Nearly a third of teachers who have chosen not to address controversial topics in the classroom worry about professional or legal consequences for talking about race, gender, and sexuality, a new Education Week survey shows.
That response comes at a time when issues like critical race theory, educational equity, LGBTQ rights, and bans on books and other learning materials take center stage in some political campaigns and community debates as the November midterm election approaches.
And while large majorities of teachers, principals, and administrators surveyed opposed state restrictions on teaching certain topics, roughly a quarter favored restrictions in teaching about race, the Holocaust, and slavery, and nearly a third said they would support restrictions on sex education and on discussing gender and sexual orientation.
Meanwhile school safety and security—a top of mind issue in the wake of deadly school shootings such as in Uvalde, Texas—leads the list of issues that educators say are being discussed, with 74 percent saying it comes up some or a lot.
In interviews, some survey-takers who were contacted by Education Week also worried that the focus on hot-button cultural topics overshadows more pressing issues such as staffing shortages and an overall lack of respect for the profession.
“They talk about, ‘Oh, teachers, they’re our heroes.’ No, we’re not. Because if we really were you would treat us better,” said Mike Williams, an elementary school teacher in Columbus, Ga.
The EdWeek Research Center’s latest survey, done Sept. 27 through Oct. 4, asked 1,019 educators, including district leaders, principals, and teachers, about political issues that are shaping K-12 schools. Those who take the survey are asked if they are willing to be contacted for interviews afterward. The respondents represented a range of political ideologies with 32 percent identifying as liberal, 33 percent identifying as moderate, and 35 percent identifying as conservative.
Of the teachers who responded, 56 percent said they haven’t raised or discussed any politically controversial topics with their students.
But 32 percent of the teachers said they have avoided potentially controversial topics, including politics, slavery, gender, religion, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation, the Holocaust, and sexual education. Their reasons include concern about legal consequences, how their supervisors or administrators would react, or because their supervisors or administrators warned them not to discuss those topics.
The data appear to confirm warnings from education advocates about retribution for touching on race, gender, and sexuality in classroom lessons. At the same time, teachers, administrators, and school personnel are pleading for solutions to education issues such as falling test scores, staffing shortages, and student mental health concerns.
“Politicians do not know what we’re actually doing. So when it comes to actual content and curriculum, they need to just stay in their lane,” said Lesley Jorge, a high school teacher in Chicago. “I don’t know how to run a government; I’m not going to pretend that I do. You don’t know what it is to educate America’s youth, so step back.”
Opposition to limiting instruction on controversial topics
When asked if they support or oppose state government restrictions on K-12 teaching, curriculum, or reading materials involving a set of controversial topics, the majority of survey respondents, regardless of their political ideology, were opposed.
Sixty-eight percent said they opposed restrictions on instruction around gender and sexual orientation, 69 percent opposed restrictions on sex ed, and 74 percent opposed restrictions on ethnicity and race.
But nearly a quarter to a third of the teachers, principals, and administrators expressed support for restrictions. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they support restrictions on teaching, curriculum, or reading materials related to the Holocaust, and 23 percent said they support the same for content related to slavery.
While respondents who identify as liberals were the most vehemently opposed to curriculum restrictions altogether, moderates and conservative educators are also finding themselves at odds with the policies,which have been enacted in 17 states so far. Fifty-seven percent of conservatives and 74 percent of moderates identified themselves as opposed to restrictions on ethnicity and race. And 49 percent of conservatives and 65 percent of moderates were against restrictions on discussions of gender and sexuality.
Thirty-eight percent of conservatives identified themselves as in support of restrictions on teaching about slavery and the Holocaust. Only 9 percent of liberals were in support of restrictions on teaching about slavery, and 10 percent were in support of restrictions on teaching about the Holocaust.
“I don’t know how to run a government; I’m not going to pretend that I do. You don’t know what it is to educate America’s youth, so step back.”
In states where lawmakers have already passed policies limiting discussions about divisive topics, educators say in interviews that the laws are a nuisance at best and silencing at worst.
