by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is a new report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation looking at how K-12 teachers have responded to recently imposed limitations on discussion of race- and gender-related topics in classrooms. Spoiler alert: The report is titled “Walking on Eggshells.” It analyzes data from the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey of 1,452 teachers.
In 2021, 13 states passed such restrictions, covering about 29% of the nation’s K-12 teachers. Four more states passed restrictions last year. Perhaps the most notable state for doing so is Florida, with its infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill and, more recently, its bill prohibiting “lessons or training that teach that individuals are inherently racist or sexist because of their race or sex, that people are privileged or oppressed due to their race or sex, and other related concepts.”
The first issue the research report covers is awareness: Do teachers know whether there are limitations placed on race- and gender-related discussions in their classrooms? Across all states, including those without restrictions, they found that around 30% of teachers simply don’t know whether restrictions exist. In the states that enacted laws in 2021, another 35% (incorrectly) said no such restrictions existed; in those where the laws were passed in 2022, 46% said none existed. Clearly if there are efforts being made to communicate the new laws to teachers, they aren’t effective.
Nearly one-quarter of all teachers polled — again, including the ones where there are no state-mandated restrictions — said limitations have influenced their choice of materials and practice. In part, this is because, in some cases, a school district or even a specific school may have enacted its own restrictions independent of state laws. The report points out that districts and schools probably have an easier time monitoring and enforcing restrictions than a state bureaucracy does.
At a high level, there was a range of teacher reactions to the imposition of restrictions. About 5% of teachers expressed “hesitancy” about exposing students to the notion of same-sex marriage and different kinds of family structures. About 20% said they were cautious in their word choice and phrasing related to race, gender, and other topics, and that they would “soften” their language and avoid buzzwords, such as “critical race theory” (CRT). Many expressed that they were frustrated about misconceptions around CRT, and that while they don’t teach CRT (it’s mainly a legal theory normally confined to law schools), they might be falsely accused of doing so if they discuss “issues related to race, figures who are people of color, or history.”
One-third of teachers described how restrictions affected their choice of instructional materials, omitting the use of certain materials if they might be considered offensive or controversial. They also said they were given directives to remove certain books from their libraries and classroom bookshelves.
The teachers also voiced some other frustrations, including that the enacted restrictions lacked clarity and left them guessing as to how to comply. And the teachers reported a wide range of levels of support for teachers from school districts — from full to none — as they attempted to navigate this minefield.
Interestingly, according to the report, about 9% of teachers said “pressure or complaints from parents and families” was the source of restrictions; that’s more teachers than those who named state or district sources. Two-thirds of those teachers taught in schools with majority-white populations, and more than three-quarters taught in low-poverty schools. About 10% of teachers reported that potential backlash from parents drove them to be more cautious of or avoid controversial topics. “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,” the report quotes one teacher saying.
In addition to describing the changes in their working conditions, teachers also commented on the concerns they had for their students’ education under the restrictions. In particular, they worried about a loss of opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, as well as empathy and acceptance for others. Some teachers said they now limit conversations on controversial topics only to their most advanced students.
The report lists some of the specific tactics teachers were employing to navigate these classroom restrictions. Some mentioned sticking to officially approved materials and those tied to approved standards. Others mentioned they no longer teach directly on race or gender, instead sticking to global topics and a general “respect for all.” Some also chose to let student input direct the conversation and to limit themselves to a neutral “facilitator” or “moderator” role.
About one-fifth of the teachers said they were fighting back and resisting the new restrictions, continuing to teach on topics related to race and gender. A majority of those resisting said they worked to “emphasize inclusion, tolerance and empathy in their classrooms” and to emphasize diversity by exposing students to diverse characters and perspectives. Some teachers said they address topics related to race or gender more heavily, because or in spite of the restrictions. One teacher said, “I refuse to comply. You must teach the past, so we can improve the future.”
And yet, the report describes how teachers’ work environment is often now one of worry, anxiety, and fear. The survey results indicate that this may be affecting teachers of color more than white teachers, and that it may eventually have a detrimental effect on the diversity of the teacher workforce.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations for how to improve this situation. It falls short of suggesting that states and school districts should stop passing restrictions on the content of classroom discussions, but it does suggest that state and district leaders “should collaborate with teachers when crafting local policies and guidance and integrate their perspectives and concerns to ensure the health and diversity of the workforce.” It also recommends more support, guidance, and resources for teachers, and engaging with families in “productive conversations about race and gender.” It does, however, fault the kinds of politically motivated restrictions some states and districts are passing and recommends that controversial topics should be tied to “concrete learning objectives” and “emphasize their educational benefits for students.”
Walking on Eggshells—Teachers’ Responses to Classroom Limitations on Race- or Gender-Related Topics
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
📸 Featured image by Denise I Johnson/Shutterstock.com; image edits by the Emerald team.
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