The 10 Education Issues Everybody Should Be Talking About

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What issues have the potential to define—or re define—education in the year ahead? Is there a next “big thing” that could shift the K-12 experience or conversation?

These were the questions Education Week set out to answer in this second annual “10 Big Ideas in Education” report.

You can read about last year’s ideas here . In 2019, though, things are different.

This year, we asked Education Week reporters to read the tea leaves and analyze what was happening in classrooms, school districts, and legislatures across the country. What insights could reporters offer practitioners for the year ahead?

Some of the ideas here are speculative. Some are warning shots, others more optimistic. But all 10 of them here have one thing in common: They share a sense of urgency.

Accompanied by compelling illustrations and outside perspectives from leading researchers, advocates, and practitioners, this year’s Big Ideas might make you uncomfortable, or seem improbable. The goal was to provoke and empower you as you consider them.

Let us know what you think, and what big ideas matter to your classroom, school, or district. Tweet your comments with #K12BigIdeas .

No. 1: Kids are right. School is boring.


Out-of-school learning is often more meaningful than anything that happens in a classroom, writes Kevin Bushweller, the Executive Editor of EdWeek Market Brief. His essay tackling the relevance gap is accompanied by a Q&A with advice on nurturing, rather than stifling students’ natural curiosity. Read more.

No. 2: Teachers have trust issues. And it’s no wonder why.


Many teachers may have lost faith in the system, says Andrew Ujifusa, but they haven’t lost hope. The Assistant Editor unpacks this year’s outbreak of teacher activism. And read an account from a disaffected educator on how he built a coalition of his own. Read more.

No. 3: Special education is broken.


Forty years since students with disabilities were legally guaranteed a public school education, many still don’t receive the education they deserve, writes Associate Editor Christina A. Samuels. Delve into her argument and hear from a disability civil rights pioneer on how to create an equitable path for students. Read more.

No. 4: Schools are embracing bilingualism, but only for some students.


Staff Writer Corey Mitchell explains the inclusion problem at the heart of bilingual education. His essay includes a perspective from a researcher on dismantling elite bilingualism. Read more.

No. 5: A world without annual testing may be closer than you think.


There’s agreement that we have a dysfunctional standardized-testing system in the United States, Associate Editor Stephen Sawchuk writes. But killing it would come with some serious tradeoffs. Sawchuk’s musing on the alternatives to annual tests is accompanied by an argument for more rigorous classroom assignments by a teacher-practice expert. Read more.

No. 6: There are lessons to be learned from the educational experiences of black students in military families.


Drawing on his personal experience growing up in an Air Force family, Staff Writer Daarel Burnette II highlights emerging research on military-connected students. Learn more about his findings and hear from two researchers on what a new ESSA mandate means for these students. Read more.

No. 7: School segregation is not an intractable American problem.


Racial and economic segregation remains deeply entrenched in American schools. Staff Writer Denisa R. Superville considers the six steps one district is taking to change that. Her analysis is accompanied by an essay from the president of the American Educational Research Association on what is perpetuating education inequality. Read more.

No. 8: Consent doesn’t just belong in sex ed. class. It needs to start a lot earlier.


Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks looked at the research on teaching consent and found schools and families do way too little, way too late. Her report is partnered with a researcher’s practical guide to developmentally appropriate consent education. Read more.

No. 9: Education has an innovation problem.


Are education leaders spending too much time chasing the latest tech trends to maintain what they have? Staff Writer Benjamin Herold explores the innovation trap. Two technologists offer three tips for putting maintenance front and center in school management. Read more.

No. 10: There are two powerful forces changing college admissions.


Some colleges are rewriting the admissions script for potential students. Senior Contributing Writer Catherine Gewertz surveys this changing college admissions landscape. Her insights are accompanied by one teacher’s advice for navigating underserved students through the college application process. Read more.

Wait, there’s more.

Want to know what educators really think about innovation? A new Education Week Research Center survey delves into what’s behind the common buzzword for teachers, principals, and district leaders. Take a look at the survey results.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as What’s on the Horizon for 2019?

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Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

How politics and the pandemic put schools in the line of fire.

controversial issues on education

A previous version of this story incorrectly said that 39 percent of American children were on track in math. That is the percentage performing below grade level.

Test scores are down, and violence is up . Parents are screaming at school boards , and children are crying on the couches of social workers. Anger is rising. Patience is falling.

