Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education

Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education



Americans are losing faith in their schoolteachers.

New polling suggests that fierce debates over what educators should be allowed to do and say in classrooms, an ascendant parents’ rights movement seeking control of what children learn at school, recent criticism of teachers from conservative lawmakers and news outlets and the lingering aftershocks from the pandemic have all sapped public confidence in the teaching profession.

In January, a Gallup poll found that Americans’ belief in grade-school teachers’ honesty had dropped to an all-time low, with 64 percent of adults reporting they believe those instructors are truthful and have ethical standards, down from a high of 75 percent in 2020, during the tensest days of the pandemic. In July, another Gallup poll found that just 28 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools — the second-lowest this figure has been since Gallup began asking this question in 1973. Both polls found divisions along party lines, with Republicans more likely than Democrats to distrust teachers and schools. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning individuals gave high honesty and ethics ratings to grade-school teachers, but 54 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning individuals did (a steep drop from pre-pandemic times, when 70 percent of Republicans said they trusted teachers). And a mere 13 percent of Republicans said they had confidence in public schools, compared with 43 percent of Democrats.

Meanwhile, a historically small slice of U.S. adults — 37 percent — say they want their children to become teachers, according to the 54th annual PDK-Gallup poll, marking the slimmest recorded percentage since the poll launched in 1969. Albert Chen, acting CEO of PDK, a global association of education professionals, called the number “depressing.”

The stakes, experts said, are high. If Americans do not trust teachers, those with resources may pull their children into private schools, endangering public-school funding, which is tied to enrollment. And Chen fears what might happen if families urge their children not to become teachers: The pipeline of educators — already shrinking for the past decade — may dry up past repairing. All this comes at a moment when the nation is facing a catastrophic teacher shortage.

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Alfred DuBois, a 65-year-old father in Clifton, N.J., is among those who no longer believe teachers. DuBois said that, in the past year or so, he became suspicious of his school district’s mask mandates — which led to questions about what books are available in the library and, later, concerns about how teachers are teaching history.

“When I talk to them personally, they seem okay, but … I asked to go to the library to look at the books, and they won’t allow me in the library,” DuBois said. “That to me is — you’re hiding something. And from what I pick up from my kids, they spoke very negatively about [Christopher] Columbus, [George] Washington and [Abraham] Lincoln.”

Analysts trace the falling respect for teachers to several causes: First, parents were able to pay closer attention to what their children were learning during virtual schooling in the pandemic’s first year, when they could sit in on a class just by peering at their children’s screens over their shoulders. Many parents soon discovered they did not like what they saw, deeming the lessons overly focused on issues of race, racism, topics such as gender fluidity and gender identity, and the parts of U.S. history where the country failed to live up to its ideals, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“For a large number of Americans, when they look at what schools are doing and the messages that are being sent by advocates of public education,” Hess said, “it sounds like these folks are pushing agendas and values that feel alien, feel destructive, and it winds up eroding their faith in the profession as a whole.”

Second, right-leaning politicians and pundits found it could be politically advantageous to blast teachers. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) swept into office by campaigning to eradicate certain ways of talking about race and American history from the state’s schools. One of his earliest acts as governor was to set up a tip line allowing parents to report teachers for inappropriate behavior. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has scored political points, and support for a presidential run, by passing a host of laws restricting how teachers can talk about race, racism, history and LGBTQ issues.

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On Fox News, meanwhile, teachers have become a favorite target. In July and August alone, Fox hosts called a teachers union “the KKK with summers off,” said teachers’ aim is to “groom children to exploit them for sexual purposes” and asserted teachers deserve low wages: “If you’re teaching them to be woke,” host Sean P. Duffy said on Aug. 17, “we shouldn’t pay them more.”

Finally, parents of all political watched as stressed and often underpaid teachers struggled with virtual, then hybrid schooling — and later campus reopenings complicated by fights over safety precautions. At first, this led to a spike in appreciation. But it didn’t last, said Heather Hill, a Harvard professor who studies teachers and teaching.

“No one was happy,” Hill said. “Parents who wanted schools open weren’t happy, parents who wanted more safety precautions weren’t happy either. … I think that wound up eroding some of the trust as well.”

The atmosphere of suspicion is making it harder for teachers to do their jobs, as they fear saying or doing the wrong thing and drawing parental complaints, warned Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. Some dread the spotlight that could come from getting featured on platforms such as “Tucker Carlson Tonight” or Libs of Tik Tok, a popular Twitter account that showcases the perceived misdeeds of liberal-minded teachers.

The climate is also rendering the profession less attractive to prospective teachers still in school, Spar said. In the PDK poll, 29 percent of parents said they do not want their children to become teachers due to poor pay, while a separate 26 percent cited the “difficulties, demands and stress” of the job. Another 23 percent pointed to “a lack of respect or [teachers] being valued” as the reason.

