About 1 in 4 teachers reported that local and state restrictions on race and gender topics have influenced their choices of curriculum materials or instructional practices, according to a nationally representative RAND Corp. survey of about 8,000 public school teachers between April and May 2022. The survey found restrictions "infringed on teachers' autonomy" by limiting the topics and instructional materials they could discuss.
Teachers of color, high school teachers, teachers in suburban schools, and teachers in states with curriculum restrictions were among those more likely to be aware of or influenced by these limitations.
Teachers felt limitations placed on how they can address race or gender-related topics negatively affected their working conditions, and their responses to the limitations varied from resistance to compliance.
When states and local districts began passing restrictions on race and gender-related curriculum topics, teachers unions and education policy experts predicted it would negatively impact the recruitment, retention and working conditions of teachers in a field already stretched thin.
That prediction was bolstered by the fact many laws had attached punitive measures for noncompliance. In Florida, for example, violating restrictions on classroom library materials could result in a felony with a 5-year prison sentence. Virginia and New Hampshire were among the earliest to set up "tip lines" that encouraged community members to report teachers for alleged violations of recently passed curriculum restrictions.
In the RAND research's open-ended response portion, some teachers detailed how restrictions were making their jobs more difficult, said Ashley Woo, assistant policy researcher at RAND. They also expressed feelings of worry, anxiety, nervousness, concern and fear, she added.
"As a result of these restrictions, educators have had more on their plates at a time when we know that they are already experiencing heightened levels of stress," Woo said. "In an era of staff shortages, policymakers and education leaders at all levels should be thinking about how they can improve teachers’ working conditions to make the profession more attractive to both enter and stay in."
Making an effort to understand teachers' perspective and experiences when crafting these policies and considering how to make their jobs more sustainable should be a part of that process, said Woo.
For example, prior RAND research suggests talking about race or gender-related issues may be especially relevant for teachers of color, and specifically Black or African American teachers — a majority of whom were more likely to believe systemic racism exists and to provide anti-bias education.
Research from RAND released in 2022 also shows 54% of teachers and principals said there should not be legal restrictions on classroom conversations related to racism, sexism and other topics that can be controversial. Only 20% of principals and teachers felt there should be legal limits.
Still, teachers are under pressure from sources ranging from families to social media to education leaders, Woo said. As a result, they are having to adapt by modifying their instruction, including changing the materials used, topics discussed, and words selected.
"Not to mention, teachers still have to carry out their duties as educators and prioritize student learning and well-being," Woo said. "It can be difficult to know what to do in such a complex environment."
That emphasizes the need to provide teachers with guidance and support on how to navigate these pressures and restrictions in a way that can facilitate both the students' social development and their academics.
"And this, in turn, highlights the need to listen to teachers — to really understand what their concerns, challenges and needs are when creating policies and guidance," said Woo.