Teaching From Our Research Center

More Than 9 of Every 10 Teachers Say They’ve Never Taught About Critical Race Theory

By Holly Kurtz — July 15, 2021 | Corrected: July 16, 2021 4 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article said legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools was passed in Arkansas. The state passed a law in May that prohibits “divisive concepts” in state agency training, but this does not apply to public schools.

It has become a political football, a controversial concept state lawmakers have tried to ban from classrooms, a phrase that is as frequently used as it is misunderstood.

But is critical race theory actually taught in schools?

For the most part, no, suggest the results of the EdWeek Research Center’s latest monthly educator survey, which was administered June 30 to July 12.

Just 8 percent of teachers say they have taught or even discussed critical race theory with their K-12 students.

Urban teachers are significantly more likely to have addressed the theory. Twenty percent say they’ve discussed or taught the theory with students, compared with 6 percent of teachers in suburban areas and rural communities or towns.

Critical race theory is an academic theory that emerged in the late 1970s and ‘80s from the field of legal scholarship. It posits that racism is a social construct that is embedded in societal systems such as courts and schools and not merely the product of individual prejudice.

The theory emphasizes outcomes rather than personal experience and beliefs and calls for these unequal outcomes to be rectified. Many conservatives claim that the theory is racist because white people will face discrimination in order to achieve more equitable outcomes.

The theory is widely misunderstood and is often conflated with other concepts such as culturally relevant teaching, which incorporates students’ cultures and experiences into instruction. As of mid-July, 26 states have taken steps to limit the teaching of critical race theory, racism, and/or sexism and 11 states have enacted bans.

In addition to polling teachers about critical race theory, the monthly survey also examined other timely topics such as plans for remote versus in-person learning, the use of mental health days to address educator and student stress, and educator participation in professional development.

A total of 760 K-12 educators responded to the nationally representative survey, including 262 district leaders, 247 principals, and 251 teachers.

Saying goodbye to remote learning, mostly

Remote instruction will likely be largely absent when school starts up again this fall.

Eighty-nine percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say their school districts will only offer in-person instruction when the 2021-22 school year begins. Just 1 percent say they’ll only provide remote instruction.

Ten percent say both remote and in-person learning will be available. But even in those hybrid districts, well over half of educators predict that 10 percent or less of their students will actually be participating in remote learning.

Most educators and students are permitted to take mental health days

During the pandemic, student mental health challenges skyrocketed and educators also felt the strain of the sudden switch to remote and hybrid learning.

Mental health days are one way to address the stress by providing a brief respite from pressures associated with life and school.

More than 3 out of 4 teachers, principals, and district leaders say their districts or schools permit students and employees to take excused absences for mental health reasons. However, these excused absences are significantly more common in private schools and in districts with lower rates of poverty.

The policy is popular. Close to 90 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders somewhat or strongly support excused absences for mental health reasons for students and staff alike, and roughly half strongly support them.

Popularity does vary by locale, with rural teachers, principals, and district leaders significantly less likely than their suburban and urban peers to strongly support excusing student or staff absences for reasons related to mental health. However, educators in rural areas and towns are no more or less likely than their suburban and urban peers to say that student or staff mental health days are actually permitted and excused.

The educators who make the most of professional development

When school districts offer professional development opportunities or invest in products such as online learning modules, about 75 percent of teachers actually take advantage of them, according to district leaders. Among that 75 percent, levels of enthusiasm for professional learning vary.

As teachers found themselves faced with unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, participation in professional development became more critical.

So who are the power PD users?

Teacher leaders top the list, district-level administrators say. That’s not surprising given their responsibilities for advising their peers. Other power users include novice teachers and teachers new to the district—who are likely pursuing professional learning to help themselves get up to speed.

But other results are a little less expected, including:

  • Compared with their secondary peers, elementary teachers are more likely to be seen as power users. Roughly half say elementary instructors take full advantage of professional development opportunities, compared with 37 percent who say the same of middle school teachers, and 29 percent who regard high school teachers as power users.
  • When it comes to teaching fields, district leaders are most likely to see special education teachers as PD power users and least likely to perceive physical education and health teachers that way.
  • District leaders are much more likely to see females as power PD users (24 percent) than males (13 percent).
  • Although teachers who receive poor job evaluations might need training more, those with positive ratings are seen as more likely to be PD power users.

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