Teaching Profession What the Research Says

Scared, Anxious, Worried: States’ New Restrictions Have Teachers on Edge

By Madeline Will — January 25, 2023 6 min read
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Many teachers, even those not teaching social studies, are walking on eggshells in the wake of restrictions on classroom conversations about race and gender, a new RAND Corp. survey shows.

Experts have long warned that those state policies would lead to a chilling effect in the classroom, with teachers opting out of discussing present-day or historic racism because they don’t want to risk getting in trouble. The RAND survey seems to validate some of those concerns, revealing widespread uncertainty and confusion among teachers about whether they’re even subject to such restrictions.

About one-quarter of teachers said that state-level limitations on classroom discussions have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices.

The data comes from a nationally representative survey of about 8,000 teachers teaching English/language arts, math, and science, which was conducted in April and May of last year. (A small number of teachers in the sample also taught civics, social studies, or another social science class.) The researchers also compiled about 1,500 open-ended responses from teachers.

“There were a lot of teachers who talked about how they were scared and anxious and worried,” said Ashley Woo, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and the lead author of the paper. “They were worried about the anticipation of community backlash if they were to touch on these topics. They were scared of potentially losing their jobs or their licenses or getting their districts fined. ... Some of the teachers [said], ‘It’s just harder to do my job now. I have to look for additional materials that would be considered acceptable. ... It’s harder to teach the content.’”

At the time the survey was administered, 17 states had enacted restrictions on how teachers can address topics related to race or gender in the classroom. Since then, one more state—Arkansas—has put a policy in place against “indoctrination and critical race theory” in schools.

Many teachers weren’t sure if their state restricted these discussions

While about a third of the surveyed teachers were located in one of the 17 states with restrictions at that time, only 12 percent of respondents said their state had such a policy. Within the 17 states, only 30 percent of teachers knew that their state had restricted classroom discussions on race and gender—another 30 percent said they didn’t know, and 37 percent said their state or district had no such policy.

That lack of certainty wasn’t necessarily surprising, Woo said: “We don’t necessarily expect teachers to constantly be digging into their state policies or legislation.”

Still, she added, the findings signal that teachers may find these policies confusing or difficult to interpret. And certain groups of teachers were more aware of the restrictions than others, the survey found:

  • Teachers in states with penalties for noncompliance—such as professional discipline or withholding funds from schools—were more aware of the restrictions than teachers in states with limitations but no explicit penalties. (That could be because the states with penalties all have had their policies on the books since 2021, leaving more time for teachers to become aware of them.)
  • Teachers who are more likely to address topics about race or gender given their subject area and grade level were more likely than other teachers to be aware of their state’s restrictions. For example, ELA teachers were more likely to report awareness of limitations than math teachers, and high school teachers were more likely to know their state’s policies on this matter than elementary teachers.
  • Teachers of color—especially Black teachers—were more likely than white teachers to be aware of the restrictions in their state. Experts have warned that these policies could lead to more teachers of color, who are already in short supply, feeling stifled and choosing to leave the profession.

Survey reveals a wide range of teacher responses

The researchers asked teachers who said state policies had influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices to explain how. They ended up with about 1,450 responses to analyze.

Teachers’ answers fell along a “wide spectrum,” Woo said. Some teachers avoided potentially “divisive topics” altogether, while others were more cautious with their language or tried to come up with workarounds, she said. Meanwhile, some teachers said they refused to comply with their state’s law.

Among their responses: Teachers in the sample worried that the restrictions would hurt student learning, make it more difficult to select materials that help students feel “seen,” and complicate efforts to have robust conversations with students that expand their critical thinking skills.

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Much of the outrage among conservative state lawmakers and media pundits has been centered around the term “critical race theory,” which is the academic concept that racism is not just a product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies.

Several teachers told RAND that they did not teach critical race theory but were worried that they might be falsely accused of doing so.

Said one middle school ELA teacher: “We were told not to teach critical race theory—no one was. The past two years have made me nervous about teaching Frederick Douglass because I don’t think the people in my community know the difference between teaching [Black] history and teaching critical race theory.”

A third of teachers in the sample said restrictions had influenced their choice of instructional materials, including textbooks. They were either told to omit certain materials that could be considered controversial or chose to do so themselves. (In the past couple years, a notable uptick in the number of attempted book bans in schools has followed on the heels of the state policies.)

Some teachers reported that administrators have directed them to avoid any controversial topics or put up red tape in the material-selection process—such as requiring them to notify parents about classroom materials or allowing administrators or parents to audit the class curriculum.

“We saw a lot of teachers [say], ‘I’m scared of parental backlash,’ or maybe even, ‘My district hasn’t explicitly said anything about it, but I don’t know if they’d support me if parents were to complain, so as a result, I’ll be more cautious about how I talk about these topics,’” Woo said.

About 125 teachers in the sample explicitly cited parents as a source of limitations—either by pressuring them directly or by expressing their concerns to administrators and school boards. Most of those teachers taught in schools where a majority of the student population was white and more affluent.

One teacher said: “I feel like I have a sword over my head and any parent is able to cut the string if they disagree with the curriculum, for legitimate reasons or not.”

Teachers need more support, RAND authors conclude

As teachers become more aware of the limitations in their state, and as more restrictions are potentially put into place, debates about curriculum and instruction will intensify, the RAND researchers concluded.

That’s why it’s important for districts and schools to provide more guidance about what’s allowed—and what’s not allowed—in state policies, Woo said.

She added that teachers have said it’s helpful when administrators provide them with resources, such as a list of books with diverse characters and diverse perspectives, so they’re not left guessing what they can teach.

The researchers also argued that state and district leaders should listen to teachers when crafting guidance on how these restrictions should be implemented in the classroom. And administrators should work to engage parents in productive conversations about race and gender to help mitigate potential conflicts, the researchers write.

“We want to build an ecosystem of support around [teachers],” Woo said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Scared, Anxious, Worried: States’ New Restrictions Have Teachers on Edge

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