Cindy Phillips, a former history teacher and now a grant specialist at the Weilenmann School of Discovery, a charter school in Park City, Utah, said she had to confront concerns about her curriculum with “numerous parents” last year, who were concerned that she would be teaching critical race theory to their students.
Last August, state lawmakers instructed the Utah Board of Education to develop new policies that prohibit teachers from explicitly saying one race is superior to another, according to reporting from the Salt Lake Tribune. The school board at Weilenmann is pretty progressive—Phillips herself identifies as moderate—and didn’t instruct teachers to change their curriculum in response to the new rules, Phillips said. If it weren’t for that response, she would have quit her job.
“I would have continued to teach what I teach and if it wasn’t going to be allowed, I probably would have quit,” Phillips said. “One thing I won’t do is teach fake history.”
Teachers experience mixed reactions to teaching controversial topics
The survey results show that community or parent reactions to what teachers say about potentially controversial subjects have been mixed. Forty-one percent of teachers said they haven’t experienced any reactions to teaching about ethnicity and race even though they discuss the subject, and 32 percent said they don’t teach about the subject so they don’t experience any reactions.
Twenty-two percent said they have received positive reactions, including praise, encouragement, and pressure to address ethnicity and race more, after discussing the topic, while 12 percent said they’ve experienced criticism, disciplinary action, threats or pressure to address ethnicity and race less.
A majority of teachers—57 percent—said they don’t address the topic of sexual orientation or gender with their students. Thirteen percent of teachers said they’ve experienced encouragement, praise, or pressure to address sexuality and gender identity to a greater degree, while 12 percent said they’ve experienced criticism, threats, legal action, disciplinary action, or pressure to address sexuality and gender less. Twenty-three percent said they haven’t experienced any reactions despite addressing the topic with students.
Emmett Thompson, an administrator at a school district in Oklahoma, said the cultural issues haven’t had a major impact on his district’s operations or classroom instruction even after the state passed a law limiting instruction about race and gender. Even so, Thompson’s district has communicated with parents and community members about what is being taught in schools since the law passed and as questions arise.
“During open houses and parent-teacher conferences, we’ve been able to give our parents and community as much information as possible and answer questions whenever they arise,” he said. “But our basic focus is just making sure the curriculum meets Oklahoma academic standards.”
When cultural outcry distracts from important issues
Although many educators said they aren’t teaching controversial topics, they perceive that cultural issues take up a significant portion of the campaign rhetoric in school board, legislative, and gubernatorial races, the survey found.
But 58 percent of educators also said critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies, is being discussed some or a lot in political campaigns in their states, according to the survey. Educational equity (not specifically defined in the survey) is also a frequent topic, with 60 percent of respondents saying it’s being discussed some or a lot in campaigns. Sixty-two percent of respondents said ethnic and gender discrimination and inclusion are being discussed some or a lot as well.
There has also been a significant focus on parental rights. Seventy percent of respondents said parental rights in education take up some or a lot of the discussion in political campaigns, but 79 percent of teachers, principals, and administrators think parents have just about the right amount or too high of an influence over their children’s day-to-day education.
79 percent of teachers, principals, and administrators think parents have just about right amount or too high of an influence over their children’s day-to-day education.
Many conservative politicians are campaigning on establishing parents’ “bill of rights” policies that allow parents to approve, amend, or reject curriculum and instruction. The push for parents’ rights accelerated after the election of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, who stoked parent concerns about COVID-19 protocols, curriculum, and instruction in his successful 2021 gubernatorial campaign.
The parents’ rights policies are “another slap in the teachers’ face,” said Williams, the Columbus elementary school teacher.
“It’s another way to police me to make sure I’m doing my job and that’s another reason why we’re having teacher shortages,” he said. “Honestly, we are not a respected profession anymore.”
Educators interviewed for this article say until policymakers and the public prioritize issues such as expanding the pipeline of teachers, holding onto effective staff, and providing critical resources to public schools, the cultural issues are a huge distraction from what really matters: putting children on a path to success in school and life.
“This is the time when we should be looking at why educated, very well-intentioned, very hard-working people are not able to produce the outcomes we all want and to look at the system,” Phillips said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Educators Are Deeply Conflicted on Teaching Heated Cultural Issues, Survey Finds