The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American parents are generally fine with what’s being taught in school

A math class in Baltimore on Sept. 7, 2021. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Since President Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021, Fox News has talked about what’s being taught in schools more than 1,000 times. On average, there have been 2.3 15-second such segments per day.

The network’s focus on schools before the Virginia gubernatorial contest last year has been credited either with capturing a grass-roots sentiment that drove the election results (which is how Fox’s defenders frame it) or with driving an uproar that had the same effect. Polling showed that Virginia voters were suddenly far more concerned about education as the election approached — as Fox’s education coverage spiked. (It’s not actually clear how important the issue was in electing Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), but that’s beside the point for this article.)

Since then, the conversation has shifted. Last year, the focus was on race. This year, thanks largely to legislation passed in Florida that prohibits discussions of “sexuality” in nebulous terms, it’s been about LGBTQ Americans (though race still comes up). The Florida law was effective at ginning up attention for that state’s governor, Ron DeSantis (R), and the discussion has been accompanied by a backlash against visibility for same-sex couples.

For all of the time and energy spent discussing these subjects, though, and for all of the intonations from elected officials about how they’re responding to the concerns of parents in their districts or states, new polling conducted by Ipsos for NPR reveals something interesting.

Most parents think that their children’s schools are teaching what they should be.

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We see similar patterns in politics a lot. People hate Congress but support their individual representatives. People are alarmed at rising crime but don’t see crime rising in their neighborhoods. National conversations can have the effect of setting national expectations that do not match local experiences. And on classroom education, we appear to see a somewhat similar divide.

The NPR-Ipsos poll asked two questions that get at this point.

The first asked parents whether they thought that schools were teaching various subjects in ways that comported with their own personal values. So, for example, they were asked whether the schools their children attended taught U.S. history in a way that was consistent with their own values. Most said they did.

The poll also asked about other subjects, including race and racism, the impacts of slavery and racism, and sexuality and gender identity. In each case, more parents said they thought those things were being taught in keeping with their own values than said they weren’t. That’s the purple and orange bars below, respectively. (In many cases, too, parents said that they didn’t think the subjects were being taught at all, this being represented by the gray bars.) In only one case was a partisan subset of respondents more likely to say a subject wasn’t being taught in keeping with their personal values than that it was: Republicans assessing how sexuality was being taught.

That subject, sexuality, was one of two places where there was a statistically significant gap between the parties (indicated with a dashed line). The other was that Democrats were significantly less likely to say that schools were teaching patriotism in a way that didn’t comport with their values.

But notice those charts on race. Democrats and Republicans have the same general view on how they feel about the way in which those issues are taught, and both groups generally approve of how it’s being done. It would be informative to know how parents would have answered that question last year, when race was at the center of this dispute. Would the values have been the same? Or would they have looked more like the sexuality question now?

In other words, to what extent is the national conversation influencing views about how sexuality is being taught? Are Republicans more likely to say that they are worried about how it’s being taught because of what they see in their children’s curriculums or because of what they’re hearing in conservative media? When race was triggering outcry last fall, a common claim was that it was sparked not by Fox News coverage but by parents seeing what children were learning during pandemic-related at-home instruction. Now, however, they seem not to be terribly worried about it.

Last year’s political debate often was framed as being about how much say parents had in classroom instruction. The Democrat whom Youngkin defeated in Virginia was attacked repeatedly (especially in conservative media) for saying that parents shouldn’t be guiding curriculums. That has since evolved, with concern about what teachers are imparting to children expanding into stated concerns about what information is available to children more generally. A rash of schools, facing pressure from parents, have removed school library books that are deemed controversial — often ones dealing with same-sex relationships or race.

That was the other interesting question posed by NPR and Ipsos. Most Americans think parents have the right amount of say over what’s being taught and what’s in school libraries. Republicans are significantly more likely to say parents have too little say than are Democrats, but even among Republicans, more say either that parents have the right amount of say or too much say over what’s happening in schools.

That question included a healthy “not sure” response rate, too, but note that fewer than 1 in 5 respondents overall said that parents had too little say. Parents also were consistently more likely to say that schools were teaching even controversial subjects in keeping with their own values than they were to say that schools were not.

For politicians such as DeSantis, there’s value in responding to the loud minority: national attention and clout with his base as he seeks reelection if not higher office. But it’s also useful to remember that shouting by one part of one party in one state is not necessarily reflective of what the country overall wants to say.

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