Curriculum

Republicans and Democrats Agree: High Schools Should Teach ‘Controversial’ Issues

By Sarah Schwartz — October 12, 2022 7 min read
Two overlapping speech bubbles with splatters where the two meet. Symbolic of controversy and debate in dialect.
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As Republican legislators have passed measures restricting how teachers can discuss race, gender, and sexuality in the classroom, many have repeated the same argument—that parents don’t want these topics discussed in schools.

But a sweeping new survey finds that Americans’ views are actually more nuanced. Most Americans think high school students should learn about a range of “controversial” social and political issues in the classroom—although they’re not as sure that younger children should do the same. And while there’s agreement among Republicans and Democrats on some topics, there are sharp political divides on others, especially LGBTQ issues.

The survey comes from researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. It was conducted through the Understanding America Study, which draws from a panel of households representing the United States. (Previous surveys using the panel have tracked U.S. adults’ attitudes on COVID and the 2020 presidential election.)

The sample of 3,751 respondents represents a cross-section of the country’s political, racial, and economic diversity. Sixty-two percent of the survey takers were white, 17 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 5 percent Asian. Respondents were split roughly evenly between political parties: Forty percent said they were Democrats, 36 percent were Republicans, and 24 percent were neither.

The findings demonstrate the difficult position that many schools are in now, as some attempts to broaden and diversify curricula are met with loud, public resistance.

“Like always, schools are caught in the middle,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at USC Rossier and an author on the study. “Education systems are political systems, they exist in a political reality.”

Here are highlights from the survey’s findings.

High schools should teach about most controversial issues, but not elementary schools.

Researchers asked whether students should learn about certain hot-button topics—such as abortion, gun control, or racial inequality—in school. For almost all the issues listed, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said students should learn about them. The exceptions were gay rights, trans rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity, topics for which there were large partisan divides. (More on this in the next section.)

Bar chart showing Americans overwhelmingly agree that high school students should learn about controversial topics, though views diverge for elementary

Results were more complicated for the elementary school level. Respondents from both parties agreed that some topics should be covered, such as the Founding Fathers, contributions of women and people of color, slavery, and the environment.

But they were split on others. A majority of Democrats said that elementary school children should learn about immigrant rights and racial inequality, for example, while Republicans said they should not.

And adults in both political parties agreed that there were some subjects that younger students shouldn’t learn about: criminal justice reform, gun rights, sex education, abortion, and LGTBQ issues.

“It seems like what people want is, elementary school is reading, writing and math. Keep it simple; stick with the basics. Don’t do anything political,” Polikoff said. “And in high school, what people seem to want is both sides or all sides of complex issues.”

But Shannon Pugh, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said that some of these complex issues should come up in classes with younger students. Teachers would discuss them differently with elementary schoolers than they would with high schoolers, though.

For example, Pugh said, teachers might not give an academic definition of “systemic racism” to 10-year-olds. But they might talk about how there were laws that enforced segregation, and that there are still racial inequities in society today.

“[Students] immediately recognize, something here is not fair,” Pugh said. “And I think that’s a great entry point.”

Many U.S. adults don’t want students learning about LGBTQ issues.

Less than 50 percent of respondents—regardless of political party—said that elementary school students should learn about LGBTQ rights, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Only 40 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans said that elementary students should be assigned books that include families with same-sex parents. Less than 30 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans said these students should be assigned books that feature the experiences of gay or transgender people.

There is more of a partisan divide in high school, where over 80 percent of Democrats say that students should be taught about LGBTQ issues, but less than 40 percent of Republicans say the same.

(Other polling from the EdWeek Research Center has found that educators are divided on the subject, too: In a survey of teachers, district leaders, and principals across grade levels, 43 percent said that schools should not teach about LGBTQ issues.)

Despite the public’s mixed opinions, surveys have shown that having LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is correlated with LGBTQ students feeling higher levels of belonging and academic success. “Young people do better when they see their full selves represented in the classroom,” said Aaron Ridings, the chief of staff and deputy executive director for public policy and research at GLSEN, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth.

Several teacher professional organizations have also called for schools to address these topics. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English released a position statement last year that recommended teaching with texts that include “multiple and varied” representations of gender.

The National Sex Education Standards, which have been endorsed by the Society of Health and Physical Educators and influenced standards in several states, say that students should be able to “explain that gender expression and gender identity exist along a spectrum” by the end of 5th grade.

Lots of Americans don’t know what critical race theory is, and they’re not sure if it should be taught in schools.

About half of survey respondents said they either had never heard of critical race theory or had heard the term, but didn’t know what it meant. Another 36 percent said they only knew a little about it.

When asked whether they supported teaching CRT in schools, opposed it, or neither, the most common answer was neither—a finding that held across demographic groups. Still, more Black, Hispanic, and Asian respondents supported teaching CRT than white respondents, and there were big differences by political party. About 40 percent of Democrats supported teaching CRT, while less than 10 percent of Republicans did.

These findings are in line with other polls on the subject: Many U.S. adults say that they don’t know much about what critical race theory is, and that they don’t have enough information to say whether it should be taught.

Most respondents draw a distinction between books that are assigned to students in class, and books that are available to them in school libraries.

In general, survey-takers want to put more restrictions on the books that children read as part of lessons than on the books they might read on their own time.

For example, while most Democrats said that elementary students should not be assigned books about the experiences of LGBTQ people, more than 50 percent said that these books should be available for students to read if they want. (Less than 20 percent of Republicans said they should be available for younger children.)

Bar chart showing greater Democrat support for assigning elementary students to read about controversial topics

Survey-takers thought that public opinion should play a key role in curriculum choice.

More than 70 percent of all respondents said that parents should have a moderate or high influence over these decisions.

Most also thought that parents should be able to opt their children out of lessons they disagree with, though Republicans swayed that trend: 81 percent said parents should be able to opt out, compared to only 46 percent of Democrats. The ability to opt out has been codified into law in some states, as legislators have passed “parents’ rights” bills over the past year.

These policies could easily lead to a logistical nightmare, Polikoff said. “If you have different kids opting out of different lessons—how do you assess them, how do you catch them up?”

And in some cases, public opinion is in direct contrast with the recommendations of educational organizations. Take gender identity: Respondents didn’t want it discussed in elementary schools, but health education organizations encourage talking with kids about gender identity and expression in age-appropriate ways.

Ridings, of GLSEN, said that for schools, these political concerns can’t override schools’ responsibility to provide students with a learning environment that doesn’t reinforce discrimination. “No one should be allowed to infringe on the basic civil rights of students,” Ridings said.

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