State guidance for classroom instruction can fall like a negligible drop of water into the ocean of messages teachers receive. Directives about what and how to teach come not just from laws, after all, but also from district leaders, peers, parents, tests, and textbooks.
Critical race theory bans—which typically prohibit K–12 teachers from discussing certain race- and gender-related topics—could prove more potent. In part, that's because of penalties and fines lawmakers have attached to them. But it's also because of weak support for civics and social studies instruction.
The text in these bills—passed in 12 states and counting—doesn't overtly forbid teaching about slavery, segregation, race- and gender-based pay gaps, or other aspects of U.S. history. However, our research suggests that this language is not the only factor impacting teachers' decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Far from it.
For example, in mathematics and English language arts, what to teach is the focus of a huge amount of teacher professional development and standardized instructional materials. Students are regularly assessed in those subjects, and we have found a growing alignment between what state mathematics and English language arts standards prescribe and the content in teachers' professional development and materials.
But it's a different story for social studies, the subject area in which issues of racism and sexism in America's past and present are most likely to arise. And yet many educators get no training in how to teach vital civic attitudes such as knowledge of U.S. history and governance, engagement in democratic processes, respect for freedom and justice, tolerance, and open-mindedness. In our 2019 national survey, about half of elementary school teachers (who typically teach all subjects) and one-third of secondary school social studies teachers reported receiving no such training—not in their teacher preparation program or through their school's professional development.
More than half of teachers we surveyed also reported a need for better civics instructional materials from their districts or schools. Lastly, and perhaps most concerningly, 74 percent of the elementary teachers and 40 percent of the secondary teachers cited “pressure to cover other content, such as reading and mathematics” as an obstacle to supporting students' civic development.
This year, teachers will face even more pressure to focus on mathematics and reading, given widening achievement disparities that have been documented (PDF) in those subjects over the course of the pandemic. To that, add the potential blowback to teaching anything related to race or gender and inadequate guidance on teaching civics. Avoiding any lessons on the experiences of women or people of color will be the path of least resistance in many schools. There certainly are no incentives or messages to direct teachers otherwise.
Roughly 1 in 5 teachers reported that their district or school leaders had directed them to limit discussions about political and social issues in class.Share on Twitter
Teaching about the complex issues related to racism and sexism was rare to begin with. In fall 2019, our national survey of teachers found that only 9 percent of elementary teachers—and a little less than one-third of middle and high school teachers—reported “drivers of inequality (on the basis of race, gender, class, immigration status, etc.)” as a major emphasis in their classroom instruction. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 5 teachers reported that their district or school leaders had directed them to limit discussions about political and social issues in class.
In Texas, where a recently passed bill also proscribes student participation in political advocacy, one school district canceled its Youth and Government course elective. Even legislators who authored the bill indicated this was a “misapplication.” This example underscores the likely removal of any social studies instruction that risks running afoul of new prohibitions. Even in many states without critical race theory bans, school boards have dealt with calls for such bans from parents or others.
How can school systems, teachers, and parents avoid purging their school's curriculum of anything related to historical and modern-day experiences with racial or gender inequality? First, school leaders and educators should know what, specifically, is stated in their state bills. Despite all the challenges that COVID-19 has raised, school systems should set aside time for discussions that unpack the text of legislation and talk about its implications. By understanding what is in the bills, schools can assure parents that they are addressing equity-related topics without violating the law.
Relatedly, schools should not shy away from providing educators with examples of curriculum materials and lessons that address these issues, including ample professional learning. If at all possible, school systems in states where these bills passed should consider collaborating to establish common guidelines for addressing important race- and gender-related historical events and topics in K–12 classrooms. A united, thoughtful and reflective statement from multiple school districts about their commitment to addressing these topics could quell parent concerns and provide much-needed guidance to educators on what to teach.
In states where these bills have passed or are being considered, departments of education should support schools by opening lines of communication on these issues. State-provided workshops with guidance for teaching about equity, race, and gender could reduce the burden on school staff for doing this work all on their own. In addition, a hotline for educators to call to get quick feedback about providing particular courses or textbooks would be a useful resource.
Finally, policymakers and parents should keep in mind that open, respectful discussions about topics that some might construe as controversial are regarded by many scholars (PDF) as an essential ingredient to supporting students' civic development. Discussing racism and sexism in a safe environment is crucial for students to become active, knowledgeable citizens in our democracy.
Julia Kaufman and Alice Huguet are K–12 education policy researchers at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Julia Kaufman also codirects the RAND American Educator Panels.
This commentary originally appeared on The 74 on August 29, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.