Cover: Walking on Eggshells—Teachers' Responses to Classroom Limitations on Race- or Gender-Related Topics

Walking on Eggshells—Teachers' Responses to Classroom Limitations on Race- or Gender-Related Topics

Findings from the 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey

Published Jan 25, 2023

by Ashley Woo, Sabrina Lee, Andrea Prado Tuma, Julia H. Kaufman, Rebecca Ann Lawrence, Nastassia Reed

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent were teachers aware of and influenced by limitations on their instruction?
  2. What kinds of limitations did teachers experience?
  3. What did teachers perceive as the consequences of limitations on their working conditions and student learning?
  4. How did teachers respond to limitations on controversial topics in the classroom?

In this report, drawing on the spring 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey, the authors examine teachers' awareness of and responses to limitations on how they can address race- or gender-related topics in their instruction. Teachers experienced limitations that infringed on their instructional autonomy, which included their choice of curriculum materials and topics for classroom discussion. These limitations originated from a variety of sources, including state, school, and district leaders and family and community members, and encompassed a wide span of topics, including, but not limited to race- or gender-related topics. The multifaceted nature of these limitations highlights how teachers exist in an increasingly complex policy environment in which they must consider and weigh not only their own perspectives but also the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, along with numerous messages and directives from a variety of sources about what and how to teach. In this complex environment, the authors found that teachers' responses to restrictions on their classroom instruction ranged broadly from compliance with to resistance against these restrictions; teachers also engaged in numerous strategies to navigate the existence of these restrictions. Moreover, limitations placed on how teachers can address contentious topics may be leading to consequences for teachers' working conditions and for student learning. Teachers perceived that teaching students under these limitations has become more difficult and that these limitations make it more difficult to engage students in learning, support students' critical thinking skills, and develop students' ability to engage in perspective taking and empathy building.

Key Findings

  • Teachers reported that state-level limitations on how kindergarten through grade 12 public school teachers can address topics related to race or gender were more common than district-level limitations.
  • Roughly one-quarter of teachers reported not knowing whether they were subject to restrictions on how they can address topics related to race or gender, and only 30 percent of teachers in states with restrictions reported them as being in place.
  • About one-quarter of teachers reported that limitations placed on how teachers can address topics related to race or gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials or instructional practices.
  • Some teachers were more likely to be aware of or influenced by these limitations, including teachers in states with limitations, teachers of color, high school teachers, teachers serving suburban schools, and teachers more likely to encounter race- or gender-related topics in their subjects.
  • Restrictions infringed on teachers' autonomy by constraining the topics they could address and their choice of instructional materials and discussion topics.
  • Limitations stemmed from sources that have formal policymaking authority, such as states and districts, and other sources that have informal authority, such as families and communities, but teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as sources of the limitations they experienced.
  • Teachers perceived that limitations placed on how they can address race- or gender-related topics negatively affected their working conditions, and they worried about limitations' consequences for student learning.
  • Teachers' responses to enacted limitations ran the gamut from resistance to changing their instructional practices to align with restrictions.

Recommendations

  • State and district leaders should collaborate with teachers when crafting local policies and guidance and integrate their perspectives and concerns to ensure the health and diversity of the workforce.
  • School and district leaders should provide teachers with the appropriate guidance, resources, and supports to address contentious topics in the classroom and message their support for teachers.
  • School and district leaders and educators should strive to engage families in productive conversations about race and gender.
  • School, district, and state leaders should tie potentially contentious topics to concrete learning objectives and emphasize their educational benefits for students.

Research conducted by

This report is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. This study was undertaken by 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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