School & District Management

Polls About Lessons on Racism in Schools Can Be Eye-Opening, and Misleading

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 02, 2021 11 min read
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So what does your average voter or parent think about systemic racism, anyway? And do they think that topic ought to be taught in schools?

If you are a school or district leader—a school superintendent, a principal, or a board member—you’re no doubt trying to decide whether to launch, continue, or spike anti-bias training for teachers or staff, and fielding lots of passionate reactions from parents and even op-ed columnists about classroom lessons on race.

For the broader perspective, you might be tempted to look at what public opinion polls show on the matter. There are a glut of them dominating the national news cycle partly thanks to the prominence of race and so-called “critical race theory” in last month’s elections.

An EdWeek analysis of a half-dozen recent polls points to fundamental difficulties of crafting an instrument that elicits nuanced answers on a deeply complex topic, and yields insights about how framing can dramatically affect the results. We also asked a scholar of race and law, as well as Holly Kurtz and Sterling Lloyd, respectively the director and assistant director of the EdWeek Research Center, to weigh in on the challenges of devising and interpreting these polls.

Their big takeaway: Be really, really cautious.

“Race is a difficult concept. The history of race and how it was embedded into our practices and policies in very insidious ways is very difficult to convey,” said Janel George, an associate professor of law at Georgetown Law Center and the founding director of a law clinic that works on racial equity and law. “It takes a whole semester for a lot of students to even grapple with, and because it’s complex, it becomes easier to conflate with other things.”

Said Lloyd of the EdWeek Research Center: “It’s best practice for researchers to be transparent about whether they defined a topic for respondents and about whether they asked them about specific instructional practices or not.”

And, cautioned Kurtz, “the more you simplify a complex topic, the more risk you face that you will distill it to the point that you end up providing a distorted view.” But simplification is, in a sense, the name of the game in surveying: Survey instruments have to be constructed to be concise to avoid attrition or confusion among respondents.

Still, carefully parsed, the findings from these polls may help school district leaders find more specific and productive ways about talking about race in their communities.

For each poll, we’ve listed the technical margins of error, but be aware that these are greater for sub-samples (like respondents of particular demographic categories or political party affiliations).

One common finding: Parents—and the public at large—are uncertain and confused

If there is one thing to take away from these results, it’s caution. Quite a few of the national polls simply ask for respondents’ take on whether “critical race theory” should be taught in schools or not.

At this point, the term has traveled far beyond the original academic framework that legal scholars developed in the 1980s. That means every poll respondent is bringing their own ideas about it to the table, making it much more difficult to interpret responses. And by now, perspectives are also largely refracted through a national political lens—right along with masking, vaccinations, and other COVID-related topics.

“It’s a particular challenge because it’s a topic that wasn’t widely known or widely discussed until the recent controversy about it,” said Lloyd. “Given that reality, survey results could potentially be influenced by how a given poll defines it or whether researchers choose to define the term for respondents at all. It’s a good reason to be cautious about relying too heavily on the results from any single poll.”

Still, one thing that nearly all of the polls reveal, sometimes obliquely, is that that there’s quite a lot of uncertainty and confusion. Take a look at, for instance, a September Fox News poll in Virginia, where the topic has dominated the news cycle, thanks to the gubernatorial election and ongoing controversy in the state’s Loudon County district over diversity and inclusion efforts.

(Fox News polling is well-respected and separate from the channel’s right wing cable news coverage. The poll was conducted from a random sample of 900 Virginia registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

Asked whether they favored or opposed teaching critical race theory in public schools, 27 percent said they supported teaching the topic, and 39 percent said they opposed it. But nearly a third—32 percent—said they simply hadn’t heard enough to say.

This poll also broke out results demographically, and while Black respondents were more likely to support teaching critical race theory (44 percent), they were also more likely to say they hadn’t heard enough about it (37 percent). This is an important reminder, too: Within demographic categories, responses are never monolithic.

The high degree of uncertainty and confusion probably reflects the myriad ways pundits have framed the discussion about race and schools. But it suggests that despite a lot of loud, angry chatter, there are others who don’t yet have a dyed-in-the wool opinion. That presents an opportunity for school and district leaders: It means they have a chance to add clarity, rather than fuel, to the debate.

Tellingly, in a recent national poll by Yahoo News, fully 42 percent of respondents said they had never heard of critical race theory. (The poll of about 1,600 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.)

That said, the EdWeek analysts noted, there is still value in asking people their opinions because it’s common for people to vote or show up to a demonstration without fully understanding what it means.

“People base their decisions on what they think about it, regardless of what they think it means,” said Lloyd.

How you frame the debate about race matters

This is an insight that shows up in several different places. The November Yahoo poll asked about specific race-related topics, as well as about critical race theory. It found that 78 percent of adults felt that students should be taught about America’ history of slavery and 71 percent felt they should be taught about the country’s history of racism—much higher percentages than those who reported supporting critical race theory.

