Teachers are limiting lessons on politics and social issues, report finds

A majority of American teachers are circumscribing lessons on political or social topics due to worries over parental complaints, and amid a wave of legislation that has reshaped how educators are allowed to discuss race, history, sex and gender in the classroom, according to a national study released Thursday.

A report by Rand Corp. found that of a nationally representative sample of 1,400 K-12 teachers, 65 percent reported restricting instruction on “political and social issues.” This is nearly double the percentage of teachers who reported actually being subject to state laws that restrict discussion of race, sex and gender in the classroom, according to the report. A Washington Post analysis found that, as of late 2022, legislators in 25 states had passed 64 laws restricting what teachers can teach and what children can do at school. More than two dozen similar laws passed in 2023.

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Teachers’ most common reason for curtailing some forms of education, the report found, was their worry that school or district leaders would not support them if parents expressed concerns — and teachers working in politically conservative areas were more likely to censor themselves.

“Regardless of the presence or type of restriction, teachers said that they limited their instruction because they were afraid of upsetting parents,” the report reads, “and felt uncertain about whether their school or district leaders would support them if parents expressed concerns.”

The Rand Corp. report draws on results from the latest State of the American Teacher survey, which has run since 2021 and is funded partly by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The data comes as the nation faces a fraught debate over how we teach and tell our history — and describe our society — to the youngest generations of Americans. Since the coronavirus pandemic, at least 14 states have enacted 18 laws erecting guardrails around what children can learn about race, The Post found, while at least eight states have enacted 15 laws censoring or prohibiting discussion of gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ subjects.

Meanwhile, an ascendant parent rights movement has seen some mothers and fathers nationwide scrutinize what their children are learning and reading at school — often by filing book challenges. A Post analysis of more than 1,000 book challenges filed nationwide in the 2021-22 school year determined that LGBTQ books are fast becoming parents’ main target and that sexually explicit content is the top reason for book challenges.

At the same time, thousands of school districts have adopted their own policies limiting what teachers are allowed to discuss with students when it comes to race, sex, gender and history. The Rand Corp. report found that these local-level restrictions were a large factor in teachers’ decisions to circumscribe classroom lessons on political and social topics.

Approximately half of surveyed teachers work in a state that restricts discussion of race or gender, or reported being subject to local restrictions, according to the report. Of teachers who said they faced local prohibitions, more than 8 in 10 reported censoring their instruction, many because they feared losing their teaching jobs or licenses, the report found.

Nonetheless, a majority of teachers who lived in places without state or local policies regulating classroom instruction also reported choosing not to talk about certain hot-button issues: 55 percent did so, the report found. The report also found that teachers in this category were more likely to circumscribe lessons if they lived in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2020.

The survey was conducted among a nationwide sample of 1,439 public school teachers in January and February 2023 through the Rand American Teacher Panel, whose members were initially recruited through stratified random sampling of school principals and teachers.

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