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Lines Have Been Drawn, A Loud Minority Has Been Heard, Now What?

How to navigate the latest culture wars in the classroom
People talking at one another

In these politically polarized times, those seeking to restrict what educators can teach about hot-button issues, such as racism, sexuality, and gender, often get the most attention, but what does the general public think? Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) recently attempted to answer that question.

Through an extensive national survey, the team found that Americans with different political views believe high school students should learn diverse perspectives on a whole host of potentially contentious civics-related topics: Second Amendment rights and gun control, anti-abortion and abortion-rights, immigrant rights and immigrant restrictions, and more.

There is also bipartisan support for K–12 students to be taught critical thinking, local civic engagement, and about the contributions of the founding fathers, women, and people of color.

“The idea that overwhelming partisan division encompasses all aspects of civic learning is wrong,” the researchers say in their findings.

There are areas of disagreement though, particularly about teaching lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer/questioning issues. While most Democrats support high school students learning about LGBTQ concerns, fewer than half of Republicans do. Most of the public also opposes K–12 students being assigned books with LGBTQ topics, profanity, and depictions of sex or violence.   

Furthermore, many people are cautious about young children being taught challenging issues. Fewer than half of those surveyed think elementary school kids should learn about 14 of the 24 social and political issues they were asked about.

The USC survey was organized through the Understanding America Study, a longitudinal panel of households recruited for their demographic diversity, and the full report can be found here.

Meira Levinson, professor of education and society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an adviser to the USC researchers, says she was encouraged to hear that most Americans support high school teachers engaging in complex histories and contemporary challenges with their students, although she admits that many are often nervous and even fearful about the possible consequences of doing so.

Levinson offers the following advice to educators who are permitted to teach about contentious topics in their districts:

Be clear if your instruction is part of the state-mandated curriculum.

“If what you are teaching is required, be super up front about that and have confidence that you have a strong defense if somebody raises a concern,” Levinson says.

Be pro-active in communicating with colleagues and parents.

“If you are going to be addressing issues in the classroom that you think may raise concerns, give people a heads-up. Talk to your department chair, to your instructional specialist, to your principal — that helps those who are in school or district leadership, help you,” Levinson says. “Also, it can be very useful to inform parents ahead of time. The evidence that we have is parents generally like their children’s teachers. They may be somewhat skeptical about teachers as a group, but they really like their own children’s teachers, and you can reap huge dividends by simply keeping your parents in the loop.”

Levinson offers an example of how a teacher could speak to parents about a challenging history class:

“I want to let you know we going to be starting a two-week unit on World War II that’s going to include a couple of hard days when we’re talking about the Holocaust and a day when we talk about the fact that Hitler used U.S. race science and Jim Crow laws, as a justification for many of the laws and policies they were passing in Germany. These can be hard conversations, these are complex, this is aligned with the curriculum, but it can still be challenging, and be challenging for students to process and they may have questions or concerns, or they may come home saying things that don’t sound quite right to you. Please feel free to be in touch. I would love to know what you are hearing from your children, both so I can help support them in class and so, if there are any misunderstandings, we can also rectify those quickly.”

Be honest — class conversations may take a U-turn.

“Be up front with parents that things may go wrong, especially when you’re having conversations about hard moments in history and when you’re having complex conversations about contemporary controversial issues," advises Levinson. "People will feel emotional, people may feel under attack, they may feel upset, a conversation may get out of hand, but it’s not a sign that the teacher is doing something wrong.”

Be aware of a lack of good role models.

Teachers may need to point out that adults are not very good at these issues, says Levinson, citing the sometimes troubling discourse on social media. "If you look at any adult space — Twitter, Facebook, Congress, the media — we don’t know how to have these kinds of conversations and address these issues," she says. "That makes it even more important that, in the schools, we do try to do this, and we practice, and we develop the knowledge and skills, so that hopefully the next generation does a better job than we are [doing]."

One final takeaway from the USC researchers: Transparency

According to the USC survey, most Americans believe that parents and teachers should have more control over their schools’ curricula and almost two-thirds think that parents should have the power to opt their children out of learning about topics they disagree with — a sentiment echoed by the conservative “parents’ rights” movement, which rose to prominence during the pandemic.

Anna Saavedra, a co-author of the report and a research scientist at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, says that a “fair takeaway” is “schools should be more transparent places where parents have more ability to be involved.” She and her team hope to do further research to understand parents’ motivations for wanting to opt their children out of some classes, particularly because of how disruptive the practice could potentially be to schools and the broader democratic system.

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