For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers. Each phase of the pandemic brings new logistics to manage, and Republicans are planning political campaigns this year aimed squarely at failings of public schools.

Public education is facing a crisis unlike anything in decades, and it reaches into almost everything that educators do: from teaching math, to counseling anxious children, to managing the building.

Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.

“The temperature is way up to a boiling point,” said Nat Malkus, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “If it isn’t a crisis now, you never get to crisis.”

Experts reach for comparisons. The best they can find is the earthquake following Brown v. Board of Education , when the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate and White parents fled from their cities’ schools. That was decades ago.

Today, the cascading problems are felt acutely by the administrators, teachers and students who walk the hallways of public schools across the country. Many say they feel unprecedented levels of stress in their daily lives.

Remote learning, the toll of illness and death, and disruptions to a dependable routine have left students academically behind — particularly students of color and those from poor families. Behavior problems ranging from inability to focus in class all the way to deadly gun violence have gripped campuses. Many students and teachers say they are emotionally drained, and experts predict schools will be struggling with the fallout for years to come.

Teresa Rennie, an eighth-grade math and science teacher in Philadelphia, said in 11 years of teaching, she has never referred this many children to counseling.

“So many students are needy. They have deficits academically. They have deficits socially,” she said. Rennie said that she’s drained, too. “I get 45 minutes of a prep most days, and a lot of times during that time I’m helping a student with an assignment, or a child is crying and I need to comfort them and get them the help they need. Or there’s a problem between two students that I need to work with. There’s just not enough time.”

Many wonder: How deep is the damage?

Learning lost

At the start of the pandemic, experts predicted that students forced into remote school would pay an academic price. They were right.

“The learning losses have been significant thus far and frankly I’m worried that we haven’t stopped sinking,” said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

Some of the best data come from the nationally administered assessment called i-Ready, which tests students three times a year in reading and math, allowing researchers to compare performance of millions of students against what would be expected absent the pandemic. It found significant declines, especially among the youngest students and particularly in math.

The low point was fall 2020, when all students were coming off a spring of chaotic, universal remote classes. By fall 2021 there were some improvements, but even then, academic performance remained below historic norms.

Take third grade, a pivotal year for learning and one that predicts success going forward. In fall 2021, 38 percent of third-graders were below grade level in reading, compared with 31 percent historically. In math, 39 percent of students were below grade level, vs. 29 percent historically.

Damage was most severe for students from the lowest-income families, who were already performing at lower levels.

A McKinsey & Co. study found schools with majority-Black populations were five months behind pre-pandemic levels, compared with majority-White schools, which were two months behind. Emma Dorn, a researcher at McKinsey, describes a “K-shaped” recovery, where kids from wealthier families are rebounding and those in low-income homes continue to decline.

“Some students are recovering and doing just fine. Other people are not,” she said. “I’m particularly worried there may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.”

A hunt for teachers, and bus drivers

Schools, short-staffed on a good day, had little margin for error as the omicron variant of the coronavirus swept over the country this winter and sidelined many teachers. With a severe shortage of substitutes, teachers had to cover other classes during their planning periods, pushing prep work to the evenings. San Francisco schools were so strapped that the superintendent returned to the classroom on four days this school year to cover middle school math and science classes. Classes were sometimes left unmonitored or combined with others into large groups of unglorified study halls.

“The pandemic made an already dire reality even more devastating,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, referring to the shortages.

In 2016, there were 1.06 people hired for every job listing. That figure has steadily dropped, reaching 0.59 hires for each opening last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. In 2013, there were 557,320 substitute teachers, the BLS reported. In 2020, the number had fallen to 415,510. Virtually every district cites a need for more subs.

It’s led to burnout as teachers try to fill in the gaps.

“The overall feelings of teachers right now are ones of just being exhausted, beaten down and defeated, and just out of gas. Expectations have been piled on educators, even before the pandemic, but nothing is ever removed,” said Jennifer Schlicht, a high school teacher in Olathe, Kan., outside Kansas City.

Research shows the gaps in the number of available educators are most acute in areas including special education and educators who teach English language learners, as well as substitutes. And all school year, districts have been short on bus drivers , who have been doubling up routes, and forcing late school starts and sometimes cancellations for lack of transportation.

