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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teaching controversial issues is OK for teens, but not younger students

Most Americans want schools to teach older students about controversial issues, according to USC's Understanding America Survey, reports Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. "They're not as sure that younger children" are ready.

Teaching about abolitionist Harriet Tubman in elementary school is fine with most Americans.

Both Republicans and Democrats said older students should learn about "hot-button topics — such as abortion, gun control, or racial inequality — in school," Schwartz writes. But there were "large partisan divides" on teaching about gender and sexuality.

Most agreed that elementary students should learn about "the Founding Fathers, contributions of women and people of color, slavery, and the environment," and that they shouldn't be taught about "criminal justice reform, gun rights, sex education, abortion and LGTBQ issues," she reports. There were partisan splits on immigrant rights and racial inequality.

“It seems like what people want is, elementary school is reading, writing and math. Keep it simple; stick with the basics. Don’t do anything political,” said Morgan Polikoff, a USC education professor and an author of the study. “And in high school, what people seem to want is both sides or all sides of complex issues.”

Gender identity and sexual orientation are the touchiest issues.

Less than 50 percent of respondents—regardless of political party — said that elementary school students should learn about LGBTQ rights, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Only 40 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans said that elementary students should be assigned books that include families with same-sex parents. Less than 30 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans said these students should be assigned books that feature the experiences of gay or transgender people.
There is more of a partisan divide in high school, where over 80 percent of Democrats say that students should be taught about LGBTQ issues, but less than 40 percent of Republicans say the same.

Most Americans don't want elementary or high school students assigned to read books "with LGBTQ topics, profanity, and depictions of violence or sex," the survey found. There's a split on whether these books should be available in high school libraries.

Most don't want elementary lessons on Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlin Jenner.

Educators have qualms about these issues too, according to an Education Week survey, Schwartz writes. "In a survey of teachers, district leaders, and principals across grade levels, 43 percent said that schools should not teach about LGBTQ issues."

However, some professional groups have endorsed teaching about gender expression and identity in the early grades, she writes. "The National Sex Education Standards, which have been endorsed by the Society of Health and Physical Educators and influenced standards in several states, say that students should be able to 'explain that gender expression and gender identity exist along a spectrum' by the end of 5th grade."

The survey's question about teaching "critical race theory" ran into a problem: Many people aren't sure what it is.

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