Should the Classroom Be Politically Neutral?

October 13, 2008 1 min read

My fellow bloggers at have covered the lawsuit filed last week by the New York City teachers’ union, which is protesting restrictions on teachers wearing political buttons in school (see Teacher Beat and Campaign K-12 ). But there is a compelling curriculum angle to the issue as well.

The United Federation of Teachers asked for a temporary restraining order against the decades-old policy—which Chancellor Joel Klein recently asked principals to enforce—it says violates educators’ free-speech rights.

I’ve spoken to a lot of history/social studies teachers over the last 12 years at Ed Week, and written a number of stories about how controversial issues are handled in the classroom. Last week, I wrote about the presidential election and how teachers are trying to engage students in history and civics lessons and develop their critical-thinking skills around the social and political issues involved in the campaign.

Most of the teachers I’ve encountered have gone to great lengths to get students to balance all sides and all issues, and to draw conclusions based on their research and carefully informed opinions. In the view of these teachers, sharing their own preferences regarding candidates could undermine this goal. In some cases, it would also violate district policy.

One high school teacher I interviewed for this election story said she works hard to avoid any partisan discussion and doesn’t share her own personal views, even though students often ask her opinion, because she’s trying to get them to think for themselves.

I wonder if this is the ideal just for a social studies course, or if it should be the mantra for all teachers. Certainly a political button could help spark discussion of the issues in the classroom, but it could also alienate or intimidate students who think the teacher only wants to hear certain viewpoints.

Even if teachers have the right to express their opinion in school, should they? What would students learn from such an exercise?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.