Many educators predict that fed-up teachers will probably quit, exacerbating the problem. And they say political attacks add to the burnout. Teachers are under scrutiny over lesson plans, and critics have gone after teachers unions, which for much of the pandemic demanded remote learning.

“It’s just created an environment that people don’t want to be part of anymore,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “People want to take care of kids, not to be accused and punished and criticized.”

Falling enrollment

Traditional public schools educate the vast majority of American children, but enrollment has fallen, a worrisome trend that could have lasting repercussions. Enrollment in traditional public schools fell to less than 49.4 million students in fall 2020 , a 2.7 percent drop from a year earlier .

National data for the current school year is not yet available. But if the trend continues, that will mean less money for public schools as federal and state funding are both contingent on the number of students enrolled. For now, schools have an infusion of federal rescue money that must be spent by 2024.

Some students have shifted to private or charter schools. A rising number , especially Black families , opted for home schooling. And many young children who should have been enrolling in kindergarten delayed school altogether. The question has been: will these students come back?

Some may not. Preliminary data for 19 states compiled by Nat Malkus, of the American Enterprise Institute, found seven states where enrollment dropped in fall 2020 and then dropped even further in 2021. His data show 12 states that saw declines in 2020 but some rebounding in 2021 — though not one of them was back to 2019 enrollment levels.

Joshua Goodman, associate professor of education and economics at Boston University, studied enrollment in Michigan schools and found high-income, White families moved to private schools to get in-person school. Far more common, though, were lower-income Black families shifting to home schooling or other remote options because they were uncomfortable with the health risks of in person.

“Schools were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t,” Goodman said.

At the same time, charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, saw enrollment increase by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There’s also been a surge in home schooling. Private schools saw enrollment drop slightly in 2020-21 but then rebound this academic year, for a net growth of 1.7 percent over two years, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,600 U.S. schools.

Absenteeism on the rise

Even if students are enrolled, they won’t get much schooling if they don’t show up.

Last school year, the number of students who were chronically absent — meaning they have missed more than 10 percent of school days — nearly doubled from before the pandemic, according to data from a variety of states and districts studied by EveryDay Labs, a company that works with districts to improve attendance.

This school year, the numbers got even worse.

In Connecticut, for instance, the number of chronically absent students soared from 12 percent in 2019-20 to 20 percent the next year to 24 percent this year, said Emily Bailard, chief executive of the company. In Oakland, Calif., they went from 17.3 percent pre-pandemic to 19.8 percent last school year to 43 percent this year. In Pittsburgh, chronic absences stayed where they were last school year at about 25 percent, then shot up to 45 percent this year.

“We all expected that this year would look much better,” Bailard said. One explanation for the rise may be that schools did not keep careful track of remote attendance last year and the numbers understated the absences then, she said.

The numbers were the worst for the most vulnerable students. This school year in Connecticut, for instance, 24 percent of all students were chronically absent, but the figure topped 30 percent for English-learners, students with disabilities and those poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Among students experiencing homelessness, 56 percent were chronically absent.

Fights and guns

Schools are open for in-person learning almost everywhere, but students returned emotionally unsettled and unable to conform to normally accepted behavior. At its most benign, teachers are seeing kids who cannot focus in class, can’t stop looking at their phones, and can’t figure out how to interact with other students in all the normal ways. Many teachers say they seem younger than normal.

Amy Johnson, a veteran teacher in rural Randolph, Vt., said her fifth-graders had so much trouble being together that the school brought in a behavioral specialist to work with them three hours each week.

“My students are not acclimated to being in the same room together,” she said. “They don’t listen to each other. They cannot interact with each other in productive ways. When I’m teaching I might have three or five kids yelling at me all at the same time.”

That loss of interpersonal skills has also led to more fighting in hallways and after school. Teachers and principals say many incidents escalate from small disputes because students lack the habit of remaining calm. Many say the social isolation wrought during remote school left them with lower capacity to manage human conflict.

Just last week, a high-schooler in Los Angeles was accused of stabbing another student in a school hallway, police on the big island of Hawaii arrested seven students after an argument escalated into a fight, and a Baltimore County, Md., school resource officer was injured after intervening in a fight during the transition between classes.

There’s also been a steep rise in gun violence. In 2021, there were at least 42 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular hours, the most during any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database . The most striking of 2021 incidents was the shooting in Oxford, Mich., that killed four. There have been already at least three shootings in 2022.

