School & District Management

5 Things to Know About How the Culture Wars Are Disrupting Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — January 27, 2023 6 min read
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As clashes over COVID-19 waned in in the 2021-22 school year, debates over critical race theory, the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender students, and the books used in classrooms and school libraries increased.

A new report gives some deep insights into how these larger societal clashes permeated school districts and classrooms—and how district leaders believe they’re impacting education.

Here are five things we learned from the report, “Navigating Political Tensions Over Schooling: Findings From the Fall 2022 American School District Panel Survey”:

Fallout from the new culture wars was most disruptive in white, suburban, and low-poverty districts.

More than half of all district leaders surveyed—51 percent—said that battles over either COVID-19 safety measures and vaccines, critical race theory, or LGBTQ issues were impacting schooling.

In majority-white districts, though, 56 percent of leaders agreed or strongly agreed that they’d been impacted by tensions over one of those issues. Fifty-five percent of district leaders in low-poverty schools said the same. In contrast, 48 percent of leaders in higher-poverty districts agreed that was the case. And in those serving districts where the majority of students were people of color, only 37 percent said those issues were disrupting schooling.

Leaders in more politically mixed states faced heightened levels of interruptions from these outside tensions, with 55 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that the discord was affecting schooling. That’s higher than their peers in liberal states or conservative states, where 51 percent of district leaders said they’d been impacted by tensions over divisive issues.

“I think that what we are seeing and hearing from district leaders is that these debates can have a chilling effect for leaders, that trickle down into classrooms in important ways,” said Ashley Jochim, the report’s lead author.

The divisive rhetoric and debates are making the demanding job of school district leadership even harder, especially when leaders feel any decision they make or practice they put into place is being heavily scrutinized and taken out of context, she said.

Districts serving majority-white students were the staging grounds for many of the new culture war fights.

In all of the categories explored in the report—including whether district leaders saw an increase in open-records requests, threats against school board members and educators, requests to remove books from school libraries and classrooms, or about teaching and training for teachers on controversial topics—school systems serving majority-white students experienced the most of those activities, compared to those serving primarily students of color.

It’s possible that parents in majority-white or more affluent districts had more efficacy and agency to contact their local school board members and districts, Jochim said.

But it could also be that those issues didn’t resonate in communities of color, where people were dealing with other challenges, including the economic and health repercussions of the pandemic, which fell harder on communities of color. Districts in more politically liberal areas were more in line with their communities—but cases of disruptions were more likely when local politics were out of step with their states’.

Curriculum didn’t necessarily change, but what students learn was affected.

The report found that the majority of districts were not changing their curriculum in response to the discord.

But—and this is a big one—the changes that were made could be consequential.

While seven percent or fewer said in the survey that they were making adjustments to how they taught social studies, civics, or world history, the changes detailed in follow-up interviews were significant.

One district leader told researchers that teachers had stopped discussing elections in classes—a foundational issue in civics education and preparing students to be citizens in a democracy. Another said that issues related to gender identity had been removed from the curriculum in the lower grades. And one said that discussions related to “controversial topics” had been totally excised from the curriculum.

More common, though, were modifications to social-emotional learning, health and sex-education programs, with one district leader saying that the district had scrapped an SEL survey of elementary school students.

Things were not always red versus blue, conservative versus liberal.

Take threats to educators and book bans, for example.

About 37 percent of district leaders in blue states said their educators had received verbal or written threats about controversial topics—higher than those in more conservative, or red, states and more politically mixed, or purple, states. They also received more open-records requests.

Lawsuits or threats of lawsuits over teaching controversial subjects were more common in urban districts than suburban ones.

And even though a higher number of suburban district leaders said their school board members received verbal or written threats, still 35 percent of leaders in urban school districts said the same.

“That is something that surprised me—that it’s so common,” Jochim said.

District leaders thought they tamped down some discord with home-grown solutions.

Without much training and preparation, district leaders have been trying to insulate their staff and students from the furor emanating from outside school walls.

Nearly half—46 percent—say they successfully took steps to tamp down on the discord and combat misinformation.

Those leading systems in areas that are Democratic-leaning, suburban, and higher-income were more likely to say their efforts worked.

Some of what they tried?

  • New policies to review library books in response to requests to remove items;
  • A review process for how to teach “controversial” materials;
  • Community meetings and one-on-one sessions with parents to share information and combat misinformation; and
  • Opt-out options for parents who didn’t want their children in classes with “controversial topics.”

Can some of those responses work across school systems? It’s unclear.

Jochim said she’d like to see more research on the effectiveness of these strategies and more training for district leaders on navigating politically perilous waters.

While the extremely partisan nature of the debates is new, district leaders have always had to wade through political minefields, she said.

“District leaders have a role to play in insulating teachers and other front-line staff from the worst aspects of these conflicts, and we need to position them with strategies to do so,” Jochim said.

And don’t forget school boards, she said. Local school board elections have become increasingly partisan, and single-issue board members can inflame tensions and derail a superintendent’s agenda.

“You can be a very effective superintendent and district leader, but if you have a board that’s pulling you in different directions then that could very quickly undermine your ability to do this other work,” Jochim said. “So thinking about how do we position boards to be a supporting player alongside superintendents to manage these conflicts—I think that’s a really important question.”

The report was based on surveys of 300 district leaders and leaders of charter management organizations conducted between October and December last year. It also drew on 22 interviews with seven superintendents between January 2021 and November last year. It was written by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, The American School District Panel, assembled by RAND Education, and Arizona State University.

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