Cover: Walking a Fine Line—Educators' Views on Politicized Topics in Schooling

Walking a Fine Line—Educators' Views on Politicized Topics in Schooling

Findings from the State of the American Teacher and State of the American Principal Surveys

Published Aug 10, 2022

by Ashley Woo, Rebecca L. Wolfe, Elizabeth D. Steiner, Sy Doan, Rebecca Ann Lawrence, Lisa Berdie, Lucas Greer, Allyson D. Gittens, Heather L. Schwartz

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent do kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12) educators experience job-related stress as the result of politicized issues in schooling?
  2. What are educators' views on politicized topics in schooling—namely, policies for implementing COVID-19 safety measures in schools and teaching about race, racism, or bias—and how do these views vary across educator- and school-level characteristics?
  3. How can educators be better supported to manage politicized issues in their schools and classrooms?
  4. What are the consequences of politicization for educators' well-being, intentions to leave, and work experiences?

In a time when simply carrying out the essential functions of their jobs is a herculean task, educators have been faced with the additional challenge of addressing contentious, politicized topics in their schools and classrooms.

Drawing from nationally representative samples of teachers and principals who completed the 2022 State of the American Teacher and the State of the American Principal surveys and teacher interviews, the authors focus their analysis on two especially politically salient issues: school policies for implementing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) mitigation measures and teaching about race, racism, or bias. They investigate how these two highly politicized topics might contribute to elevated job-related stress by examining potential contributing factors, such as the extent to which educators must manage conflicting beliefs and opinions, the adequacy of support they receive, and the hostility and aggression that they experience from others in response to related policies.

The authors also explore differences by educator- and school-level characteristics. Although politicized topics are more contested in some school settings and locales than in others, survey results suggest that educators' beliefs about how schools should manage politicized issues vary within all kinds of school communities.

The authors explore the consequences of politicization for educators' instructional practices, well-being, perceptions of their school and district climate, and intentions to leave their jobs. They provide implications and recommendations on how to support educators in navigating politicized issues in their schools and classrooms in a way that fosters productive discourse between communities and schools.

Key Findings

In January 2022, nationally representative surveys administered to principals and teachers asked about two politicized topics: policies for implementing COVID-19 safety measures in schools and classroom conversations about race, racism, or bias

  • Forty-eight percent of principals and 40 percent of teachers reported that the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions was a job-related stressor.
  • Responding to families' concerns about COVID-19 mitigation measures was a greater stressor for principals and teachers than responding to families' concerns about teaching about race, racism, or bias.
  • Most educators, especially those in urban schools, supported mandates for requirements on masks, vaccines, or other COVID-19–related safety measures.
  • Fifty-four percent of teachers and principals believed there should not be legal limits on classroom conversations about racism and other contentious topics, while about 20 percent of teachers and principals believed there should be.
  • Thirty-seven percent of teachers and 61 percent of principals reported being harassed because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism, or bias during the first half of the 2021–2022 school year.
  • Educators need more support to address politicized issues in their schools and classrooms, including clearer communication from leadership and support from their preparation programs and in-service professional learning.
  • Educators who reported being harassed about politicized issues experienced lower levels of well-being and worse perceptions of their school or district climate; they were more likely to cite the politicization of their profession as a reason for considering leaving their jobs.

Recommendations

  • Provide training and resources to help principals and teachers communicate effectively and manage conflict about contentious topics.
  • Build systems to promote understanding between educators and parents and engage families in decisionmaking.
  • Clarify the purpose of classroom conversations about race, racism, or bias; develop educator mindsets; and provide clear, content-specific guidance.

Research conducted by

Funding for the State of the American Teacher survey was provided by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. Funding for the teacher interviews was provided by the National Education Association and gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. Funding for the State of the American Principal survey was provided by The Wallace Foundation. Funding for the American Life Panel survey was provided by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. This study was undertaken by RAND Education and Labor.

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