The two are related but not identical concepts. New laws passed in about a dozen states aimed at CRT, though, have yielded challenges to specific history and literature topics.
A Monmouth University poll from early November similarly found differences depending on how the topic was broached. It asked half of the poll sample about whether they approved teaching about “the history of racism” in public schools, to which 75 percent approved, including more than half of Republicans. The other half of the sample was asked about teaching critical race theory in public schools and won only 43 percent support overall, including just 16 percent of Republicans.

“Whoever controls the message controls how the public will react. As the huge differences in the poll questions on teaching race show, a negative visceral message can be very powerful in reframing an issue in the public’s mind,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, in a statement.

This is partly because prior political polling has shown that results differ depending on whether people are asked about a slogan or specific policies—like the difference between framing “Obamacare” vs. “the Affordable Care Act.”

“Since critical race theory may be a political symbol for some respondents, it’s not surprising that views about it may differ from opinions on specific instructional practices,” said Lloyd of the EdWeek Research Center. “The upshot is that it’s important to keep in mind that polls have shown a link between support for or opposition to critical race theory and respondents’ political party identification.”

A third poll, from a Democratic polling agency, the Global Strategy Group, found that talking about race in terms of a diverse curriculum also seemed to help.

“‘Critical,’ ‘race,’— those are two scary words for a lot of people,” said Mario Brossard, senior vice president of research for GSG. “The team suspected that what we perceived it to be at its core—the diversification of the curriculum—might go a long way to turning down the temperature, and we found that particularly with white voters.”

When asked whether they support or oppose diversifying the curriculum to include the perspectives of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans, 65 percent of white voters strongly or somewhat supported the idea. For comparison, 79 percent of Black voters did.

(The poll sampled 600 white registered voters in battleground states, 600 Black registered voters, 100 Hispanic registered voters and 100 Asian registered voters. The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.)

Discomfort increases when the discussion moves to lower grades, or to contemporary issues

The PIE network, which represents education advocacy groups, in September conducted a thorough look at race-related issues in public schools. There’s a lot in the results worth looking at, but take, for example, these two findings (slides 29 and 30 in the deck.)

Majorities of respondents across the political spectrum, believed the U.S. Civil War, the civil rights movement, and slavery should be taught at the high school level. That support was lower for teaching about those topics at the middle school level, and much lower at the elementary school level, indicating that age-appropriateness may be a concern for parents.

The poll also found that voters were more split about teaching that racial inequality exists today, with 69 percent of Democrats or those leaning Democratic supporting it and just 35 percent of Republicans or those leaning Republican saying it should be taught.

Learning about history is one thing; learning about how history informs the racial disparities that show up today, however, appears to be another story. It’s a finding that raises some tough questions about teaching about race in K-12 education, especially when discussing current events and civics-related questions.

“When you say something like ‘racial inequality exists today,’ I’m imagining some parents are perceiving it as there is some kind of culpability in that,” George mused.

(The PIE poll is based on about 2,000 registered voters plus an oversample of 502 registered voters who are K-12 parents. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.)

Dismissing parents or the public’s concerns could backfire

The CGC’s researchers also tested some different messages aimed at countering the movement in statehouses toward banning race-related topics. Their insights are designed for politicians, but there are lessons in here for how school leaders talk about race, too.

The messages that tended to be the most convincing came from a teaching and student perspective: that a rich curriculum builds students’ critical thinking skills and that teachers have a duty to teach a full accounting of history without censorship, Brossard said.

Somewhat less effective were messages that appealed to the general value of inclusion, to the importance of truth and facts in teaching, or messages that overtly put CRT into a political context.

The most unhelpful approach took a dismissive tone, arguing that CRT either wasn’t being taught or has morphed into a meaningless term. As it turns out, telling people their fears aren’t warranted is not a particularly helpful approach.

Beware push polls

And finally, amid all of these different gauges of public attitudes, there’s one kind to watch out for: a type of poll designed more to influence perceptions than to gather feedback.

“Advocacy organizations may define controversial terms using overtly partisan language in order to produce poll results that are supportive of their political or policy goals, especially when polling is intertwined with a highly polarized electoral campaign,” Lloyd said.

A July poll commissioned by the conservative American Principals Project asserts that critical race theory “teaches young white children that they are oppressors due to the color of their skin and teaches young minority children that they are victims trapped in a system rigged against them.” That’s a caricature of the debate experts like George have pushed back on.

When put in these terms, just 26 percent of parents said it should be taught in schools and 58 percent said it shouldn’t be. (The poll sampled 600 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)

Overall, George fears that schools are being caught up in the racialized attacks that, last century, doomed perceptions of other public services.

“These divisive attacks are making a lot of people dissociate from public education the way many have disassociated from public health policy, welfare policy,” she said. “Another unifying concept is: Do you believe in public education? I want to know how that polls. Because if [parents] do value it, we can try to focus on how we strengthen our public schools and ensure students are learning and engaged. We can’t get to conversations on critical race theory if students can’t read and write and do math and analyze.”

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