The public is divided on whether schools have a responsibility to ensure that all students learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism, a new national survey shows.
And as debates over how children learn about sensitive subjects bubble up across the country, Americans are also split on whether parents or teachers should have “a great deal of” influence over what is taught in schools, the survey shows. Republicans tend to defer to parents of schoolchildren, while Democrats tend to think teachers should get to decide how to teach about certain issues.
“These results suggest that not only are we divided about what’s the best curriculum, but we’re also divided about who gets to figure that out and who gets to decide,” said Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science and sociology at Pennsylvania State University who co-authored the report. “That makes it hard to solve a problem if we can’t even agree on the process, and it suggests that these kinds of issues are going to continue to come up at the local level, and we won’t be able to solve by consensus.”
The nationally representative survey of 1,200 U.S. adults, conducted in early December, was designed by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and analyzed by the American Public Media Research Lab. The goal was to understand how Americans think three controversial subjects should be taught in school: slavery and race, evolution, and sexual education.
While most Americans think schools have a responsibility to teach about slavery, only about half think schools should teach about the ongoing effects of racism. However, responses differed when separated by race: 79 percent of Black Americans think that students should learn about the ongoing impacts of slavery and racism, while 48 percent of white Americans think schools should teach about historical slavery but not contemporary race relations.
The survey also found that 10 percent of Americans don’t think that schools have a responsibility to ensure that all students learn about the history of slavery and racism in the United States.
“It’s hard to know exactly what’s in the minds of [those people], but it seems to be consistent with the idea that increasing numbers of Americans want to remove from our curriculum anything that somehow reflects poorly on the United States as a country or their state, and that it’s unpleasant to think about slavery and its legacy, and they’d rather it not be taught at all,” Plutzer said.
Plutzer said he sees similarities between these findings and some of the recent controversies over how schools teach the Holocaust. A Tennessee school district, for instance, removed the graphic novel Maus from its 8th grade curriculum because of the school board’s objections to the book’s profanity and nudity.
There’s a desire among some Americans to gloss over the violence and horrors that happened in both slavery and the Holocaust, Plutzer said—to teach “slavery-lite, or Holocaust-lite.”
There’s a political divide over who should influence curriculum
When asked how much influence different stakeholders should have in deciding how to teach about slavery and race, 41 percent of Americans said parents should have “a great deal of influence” and a third said the same about social studies teachers. Americans were much less likely to say that the state legislature and governor should have much influence.
“These data show that most folks would like to have this taken care of at the local level and in particular by those people who are closest to the action—the teachers and the parents of schoolchildren,” Plutzer said.
Even so, many of these decisions are being made at the state level. Fourteen states have imposed bans on teaching what they see as “critical race theory” and restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism either through legislation or other avenues. And an Education Week analysis found that Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom, with new bills seeking to restrict teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist.
The survey found that 59 percent of Republicans think parents of schoolchildren should have “a great deal of influence” over the teaching of slavery and race in schools, while only 16 percent say the same about teachers. These results are flipped among Democrats: Nearly half say that social studies teachers should have “a great deal of influence” in the curriculum, while 24 percent say the same about parents.
More than one-third of Democrats—and 13 percent of Republicans—think state departments of education should wield that much influence.
“This reflects a political divide in terms of the deference we show to experts,” Plutzer said. “There’s a greater distrust of expertise these days among Republicans, and I think that is reflected here in the somewhat lower support for teachers and the much lower support for educators and education experts at the department of education who spend their lives trying to figure out the most effective ways to achieve education goals.”
Meanwhile, half of educators say parents should be “somewhat involved” in selecting curriculum and materials, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of educators conducted in December. Yet in reality, more than two-thirds of educators said parents are “very” or “somewhat” uninvolved, that survey found.
Americans also divided on evolution, sexual education
The survey also found that 90 percent of Americans think that schools should teach scientific evolution—but 44 percent think that schools should also teach biblical perspectives about creation alongside evolution.
Experts say that giving equal time to both creationism and evolution sends mixed messages to students and could confuse them. A 2019 study—also done by Plutzer—found that about two-thirds of public high school biology teachers emphasize the broad scientific consensus on evolution without giving credence to creationism, but about a fifth present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution.
Three-fourths of Americans think sexual education should go beyond teaching the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and recommending abstinence to “also teach teenagers about how to avoid pregnancy by explaining how birth control and contraceptives work.” Republicans are three times more likely than Democrats to say that sex education classes should recommend abstinence before marriage—37 percent compared to 12 percent.
This survey shines a light on just how many opinions about education issues may be influenced by politics, said Craig Helmstetter, a managing partner at APM Research Lab who co-authored the report.
“There are clear political divides on all of these topics that we might like to think of as local issues or academic issues,” he said. “We’re just trying to educate the children, but this is another case where it looks like politics are creeping in and dividing us.”