5 things you should know about how the culture wars are disrupting schools

As controversy surrounding COVID-19 eased in the 2021-22 school year, debates increased about critical race theory, the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender students, and the books used in classrooms and school libraries.

A new report offers deep insights into how these larger societal clashes permeated school districts and classrooms — and how district leaders believe they’re impacting education.

Here are five things we learned from the Navigating Political Tensions Over Schooling: Findings From the Fall 2022 American School District Panel Survey report:

The effects of the new culture wars were most disruptive in white, suburban, and impoverished counties.

More than half of all district leaders surveyed — 51 percent — said struggles over COVID-19 safety measures and vaccines, critical racial theory, or LGBTQ issues had an impact on schooling.

However, in majority-white districts, 56 percent of leaders agreed or strongly agreed that tensions over one of these issues affected them. 55 percent of district leaders in low-poverty schools said the same. In contrast, 48 percent of leaders in higher poverty counties agreed this was the case. And in service districts where the majority of students were Black, only 37 percent said these issues interfered with school instruction.

Leaders in more politically mixed states faced increased disruption from these outside tensions, with 55 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing that the discord was affecting schooling. That’s more than in liberal or conservative states, where 51 percent of district heads said they were gripped by tensions over divisive issues.

“I think what we’re seeing and hearing from district leaders is that these debates can have a chilling effect on leaders that seep into the classroom in important ways,” said Ashley Jochim, the report’s lead author.

The divisive rhetoric and debates make the demanding job of district leadership even more difficult, especially when leaders feel every decision they make or implement is being heavily questioned and taken out of context, she said.

Districts that served majority white students were the scene of much of the battle of the new culture wars.

Across all categories examined in the report — including whether district leaders saw an increase in requests for record disclosure, threats against school board members and educators, requests to remove books from school libraries and classrooms, or over teaching and training teachers on controversial issues — School systems that primarily serve white students experienced the most of these activities compared to those that primarily served black students.

It’s possible that parents in majority-white or more affluent counties had more efficiency and agency in contacting their local school board members and counties, Jochim said.

But it may also be that these issues have not resonated in communities of color where people have faced other challenges, including the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, which have hit communities of color harder. Districts in more politically liberal areas were more aligned with their communities – but instances of disruption were more likely when local politics were out of step with their states.’

The curriculum didn’t necessarily change, but what students learn was affected.

The report found that the majority of districts did not change their curriculum in response to the discord.

But – and this is a big deal – the changes made could be momentous.

While seven percent or fewer in the survey said they were making adjustments to the way they teach social studies, civics, or world history, the changes, detailed in follow-up interviews, were significant.

A district head told the researchers that teachers had stopped discussing elections in class – a fundamental topic in civics education and preparing students to become citizens of a democracy. Another said that issues related to gender identity had been dropped from the curriculum in the lower grades. And one said discussions on “controversial issues” had been eliminated entirely from the curriculum.

More common, however, were changes to social-emotional learning, health and sex education programs, with a district leader saying the district dropped an SEL survey among elementary school students.

It wasn’t always red versus blue, conservative versus liberal.

Take threats against educators and book bans, for example.

About 37 percent of district leaders in blue states said their educators had received verbal or written threats about controversial issues — more than in more conservative or red states and more politically mixed or purple states. They also received more Open Records requests.

Lawsuits or threats of lawsuits for teaching controversial subjects were more common in urban than suburban counties.

And although a larger number of suburban district leaders said their school board members had received verbal or written threats, 35 percent of urban school district leaders still said the same thing.

“I was surprised that it happens so often,” said Jochim.

District leaders thought they had stemmed some discord with homegrown solutions.

Without much training and preparation, district leaders have attempted to isolate their staff and students from the excitement emanating from outside the school walls.

Almost half – 46 percent – say they have successfully taken action to stem discord and combat misinformation.

The leading systems in Democratic-leaning, suburban, and higher-income areas were more likely to report their efforts were working.

Some of what they tried?

  • New policy for reviewing library books in response to requests to remove items;
  • A review process of how “controversial” materials can be taught;
  • community meetings and one-on-one meetings with parents to share information and combat misinformation; and
  • Opt-out options for parents who did not want their children to be in classes with “controversial topics”.

Can some of these answers work in all school systems? It’s unclear.

Jochim said she would like to see more research into the effectiveness of these strategies and more training for district leaders on how to navigate politically dangerous waters.

While the extremely partisan nature of the debates is new, precinct leaders have always had to wade through political minefields, she said.

“District leaders must play a role in isolating teachers and other frontline workers from the worst aspects of these conflicts, and we must position them with appropriate strategies,” Jochim said.

And don’t forget the school boards, she said. Local school board elections have become increasingly partisan, and one-offs from board members can fuel tensions and derail a superintendent’s agenda.

“You can be a very effective superintendent and district leader, but when you have a body that’s pulling you in different directions, it can very quickly erode your ability to do that other work,” Jochim said. “So to think about how we’re positioning boards as supporting actors alongside superintendents to manage these conflicts — I think that’s a really important question.”

The report is based on surveys of 300 district and charter management organization leaders conducted between October and December last year. It also drew on 22 interviews with seven superintendents between January 2021 and November last year. It was authored by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the American School District Panel compiled by RAND Education, and Arizona State University.

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