RAND report: Teachers feel pressure of bans that restrict how they can discuss race and gender in classrooms

By: - January 25, 2023 2:30 pm

A kindergarten teacher at Southside Ashpole instructs students. (Photo by Greg Childress)

Teachers are walking on “eggshells” due to restrictions on how they can discuss race and gender in classrooms, according to a new RAND Corporation study released Wednesday.

A quarter of teachers reported that restrictions on discussing race and gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices, the researchers found.

“I am extremely cautious,” one elementary school teacher told researchers. “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.”

According to the report, 17 states had passed policies restricting how teachers can address topics related to race, gender, and “divisive concepts” in the classroom by last spring.

Researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of about 8,000 public school teachers in April and May 2022 to explore how teachers were responding to legal limits on how teachers can discuss race- and gender-related topics.

The report is titled “Walking on Eggshells—Teachers’ Responses to Classroom Limitations on Race- or Gender-Related Topics.” Click this link to read the full report.

The report found that teachers felt limited in how they can talk about gender and race and other tough topics due to state-and district-level bans.

Florida, for example, passed a law that bans LGBTQ instruction in early grades. North Carolina’s Republican-led state Senate passed its version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that would require schools to tell parents if their children want to change their pronouns and prohibit teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. The House did not vote on the bill. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, likely would have vetoed the bill had it arrived on his desk.

Teachers also reported feeling pressure from school and district leaders and family and community members to limit discussions about race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“One clear implication of our data is that shifts in formal policy at the state or local level alone will not lead to the abatement of these limitations on classroom instruction,” the researchers said. “Instead, our findings suggest that some parents and families—particularly those of students in majority-white and more-affluent schools—play a significant role in exerting pressure on teachers directly and also indirectly by voicing their concerns to more-formal sources of authority, such as school boards and school and district administrators.”

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Teachers reported that state-level limitations on how kindergarten through grade 12 public school teachers can address topics related to race or gender were more common than district-level limitations.
  • Roughly one-quarter of teachers reported not knowing whether they were subject to restrictions on how they can address topics related to race or gender, and only 30 percent of teachers in states with restrictions reported them as being in place.
  • About one-quarter of teachers reported that limitations placed on how teachers can address topics related to race or gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices.
  • Some teachers were more likely to be aware of or influenced by these limitations, including teachers in states with limitations, teachers of color, high school teachers, teachers serving suburban schools, and teachers more likely to encounter race- or gender-related topics in their subjects.
  • Restrictions infringed on teachers’ autonomy by constraining the topics they could address and their choice of instructional materials and discussion topics.
  • Limitations stemmed from sources that have formal policymaking authority, such as states and districts, and other sources that have informal authority, such as families and communities, but teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as sources of the limitations they experienced.
  • Teachers perceived that limitations placed on how they can address race- or gender-related topics negatively affected their working conditions, and they worried about limitations’ consequences for student learning.
  • Teachers’ responses to enacted limitations ran the gamut from resistance to changing their instructional practices to align with restrictions.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.