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains its own database of K-12 school shootings using a different methodology, totaled nine active shooter incidents in schools in 2021, in addition to 240 other incidents of gunfire on school grounds. So far in 2022, it has recorded 12 incidents. The previous high, in 2019, was 119 total incidents.

David Riedman, lead researcher on the K-12 School Shooting Database, points to four shootings on Jan. 19 alone, including at Anacostia High School in D.C., where gunshots struck the front door of the school as a teen sprinted onto the campus, fleeing a gunman.

Seeing opportunity

Fueling the pressure on public schools is an ascendant school-choice movement that promotes taxpayer subsidies for students to attend private and religious schools, as well as publicly funded charter schools, which are privately run. Advocates of these programs have seen the public system’s woes as an excellent opportunity to push their priorities.

EdChoice, a group that promotes these programs, tallies seven states that created new school choice programs last year. Some are voucher-type programs where students take some of their tax dollars with them to private schools. Others offer tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations, which give scholarships for school expenses. Another 15 states expanded existing programs, EdChoice says.

The troubles traditional schools have had managing the pandemic has been key to the lobbying, said Michael McShane, director of national research for EdChoice. “That is absolutely an argument that school choice advocates make, for sure.”

If those new programs wind up moving more students from public to private systems, that could further weaken traditional schools, even as they continue to educate the vast majority of students.

Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, who opposes school choice programs, sees the surge of interest as the culmination of years of work to undermine public education. He is both impressed by the organization and horrified by the results.

“I wish that organizations supporting public education had the level of funding and coordination that I’ve seen in these groups dedicated to its privatization,” he said.

A final complication: Politics

Rarely has education been such a polarizing political topic.

Republicans, fresh off Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race, have concluded that key to victory is a push for parental control and “parents rights.” That’s a nod to two separate topics.

First, they are capitalizing on parent frustrations over pandemic policies, including school closures and mandatory mask policies. The mask debate, which raged at the start of the school year, got new life this month after Youngkin ordered Virginia schools to allow students to attend without face coverings.

The notion of parental control also extends to race, and objections over how American history is taught. Many Republicans also object to school districts’ work aimed at racial equity in their systems, a basket of policies they have dubbed critical race theory. Critics have balked at changes in admissions to elite school in the name of racial diversity, as was done in Fairfax, Va. , and San Francisco ; discussion of White privilege in class ; and use of the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which suggests slavery and racism are at the core of American history.

“Everything has been politicized,” said Domenech, of AASA. “You’re beside yourself saying, ‘How did we ever get to this point?’”

Part of the challenge going forward is that the pandemic is not over. Each time it seems to be easing, it returns with a variant vengeance, forcing schools to make politically and educationally sensitive decisions about the balance between safety and normalcy all over again.

At the same time, many of the problems facing public schools feed on one another. Students who are absent will probably fall behind in learning, and those who fall behind are likely to act out.

A similar backlash exists regarding race. For years, schools have been under pressure to address racism in their systems and to teach it in their curriculums, pressure that intensified after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many districts responded, and that opened them up to countervailing pressures from those who find schools overly focused on race.

Some high-profile boosters of public education are optimistic that schools can move past this moment. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week promised, “It will get better.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “If we can rebuild community-education relations, if we can rebuild trust, public education will not only survive but has a real chance to thrive.”

But the path back is steep, and if history is a guide, the wealthiest schools will come through reasonably well, while those serving low-income communities will struggle. Steve Matthews, superintendent of the 6,900-student Novi Community School District in Michigan, just northwest of Detroit, said his district will probably face a tougher road back than wealthier nearby districts that are, for instance, able to pay teachers more.

“Resource issues. Trust issues. De-professionalization of teaching is making it harder to recruit teachers,” he said. “A big part of me believes schools are in a long-term crisis.”

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5 . To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools . American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure .

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules .

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.

controversial issues on education

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Regions & Countries

About half of americans say public k-12 education is going in the wrong direction.

School buses arrive at an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia. (Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

About half of U.S. adults (51%) say the country’s public K-12 education system is generally going in the wrong direction. A far smaller share (16%) say it’s going in the right direction, and about a third (32%) are not sure, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November 2023.

