, and they’re working in very liberal school communities, about 40 percent said they were still limiting their instruction, Woo added.

Teachers in conservative communities—localities that voted for former president Donald Trump in the 2020 election—were more likely to limit instruction in the absence of restrictions than teachers in liberal communities.

Nationally, the most common reason teachers gave for deciding to limit their instruction was that they were not sure whether their school or district leaders would support them if parents expressed concerns.

Since January 2021, policymakers in 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict instruction on the academic concept of critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. (The new RAND survey did not look into whether lawmakers’ failed attempts to pass such legislation could have influenced teachers but could be something to review in the future, Woo said.)

The survey results were both unsurprising and disheartening, said Lawrence Paska and Wesley Hedgepeth, executive director and president respectively of the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional association advocating for high-quality social studies instruction.

Hedgepeth, who also teaches social studies in Virginia, has noticed in the last few years how states and local school boards have moved away from messaging about what teachers must teach to focus instead on what they cannot teach.

“These restrictive actions, they’re also so vague, that it’s not surprising that this chilling effect has crossed borders, or is affecting teachers that live in and work in places that don’t have these restrictions,” he said.

For Paska, what’s at stake isn’t just a matter of topics being struck from the curriculum.

“We have to stop and think, is what we’re doing by silencing, questioning, cutting, legislating, is this really in the best interest of kids? Or is this hurting a child’s desire to satisfy their innate curiosity and questions about the world around them, and a teacher’s ability to provide the best learning experience possible? The answer is yes,” Paska said.

What can potentially shift things?

The new RAND survey results are particularly striking when compared to an earlier study Woo led in the spring of 2021, when three-quarters of participating teachers said they engaged, at least to some extent, in anti-bias education.

“What we’re hoping to do in our future research is trying to see how that number has shifted in the wake of these restrictions,” Woo said.

Hedgepeth added that school board elections, and specifically getting more individuals with education backgrounds onto school boards, are key moving forward. School board members with education experience can better support teachers’ work, he said. Teachers could also benefit from more training to support them in teaching political and social issues, he added.

Hedgepeth and Woo also acknowledged the role state legislators can play in better codifying protections for teachers, outlining what they can teach, as opposed to legislating restrictions.

“If policymakers want that kind of instruction to happen in their classrooms, I think it’s something that they kind of have to actively support,” Woo said.

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