Cover: Balancing Latitude and Limitations

Balancing Latitude and Limitations

Published in: ASCD, Volume 81, No. 8 (2024)

Posted on rand.org May 8, 2024

by Ashley Woo, Elizabeth D. Steiner

For the last three years, K-12 schools have been embroiled in public debates about whether political and social issues are appropriate for the classroom. State policies restricting teachers' instruction, which began in 2021, are at the crux of this debate. Initial policies prohibited instruction related to critical race theory and perceived divisive concepts related to race and gender. Recently, state policies have shifted toward prohibiting instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity. As of early 2024, over a third of states have enacted such a policy (PEN America, 2024). State restrictions are not the only way teachers experience constraints on classroom discussions: Messages and pressure also come from school and district leaders and students' families, even in states without policy restrictions (Woo, Diliberti, & Steiner, 2024). Collectively, we refer to these influences constraining teachers' instruction as limitations. At the heart of this debate is teachers' latitude when choosing instructional content. Teachers find themselves having to balance the need to teach the content in their curriculum, their own beliefs about whether and how to approach political and social issues, compliance with state restrictions, directives from leaders, and messages from students' families. Where does teacher autonomy fit into this equation? And how much autonomy should teachers have over their instructional content?

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