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And people are being driven from the profession now, Spar said. He attributed the teacher shortages in his state to DeSantis’s negative rhetoric about educators, as well as the education laws Florida passed in the past two years. Florida still has roughly 5,000 teacher vacancies weeks into the school year, Spar said; that’s up from about 3,000 this time last year.

“What does that mean? It means what happened to my daughter last year, when her science teacher came back from winter break and said, ‘I’m not willing to continue teaching,’” Spar said. “They could not find another science teacher for the rest of the year, and my daughter was just getting worksheets every day. That’s not an education. Kids are not getting an education.”

Asked about Spar’s criticisms, DeSantis’s press secretary Bryan Griffin wrote in a lengthy statement that the governor “has celebrated teachers” by signing a state budget in March that will spend $800 million to lift starting teacher salaries to at least $47,000. He said the governor’s goal is for “teachers to be well compensated and to allow them to focus on what they do best — teaching students the fundamentals of education, like reading, writing, and math,” while ensuring parents are “fully informed about and … able to guide a child’s education and upbringing.”

“What we take issue with is activism in the classroom that overtly politicizes the classroom or exposes children to age-inappropriate, sexualized content,” Griffin wrote. “This is likely what would be causing a lack of faith in the American education system.”

The growing distrust of teachers is also leading to greater scrutiny of teacher education programs. In Florida, DeSantis alleges they are churning out educators who encourage children to do things like switch gender identities without telling their parents.

“Certain schools of education, I think that’s been overtaken by ideology,” he said at an August 16 news conference. “I don’t think it’s the right way to do it. And I don’t think these ed schools have been proven to be effective.”

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In July, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit conservative law firm, released a study concluding that “the controversial material spilling into schools today is the result of an indoctrination process that begins when teachers are enrolled in universities around the state.” The study was based on a review of syllabi for education majors at all of Wisconsin’s four-year public colleges. The study authors highlight courses focused on “equity,” “diversity,” “multiculturalism” and “culturally relevant pedagogy.”

These “sound innocuous enough on their face; but, in reality, have been something of a Trojan Horse for a wide variety of policies and instructional narratives with potentially harmful effects,” the study states. “For example, based on the narrative that differences in suspension rates among students of different races can only be the result of racism in school discipline policies, schools around Wisconsin and the nation have dramatically reduced suspension rates … [T]hese lenient policies lead to students and teachers feeling less safe in the classroom — a necessary prerequisite for learning to take place.”

Will Flanders, one of the authors, said blame for parental mistrust of teachers must be laid at the feet of education schools: “Across the country these notions are being taught in schools where the local ideologies don’t match these concepts, [and] that’s why we’re seeing these discussions and these angry parents.”

But Hill, the Harvard professor who also serves as co-chair of the university’s teacher education program, disagreed with this depiction of what teacher training looks like and is meant to do.

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She said most teacher preparation programs, including hers, emphasize technical classroom skills. “That’s where a lot of teacher prep programs have headed in the past 10 years,” she said. Hill added that schools do explain how prospective teachers can relate to students — hoping to ensure they can reach students from different communities. The goal is simply to “understand the background of kids or of their parents. … But being the woke police? Absolutely not.”

So far, not a lot of parents seem to be paying attention to the budding debate about university education schools. They’re more likely to be busy observing teachers at their children’s schools, listening to pundits and lawmakers — or, said Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, scrolling on social media, which has rendered potentially concerning teacher behavior “more evident and transparent.”

DuBois, the New Jersey parent, said he learned to suspect teachers primarily by listening to Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and self-help author who became a prominent figure in the culture wars for his criticism of feminism and transgender people. Peterson has also led an online crusade against what he says is political brainwashing in schools.

“He spoke a lot about how the schools have been indoctrinating for 30 years, maybe more, with a certain kind of liberalism, or leftism,” DuBois said. “He’s very knowledgeable.”

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Inspired by his research, DuBois has attended board meetings in the Clifton Public School District for the past five months. He wants to stay up-to-date on whatever might affect the one of his eight children who is still in high school. DuBois also speaks during public comment about sex education classes, which he says amount to “sexual grooming.”

Still, some teachers say they have become the victims of this sort of activism.

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr., who is gay, was named 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year by his state education department after more than a decade teaching English and French to high-schoolers in Mount Sterling, Ky. Shortly after he won that honor, a small group of adults began showing up to board meetings to call him a “groomer” and suggest that the Gay-Straight Alliance club he headed was “some sort of sex cult,” Carver said. One of the adults, a woman, also began sharing screenshots from his private Facebook and trying to publish information about his former students, he said.

Dismayed, miserable and frightened, Carver quit his job in June.

“The impulse on the part of a very small group of people in rural places has always been to accuse teachers,” he said. “But they’ve been on the outskirts of normalcy and polite society for at least the last 20 years.”

Carver added: “Not anymore.”

Lori Rozsa contributed to this report

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Jorge Oliveira