Student anxiety and hostility on public high school campuses has worsened since Donald Trump became president and is affecting student learning, according to a new UCLA report.
More than half of public high school teachers in a nationally representative school sample reported seeing more students than ever with “high levels of stress and anxiety” between last January, when Trump took office, and May. That’s according to the study, “Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools,” by John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“I’ve never been in a school year where I’ve had so many kids, kind of on edge,” the report quoted a Utah social studies teacher as saying. The names of the teachers in the report were pseudonyms.
And nearly 80 percent said some students had expressed concern for their well-being because of the charged public conversation about issues such as immigration, health care, the environment, travel bans and LGBTQ rights, it said. Furthermore, 40 percent said concerns over key issues — such as Trump’s ban on travelers from eight countries, most with Muslim majorities; restrictions on LGBTQ rights; and health care — are making it harder for students to focus on their studies and making them less likely to come to school.
“I had students stand up in the middle of class and directly address their peers with racial slurs,” the report quoted an Ohio social studies teacher as saying. “This is not something I have seen before.”
The report is being released at a time when even Republicans are calling out the president for his divisive rhetoric, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who announced Tuesday he would not seek reelection and decried what he called “the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
The report was looking to answer the following questions:
1) Have national political debates on topics such as immigration enforcement increased students’ stress and heightened students’ concerns about their well-being or the well-being of their families?
2) Have combative political dynamics at the national level contributed to incivility between students in schools and classrooms?
3) In what ways is student learning affected by heightened stress or incivility?
4) Do the impacts of the national political environment on student experiences differ depending on the demographics of the high schools they attend?
Here are key findings from the report (and you can find details below):
• Stress and concerns with welfare have increased, particularly in schools enrolling mostly students of color.
• Polarization, incivility and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen, particularly in predominantly white schools.
• A growing number of schools, particularly predominantly white schools, have become hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
• While some school leaders avoided issues related to the political environment, others moved proactively to create a tolerant and respectful school culture. When leaders did not act, student behavior grew dramatically worse.
• As the national political environment has become more threatening, bellicose and uncivil, more young people are subject to adverse socio-emotional and academic consequences. These changes also undercut the democratic purposes of public education.
• Educators can mitigate some of these challenges, but they need more support. Ultimately, political leaders need to address the underlying causes of campus incivility and stress.
The policy issue that concerned students the most was the Trump administration’s statements about immigration, including the deportation of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and are known as “dreamers.” A social studies teacher and coach in Nebraska reported that some of his student athletes now live in “survival mode,” never knowing if they will be deported to a country they never lived in.
In May 2017, the team surveyed teachers from public high schools across the United States that were demographically and geographically representative. More than 10,000 emails were sent to social studies, English and math teachers, inviting them to participate in the online survey about what they witnessed regarding student behavior and school climate from January to May 2017. A total of 1,535 teachers responded to the survey. Teachers were offered a $10 Amazon gift card as an incentive, and a $250 gift card to spend on their classroom for the 250th, 500th and 1,000th teachers. Of those who responded, 848 teachers wrote statements that went beyond the answers to the multiple-choice questions, ranging in length from one sentence to a few paragraphs. In July and August, 35 follow-up interviews were conducted with teachers of English and social studies.
Here are some key findings taken from the study:
I. Stress and concerns with welfare have increased, particularly in schools enrolling few white students.
- 51.4 percent of teachers in our sample reported more students experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years. Only 6.6 percent of teachers reported fewer students experiencing high stress than previous years. A Pennsylvania teacher reported: “Many students were very stressed and worried after the election. They vocalized their worries over family members’ immigration status and healthcare, as well as LGBT rights.”
- 79 percent of teachers reported that their students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families associated with recent public policy discourse on one or more hot-button issues, including immigration, travel limitations on predominantly Muslim countries, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, changes to health care, or threats to the environment.
- 58 percent of teachers reported that some of their students had expressed concerns in relationship to proposals for deporting undocumented immigrants. A Nebraska coach recounted that some of his student athletes have begun to live their lives in “survival mode” because “at any time they could be possibly picked up by the police and deported to a country that they didn’t even grow up in.” A Utah teacher overheard her students grappling with what would happen should their undocumented parents face deportation. “Would I stay, because I was born here?” one student asked. “But how would I survive if my dad got taken back to Mexico?”
- 44.3 percent of teachers reported that students’ concerns about well-being in relation to one or more hot-button policy issues affected students’ learning — their ability to focus on lessons and their attendance. A number of teachers also pointed to policy threats undermining students’ educational and career goals. A New Jersey teacher related that one of her students “had to postpone her plan to join the Navy because her parents had made her legal guardian of her siblings, in the event that her parents were deported.”
II. Polarization, incivility and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen, particularly in predominantly white schools.
- More than 20 percent of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms. A social studies teacher in North Carolina noted: “In my 17 years, I have never seen anger this blatant and raw over a political candidate or issue.” A West Virginia social studies teacher explained that her students have interpreted politicians saying “it’s not important to be ‘politically correct’ ” to mean “I can say anything about anyone.”
- 41.0 percent of teachers reported that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources. Many teachers noted a connection between students’ use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility. A Missouri social studies teacher wrote: “It has been a terrible year for helping kids understand the structure of government. They come in ready to fight, full of bad information from Twitter and Facebook.”
III. A growing number of schools, particularly predominantly white schools, became hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
- 27.7 percent of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions.
- Many teachers described how the political environment “unleashed” virulently racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic or homophobic rhetoric in their schools and classrooms. An Indiana English teacher explained: “Individuals who do harbor perspectives on racism and bigotry now feel empowered to offer their views more naturally in class discussions, which has led to tension, and even conflict in the classroom.”
- Acts of intimidation and hostility took their toll on young people and undermined student learning. Students who were victims of verbal assaults withdrew from class discussions and sometimes missed class altogether.
IV. While some school leaders avoided issues related to the political environment, others moved proactively to create a tolerant and respectful school culture. When leaders did not act, student behavior grew dramatically worse.
- 40.9 percent of teachers reported that their school leadership made public statements this year about the value of civil exchange and understanding across lines of difference. But beyond the “public statements,” only 26.8 percent of school leaders actually provided guidance and support on these issues, as reported by teachers in the survey. Teachers in predominantly white schools were much less likely than their peers to report that their school leaders had taken these actions. Hence, the schools most likely to experience polarization and incivility were the least likely to have leaders responding to these issues proactively.
V. As the national political environment has become more threatening, bellicose and uncivil, more young people are subject to adverse socio-emotional and academic consequences. These changes also undercut the democratic purposes of public education.
- Previous research has established that policy threats, perceived discrimination and targeted bullying have lasting effects on young people’s mental health and educational progress. A policy environment that exacerbates these dynamics increases the number of students at risk for negative outcomes.
- Heightened political polarization and incivility makes it more difficult for public schools to provide students with opportunities to deliberate productively across lines of difference and practice working together to solve collective problems.
VI. Educators can mitigate some of these challenges, but they need more support. Ultimately, political leaders need to address the underlying causes of campus incivility and stress.
- 72.3 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that: “My school leadership should provide more guidance, support, and professional development opportunities on how to promote civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”
- 91.6 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that: “National, state and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.” Almost as many (83.9 percent) agreed that national and state leaders should “work to alleviate the underlying factors that create stress and anxiety for young people and their families.”
(Correction: An earlier version quoted teachers from the report by name. The names were pseudonyms and have been removed. The identification of state and subject are accurate.)
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