Teachers are changing their lessons amid increasing scrutiny from parents and a raft of state laws and school policies that circumscribe lessons on race and gender, according to one of the first nationally representative studies of the subject.
Notwithstanding the spate of restrictive laws and policies, “teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as a source of the limitations they experienced,” the report reads.
The findings draw on data gathered during the latest American Instructional Resources Survey, which RAND has administered each spring since 2019. In last year’s iteration, RAND surveyed 8,063 educators teaching English, math and science, as well as analyzed 1,500 open-ended responses from teachers.
“Our data … suggest that limitations placed on how teachers can address contentious topics may be leading to consequences for teachers’ working conditions and for student learning,” the report states. “Teachers described working in conditions filled with worry, anxiety, and even fear.”
The new report comes during intense political, cultural and legislative battles over what students should learn about race, racism, U.S. history, gender and sexual orientation at school. A Washington Post analysis found that, as of late 2022, legislators in 25 states had passed 64 laws across the past three years restricting what teachers can say and children can do at school.
Laws limiting instruction on race, racism and history made up 28 percent of the total: 14 such pieces of legislation have passed in at least 18 states, The Post found. Laws circumscribing instruction on gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ issues accounted for 23 percent of the total, with 15 such laws having passed in eight states, The Post found.
At the same time, individual school districts have begun passing policies restricting education on similar topics; barring books by and about LGTBQ individuals and people of color; and increasing parental and administrative oversight of the titles chosen for school libraries.
Meanwhile, U.S. adults are losing their confidence in the public school system. A Gallup poll this month found that Americans’ belief in grade-school teachers’ honesty had dropped to an all-time low of 64 percent, while a July poll found that just 28 percent of Americans have substantial confidence in public schools — the second-lowest this number has fallen since Gallup began asking about this topic in 1973.
Teachers surveyed by RAND shared details on how they are changing their styles of instruction. Some said they are selecting different textbooks or, for math and science teachers, different sample data sets — in both cases, they are omitting anything that “might be considered controversial or potentially offensive,” the report stated.
Other teachers said they are removing texts from their classroom libraries. Still, others said they avoid using terms likely to draw negative attention — a category that, for some, now includes the word “gender.”
Seventy educators who shared open-ended responses wrote that they no longer feel comfortable teaching or speaking about LGBTQ issues.
“They described … feeling greater hesitancy about exposing students to the notion of same-sex marriage and different kinds of family structures,” the report states, as well as hanging LGBTQ pride flags or “using instructional content that featured characters” who identify as LGBTQ.
The RAND report concluded that teachers perceive state-level limitations of instruction on race or gender as more common than district-level limitations. The report also found that roughly one-quarter of teachers say they do not understand whether they are subject to such restrictions. Even in states that have enacted laws circumscribing lessons on race and gender, just 30 percent of surveyed teachers said they knew for sure that such legislation was in place.
Teachers who live and work in states with restrictive laws were more likely to report altering their curriculums and teaching than teachers who live in states without such laws, the RAND report found. Twenty-eight percent of teachers in the former category reported shifting their lessons, the report states, while 22 percent in the latter category did so.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said 45 states have enacted laws in the past three years restricting what teachers can say and children can do in classrooms. Such measures have passed in 25 states. The article has been corrected.