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Teachers Say They Have Little Influence in Curriculum Debates

As debates over whether and how topics of race, gender, and sexual orientation should be taught in K-12 schools continue across the country, new national survey data of teachers, students, and the American public reveals how complicated the discussion can get.

In a new Pew Research Center report, 71 percent of teachers said they don’t have enough influence in what K-12 public schools teach in their given area. Sixty-one percent said principals have about the right amount of influence and 58 percent said their state government has too much.

While 53 percent of teachers in the nationally representative survey said that debates over instruction on race and LGBTQ+ issues have had neither a positive nor negative impact on their work, 41 percent said these debates have had a negative impact on their ability to do their job. Many of the teachers (58 percent) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party. About 35 percent identified with or leaned toward the GOP, according to the report.

A recent RAND Corporation study also found that two-thirds of teachers nationwide are deciding on their own to limit discussions of political and social issues in class, including those in states without laws restricting such instruction.

“When we’re finding that teachers, even when they are not subject to laws and regulations, are still censoring themselves, then that’s a big indicator of the power that teachers feel they have in these debates, and the consequences of fears of professional reprimands, even when they don’t explicitly have those [laws and regulations],” said William Rodick, the P-12 practice lead for the Education Trust, an advocacy and research organization. (Rodick was not involved in the Pew study.)

The survey also found that communities had different feelings about the topics of race and gender, even though they are often lumped together. At least 18 states have passed legislation limiting instruction in both of these topics.

For instance, 48 percent of the surveyed teachers in the Pew study said parents should be able to opt their children out of instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity. However 60 percent said parents should not be able to opt their children out of instruction on racism or racial inequality.

Survey data also found topics of race are far more likely to come up in classrooms than LGBTQ+ topics, especially in English and social studies classrooms, said Juliana Horowitz, the associate director for social trends research at the Pew Research Center.

And while attitudes among teachers and the general public on these topics of instruction largely fell along party lines—with Democrats more likely than Republicans to be open to these instructional topics—there was no political division among teachers when it came to feeling they lack influence over topics of instruction.

A complicated picture of what to teach

The new Pew data came from three surveys, among them an online survey of 2,531 U.S. public K-12 teachers conducted from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, 2023, as part of the RAND American Teacher panel. Separately, 5,029 U.S. adults were surveyed from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16, 2023, as members of the Ipsos Knowledge Panel. And 1,453 teens ages 13-17 were surveyed from Sept. 26 to Oct. 23, 2023, through Ipsos.

Among the findings, most teachers (64 percent) said students should learn that the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black people in American society today. In a separate 2022 parent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 49 percent of parents agreed, marking a bit of a divide in perceptions, Horowitz said.

And on the topic of gender identity—specifically, whether a person’s gender can be different from or is determined by their sex assigned at birth—half of public K-12 teachers said students shouldn’t learn about this in school. However, 68 percent also said topics of sexual orientation and gender identity rarely or never came up in their classroom in the 2022-23 school year.

Among teens, 38 percent said they feel comfortable when topics related to racism or racial inequality come up in class. A smaller share of teens (29 percent) said they feel comfortable when topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity come up.

More Black teens than white or Hispanic teens said they were uncomfortable with topics of race coming up in class, yet Black teens were also the most likely to say they wanted to learn how the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black Americans today.

That seeming contradiction could be because students were not asked about their attitudes on these topics outside of class, Horowitz said. And there also weren’t questions specific to student classroom experience.

“Racism has never been discussed in a substantial way that actually connects to policy and history,” said Rodick with EdTrust.

He added that there’s a tendency to frame topics related to race and gender identity as additional or a change to traditional instruction, yet these topics are often already covered. Students learn about straight historical figures, or are asked to discuss racism in a way superficially or historically that is disconnected from their lived experiences.

Where to go from here

For Horowitz, the survey findings speak for more nuanced conversations around curriculum debates, including an acknowledgment that teachers feel they don’t have much influence in these decisions.

Rodick also calls for a more nuanced and localized approach to the debate.

“We’re having these discussions in media and in political discussions that are very removed from the conversations that parents and families and students are having with their teachers and administrators in schools,” he said. “I think we would be well served by grounding our discussion in the reality of what teachers are grappling with uncertainties about instruction. How are they then communicating with parents? How are they having these discussions with students?”

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