Cover: Policies Restricting Teaching About Race and Gender Spill Over into Other States and Localities

Policies Restricting Teaching About Race and Gender Spill Over into Other States and Localities

Findings from the 2023 State of the American Teacher Survey

Published Feb 15, 2024

by Ashley Woo, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Elizabeth D. Steiner

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Research Questions

  1. How many teachers reported being subject to locally enacted restrictions, and how many of these teachers live in states that have not enacted state-level restrictions?
  2. To what extent are the state and local policy context and local political climate associated with teachers’ decisions about whether to engage in classroom discussions about political and social issues?

Public debates around whether and how teachers should discuss topics related to race and gender in the classroom have turned classrooms into political battlegrounds. Between April 2021 and January 2023, 18 states passed policies restricting teachers' instruction. Many of these state policies restrict teachers' instruction on topics related to race and gender; some also address how teachers can discuss current events or controversial topics.

In the 2023 State of the American Teacher survey, 65 percent of teachers nationally reported deciding to limit discussions about political and social issues in class. This is nearly double the share of teachers who are located in states that have enacted restrictions. This finding raises the question of why the share of teachers who have decided to limit their instruction exceeds the share of teachers who teach in states where they have been explicitly directed to do so.

In this report, the authors explore how the impact of state policies restricting teachers' instruction is spilling over into places where no such restrictions exist, and why teachers who are not subject to state-level restrictions are choosing on their own to limit their classroom discussions of political and social issues. The authors also examine how teachers' instructional decisions are associated with their state and local policy contexts and local political climate.

Key Findings

  • Two-thirds of U.S. kindergarten through grade 12 public school teachers have decided on their own to limit instruction about political and social issues in the classroom. The state and local policy contexts and the local political climate were associated with teachers' decisions to do so.
  • About one-third of teachers teach in one of the 18 states that have passed restrictions on how teachers can talk about race and gender in the classroom, but roughly one-half of teachers reported that they are subject to state restrictions, local restrictions set by school or district leaders, or both.
  • Regardless of the presence of state restrictions, more than 80 percent of teachers who said they were subject to local restrictions decided to limit classroom discussions about political and social issues.
  • Fifty-five percent of teachers who were not subject to any state or local restrictions decided to limit instruction about political and social issues.
  • Teachers not subject to any state or local restrictions were more likely to limit classroom discussions of social and political issues if they worked in more–politically conservative communities.
  • Regardless of the presence or type of restriction, teachers said that they limited their instruction because they were afraid of upsetting parents and felt uncertain about whether their school or district leaders would support them if parents expressed concerns. Where teachers were not subject to any restrictions, lack of guidance from school or district leaders was another key reason that they limited their instruction. Where teachers were subject to local restrictions, a fear of losing their teaching jobs or licenses also drove their decisions.

Research conducted by

This research was supported by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and conducted within RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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