New laws and policies restricting what teachers can say or teach their students about subjects like race and gender are having an impact—but the biggest force in shutting down what kids learn about those subjects is parents, according to a new national survey of teachers. And parents in one type of school are the biggest offenders.
In a new report from the RAND Corporation, based on a nationally representative survey of more than 8,000 teachers, 28% of teachers in states that have passed restrictive laws said they had changed their curriculum materials or instructional practices. But 22% of teachers in states that haven’t passed such laws also said that. Two factors seem to be at play. One is substantial confusion about where laws against teaching about race or gender have been passed and what those laws say. The other is that the fear of parents is greater than the fear of the state.
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The survey of 8,063 teachers invited open-ended responses to the question, “Please briefly describe how these limitations on race- or gender-related topics teachers can address have influenced your choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices,” and nearly 1,500 responded. Of those, 100, most of them in states that have passed restrictive laws, mentioned state-level policies and leaders. Another 70 mentioned school or district administrators in many cases, with reference to specific cases where they had been told not to use instructional materials or required to go through a difficult vetting process for new instructional materials. Some reported being told not to use students’ correct pronouns.
But the most common source of limitations teachers mentioned was parents, who were named by 125 teachers. What’s really striking is this: “Of these teachers, roughly two-thirds taught in schools in which a majority of the student population was White, and more than three-quarters taught in low-poverty schools.”
It really is a “protect the privileged white kids from learning about things that make their parents uncomfortable” issue.
The sense that comes through in the responses is that state-level policies are scary, but remain a bit of a mystery—and no wonder, since many are extremely vague about what exactly they require. School and district administrators place limits ahead of time on what teachers can do, pulling specific books or lesson plans or creating new hoops to jump through. Parents, on the other hand, get revenge. They exact personal retribution, they use social media to attack teachers and schools, and they can’t be reasoned with.
“We were told not to teach critical race theory—no one was,” a middle-school English Language Arts teacher reported in the survey. “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.”
Another 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.”
Multiple teachers singled out social media. “I am extremely cautious,” one special education teacher said. “Not because of my school district but because of the parents and their social media reactions. They can ruin a teacher’s reputation in a single post.” A high school math teacher said, “The constant reminders at department and staff meetings about the vicious social media posts on a community Facebook page and how it could affect our school’s public image and ultimately our employment has made me less courageous to embrace these topics during instruction. I am not in a financial position to be brave about this at the current time.”
The fact that the very existence of some groups of people and any attempts to represent them in a school curriculum has become controversial is affecting teaching and learning. Obviously it means that big chunks of U.S. history and current reality are left out of what students are taught, but even beyond that, learning is impoverished when teachers are too afraid to challenge their students and go beyond rote textbook exercises.
One high school science teacher said, “We work in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia to even teach the content contained in our standards.” According to another teacher, “I used to include a variety of topics to challenge my students to use critical thinking skills, but now I’m too scared to veer from the textbook topics. And my scores have reflected this.”
In this environment of fear that a parent will become incensed that the schools aren’t catering to their bigotry, some students and teachers alike are harmed by being forced to stay silent about who they are. “Teachers are supposed to be able to be shoulders for students to lean on . . . now I feel like some of my [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and more] students are knowingly suffering & there is nothing I can do about it without risking my job,” a middle school science teacher reported. An elementary school teacher said, “I am a gay woman, and I do not discuss my wife, although my coworkers who are heterosexual are free to [discuss] their spouses.”
Right-wing media and Republican politicians are encouraging the idea that parents should control what their children learn in school, an idea that polling suggests is taking hold. But it’s a deeply problematic idea. First, public schools are a public good. It’s about creating an educated citizenry (in the sense of the people who live in and contribute to the United States, not only people who are documented as citizens) with a baseline level of knowledge of the nation’s history and governance as well as of science and math. Second, teachers are trained to teach. If we throw aside their professional expertise, we all lose.
Third, though, the idea that parents should control what kids learn in schools breaks down the second you look at it. Which parents? Different parents have radically different ideas of what their kids should be learning. Should every child in every school have an education tailored to their parents’ individual preferences? That’s not where this is going, though. It goes back to the schools where teachers are most afraid of parents: white, middle- or high-income schools. Those are the parents who have the ability to inflict pain on teachers, the parents empowered to make demands, the parents who—if it comes to a system where “parents” get to determine the curriculum—will be the ones counted when politicians and policymakers are deciding who counts as parents for this purpose.
Black parents have been raising issues about the teaching of race in schools for years, by flagging cases of overt racism and pervasive erasure. Their complaints mysteriously never got a fraction of the official response that happened as soon as the long-running Republican campaign to undermine public education latched onto “critical race theory” and “grooming” as issues in the schools. They then used Fox News and other right-wing media to propel the idea that there was a giant grassroots uprising against these things, in the process creating hysteria among some groups of white parents that the lies they were seeing on Fox News were really a thing that was happening in their children’s schools. We know what happens if “parents” control the curriculum. It’s another way to give white people the ability to shut other groups and uncomfortable histories out of the schools. It’s another way to privatize education by stripping public schools of funds and giving vouchers so that families with means (because despite the rhetoric, vouchers do not generally serve low-income students) can go shopping for schools that will promise never to teach their kids anything the parents don’t like. Even if it’s what the kids need—and what the U.S. needs people to know if the nation is to advance.
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