Amplifying Teachers' Voices: Q&A with Ashley Woo


Mar 16, 2023

A teacher using a tablet computer in an elementary school lesson, photo by Getty Images

A teacher using a tablet computer in an elementary school lesson

Photo by Getty Images

At least 18 U.S. states have restricted how teachers can address topics related to race, gender, and “divisive concepts” in the classroom. A recent RAND survey asked more than 8,000 teachers how those restrictions—and the national debate around them—have affected what and how they teach.

Ashley Woo, a Pardee RAND Graduate School student and assistant policy researcher at RAND, led the study. She brings to her research a teacher's perspective, having taught elementary school in Los Angeles and Miami, Florida. But her interest in education goes back much further. As an undergrad, she volunteered as a tutor and music teacher in Berkeley and Oakland and worked with high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to prepare them for college.

Her most recent survey sought to get inside the “black box” of how state-level teaching restrictions are playing out in the classroom. “Teachers are operating in this quickly changing landscape,” she said. “It's so important that we capture, at this moment in time, what teachers are experiencing.”

What were you hoping to add to the national conversation?

There had been so many headlines about culture wars and book bans and the politics of talking about issues like race or gender. We wanted to get a little closer to the ground and understand what is happening from the teachers' perspective. How is this really influencing their instruction?

ashley woo, w0714

Ashley Woo is an assistant policy researcher at RAND and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

What did you find?

Teachers really varied. A lot of them were more careful and more cautious about how they approach these topics. Some were trying to find a middle ground, maybe talking about these topics but in a way that felt safer. And then we had teachers who were just outright resistant to the restrictions, saying 'I believe these are really important issues for my students to learn about and discuss.'

We also saw a big difference in how Black or African-American teachers are experiencing these restrictions. We found that 41 percent of Black or African-American teachers in states that had enacted restrictions said that these restrictions are influencing their instruction. That's much higher than for other teachers. There are national conversations about the need to diversify the educator workforce, so it's important that we ask whether this is making teaching harder for Black or African-American teachers. Especially given that we know that having teachers of color is really beneficial, not just for students of color, but for all kids.

Even if the legal, formal restrictions went away tomorrow, there would still be this pressure on teachers because a lot of it is coming from communities.

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One other significant takeaway was just how important the local community engagement piece is. We heard from teachers that they experience limitations from state leaders, district leaders, school leaders—but we really found that families and communities played a big role, too. Even if the legal, formal restrictions went away tomorrow, there would still be this pressure on teachers because a lot of it is coming from communities. It's really important that we ask how we can continue to bring families into the conversation and do it in a way that is productive and civil and builds on a foundation of trust. At the end of the day, families and teachers have the same goal of wanting to make sure their kids are successful.

Did anything surprise you in the data?

The percentage of teachers who said they didn't know whether their state or district had enacted restrictions. Even within the states that had, only around 30 percent of teachers said, 'Yes, my state has enacted restrictions.' I interpret that as showing that a lot of teachers are having a hard time understanding these laws. It just speaks to the confusion of, 'What am I allowed to do? What am I not allowed to do?'

How do you hope policymakers use this information?

It highlights the importance of understanding the perspectives of teachers and their experiences and their challenges. We're in a time when many policymakers are worried about staffing shortages and making sure they have a qualified pool of people to recruit from and making sure there's diversity in their educator workforces. I think they need to understand how restrictions might impact the working conditions and experiences of teachers, so they can better address those challenges.

You were a classroom teacher before you became a researcher. What stands out to you about the experience?

I taught second and third grade, and it's such a sweet age to teach. Just helping kids learn how to love to read for the first time, being able to see those impacts, was deeply powerful. And then, also, just the relationships that you build with the people in the building with you. You're all in the trenches together.

What made you come over to the research side?

I was looking for other ways to make an impact, and I saw that, as a researcher, I could take my experiences and try to understand how to best address the challenges that I faced as a teacher, and that I know other teachers face.

Is there a common thread in the research you do now?

The constant for a lot of my work is “teacher voice”—just trying to bring teachers' perspectives into policymaking. Teachers on the ground really do face so many challenges, and so it's important that we highlight their experiences and what they view as potential solutions. That's one way we can try to make the profession feel a little more sustainable.

Doug Irving