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School principals say culture wars made last year 'rough as hell'

Jaime Jacob for NPR

"Rough as hell."

That's how one high school principal in Nevada describes the 2021-'22 school year, when conflicts with parents and community members were all too common.

"Something needs to change or else we will all quit," says another principal, in California.

Those voices are part of a new, nationally representative survey of 682 public high school principals, many of whom describe a level of tension and division within their broader school communities that is not only high but, in the words of one Utah principal, making the job harder "than any other era in my 20 years of administrative experience."

John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA, helped lead the survey effort and says, while an earlier, 2018 survey of principals revealed conflicts spilling into schools, "what's different in 2022 is that a lot of the political conflict is being targeted at public schools," especially in narrowly divided "purple" districts.

More than two-thirds (69%) of principals surveyed report "substantial political conflict" with parents or members of the community last year over several controversial topics:

  • Teaching about issues of race and racism 
  • Policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ student rights 
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Student access to books in the school library
  • The survey was conducted during the summer of 2022 by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA and the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside.

    The resulting report is rich with detail and gut-punch quotes that school leaders offered researchers in exchange for anonymity. NPR was not able to independently verify educators' stories or identities. Below are a handful of the survey's biggest takeaways.

    Schools in purple districts saw more political conflict

    Nearly half (45%) of principals surveyed say the level of parent/community conflict they saw last year was either "more" or "much more" than anything they'd seen before the pandemic.

    Just 3% say they felt less conflict last year.

    Principals cite many stressors, including a kind of ambient anxiety created by the pandemic that was then exacerbated by the spread of misinformation on social media, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the divisive tenure of former President Trump, and, most importantly, the role of national, largely conservative organizations in galvanizing parents and turning schools into culture war battlegrounds.

    In fact, the more politically divided a community is, the more likely principals are to say their schools have been riven by conflict.

    Researchers found that schools in purple congressional districts (where Trump won 45–54.9% of the vote in 2020) were more likely to experience "acute" levels of political conflict than schools in blue districts (where the vote for Trump dipped below 45%) or in red districts (where Trump support exceeded 55%).

    And those political conflicts can also play out between students.

    Almost seven of 10 (69%) principals report "students have made demeaning or hateful remarks towards classmates for expressing either liberal or conservative views."

    "I had to come down and help the teacher, like a veteran teacher, who's never had

    problems having discussions," remembers one Iowa principal. "And the kids were just so stuck in their trenches, they weren't willing to be open to even listen to the other side."

    Misinformation is making it hard to teach lots of things, including media literacy

    In many places, according to the survey, misinformation sparked fires of conflict.

    "We had a group of parents that went bananas on us on the masking, and believed that we were encouraging kids to get a shot that surely had a microchip in it because the government wanted to control their brains," remembers one Nevada principal.

    This same principal, who says he is a registered Republican in a predominantly conservative district, worries that parents' belief in misinformation has had a chilling effect on schools' ability to talk about current events and even recent history.

    "You can't [use newspapers] anymore. You can't use CNN because the parents will go nuts on you. You can't use Fox because it's so out there. It's hard to teach kids about what's going on in any kind of context, because there is no context anymore."

    Nearly two-thirds (64%) of principals report that parents or community members pushed back against information used in classrooms. And this tug-of-war over facts "grew almost three-fold in purple communities between 2018 and 2022," according to the report.

    "The only way I think we're going to get out of a situation like this is teaching kids, and maybe even the greater public at large, what is good information," opines one Nebraska principal.

    Schools in purple districts were more likely to put limits on teaching about race and racism

    The bitter, politicized fight around critical race theory has been well-documented. But this survey sheds new light on just how pervasive those conflicts were in schools.

    Roughly half of principals, according to the report, say parents or other members of their communities tried "to limit or challenge ... teaching and learning about issues of race and racism" last year.

    In purple districts, nearly two-thirds (63%) of principals noted that kind of community pressure.

    Not only that, many district leaders gave in.

    Nearly a quarter (23%) of principals in purple communities told researchers that district leaders, including school board members, "took action to limit teaching and learning about race and racism." That was higher than in both red communities (17%) and blue communities (8%).

    "My superintendent told me in no uncertain terms that I could not address issues of race and bias..." one Minnesota principal remembers. "He told me, 'This is not the time or the place to do this here. You have to remember you are in the heart of Trump country and you're just going to start a big mess if you start talking about that stuff.' "

    Another principal, in Ohio, says when a group of angry parents found no evidence of CRT in his school's social studies curriculum, they accused him of "teaching undercover CRT."

    "We are trying to weather this storm and see if we can get through it," the Ohio principal says, even as his staff "has become scared ... worried that ... if I talk about the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow, am I going to be accused of telling White people they are bad?"

    Harassment of LGBTQ+ students is rising

    Nearly half (48%) of principals say they faced outside efforts, from parents or the broader community, to "challenge or limit LGBTQ+ students' rights," with principals in purple communities almost twice as likely as those in more conservative or liberal areas to say they faced multiple such efforts.

    A California principal says, "one counselor described to me how a parent screamed at her on the phone" and used an anti-gay slur. "It's quite disheartening to work so hard and care for all our students when so many people are being hateful and threatening."

    The survey results also reveal a mirroring effect – where adult efforts to curtail LGBTQ+ students' rights parallel rising rates of students themselves harassing LGBTQ+ classmates.

    "The percentage of principals indicating multiple attacks on LGBTQ+ students grew across all schools," according to the report, "from 15% in 2018 to 24% in 2022."

    In purple communities, however, that number more than tripled.

    Principals believe the majority of parents don't support these conflicts

    In spite of the pressure and its toll, many principals say they believe the vast majority of parents do not support the conflicts that have so divided their schools, that many of these fights are driven by "small clusters of hate," as one North Carolina principal puts it.

    Principals believe this silent majority remained silent last year "because they're too busy or overwhelmed or are afraid that if they become engaged, they're going to face danger," UCLA's Rogers says.

    Rogers' collaborator, Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at UC Riverside, warns that silence isn't healthy for a school system that is meant to serve all children.

    "If the vast majority of folks are quiet, then folks who have very strong opinions or who are willing to engage in very contentious politics will have an outsized influence," Kahne warns. "If all parents and community members speak up, and if they have reasoned and focused conversations, that dialogue will be good for schools."

    And, Kahne and Rogers argue, good for democracy.

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    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.