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to understand how Americans view the K-12 public education system. We surveyed 5,029 U.S. adults from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16, 2023.

The survey was conducted by Ipsos for Pew Research Center on the Ipsos KnowledgePanel Omnibus. The KnowledgePanel is a probability-based web panel recruited primarily through national, random sampling of residential addresses. The survey is weighted by gender, age, race, ethnicity, education, income and other categories.

Here are the questions used for this analysis , along with responses, and the survey methodology .

A diverging bar chart showing that only 16% of Americans say public K-12 education is going in the right direction.

A majority of those who say it’s headed in the wrong direction say a major reason is that schools are not spending enough time on core academic subjects.

These findings come amid debates about what is taught in schools , as well as concerns about school budget cuts and students falling behind academically.

Related: Race and LGBTQ Issues in K-12 Schools

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the public K-12 education system is going in the wrong direction. About two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65%) say this, compared with 40% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. In turn, 23% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans say it’s headed in the right direction.

Among Republicans, conservatives are the most likely to say public education is headed in the wrong direction: 75% say this, compared with 52% of moderate or liberal Republicans. There are no significant differences among Democrats by ideology.

Similar shares of K-12 parents and adults who don’t have a child in K-12 schools say the system is going in the wrong direction.

A separate Center survey of public K-12 teachers found that 82% think the overall state of public K-12 education has gotten worse in the past five years. And many teachers are pessimistic about the future.

Related: What’s It Like To Be A Teacher in America Today?

Why do Americans think public K-12 education is going in the wrong direction?

We asked adults who say the public education system is going in the wrong direction why that might be. About half or more say the following are major reasons:

  • Schools not spending enough time on core academic subjects, like reading, math, science and social studies (69%)
  • Teachers bringing their personal political and social views into the classroom (54%)
  • Schools not having the funding and resources they need (52%)

About a quarter (26%) say a major reason is that parents have too much influence in decisions about what schools are teaching.

How views vary by party

A dot plot showing that Democrats and Republicans who say public education is going in the wrong direction give different explanations.

Americans in each party point to different reasons why public education is headed in the wrong direction.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say major reasons are:

  • A lack of focus on core academic subjects (79% vs. 55%)
  • Teachers bringing their personal views into the classroom (76% vs. 23%)

A bar chart showing that views on why public education is headed in the wrong direction vary by political ideology.

In turn, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to point to:

  • Insufficient school funding and resources (78% vs. 33%)
  • Parents having too much say in what schools are teaching (46% vs. 13%)

Views also vary within each party by ideology.

Among Republicans, conservatives are particularly likely to cite a lack of focus on core academic subjects and teachers bringing their personal views into the classroom.

Among Democrats, liberals are especially likely to cite schools lacking resources and parents having too much say in the curriculum.

Note: Here are the questions used for this analysis , along with responses, and the survey methodology .

controversial issues on education

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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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The Right Has an Opportunity to Rethink Education in America

Cecily Myart-Cruz and UTLA protest against LAUSD

T he casual observer can be forgiven if it looks like both the left and the right are doing their best to lose the debate over the future of American education.

On the left, public officials and self-righteous advocates practically fall over themselves working to subsidize and supersize bloated bureaucracies, hollowed-out urban school systems, and campus craziness. They’ve mutely watched teacher strikes shutter schools and insisted that “true history” requires the U.S. to be depicted as a cesspool of racism and villainy .

Meanwhile, on the right, bleating outrage impresarios have done their best to undercut the easy-to-make case for educational choice by weaving it into angry tirades against well-liked local schools. They’ve taken Taylor Swift, a strait-laced pop star beloved by middle school and high school girls, and imagined her as part of some bizarre Biden Administration PSYOP. Heck, they’ve even decided to try to “ take down ” Martin Luther King, Jr., a Civil Rights icon honored for his legacy of justice, equality, and nonviolence.

What gives?

The left has a problem. Democrats have long benefited from alliances with teacher unions, campus radicals, and the bureaucrats who run the college cartel. This played well with a public that tended to  like  its teachers, schools, and colleges. But  pandemic school closures ,  plunging trust in colleges , and  open antisemitism  have upended the status quo.

This has created an extraordinary opportunity for the right—free of ties with unions, public bureaucracies, and academe—to defend shared values, empower students and families, and rethink outdated arrangements. The right is uniquely positioned to lead on education because it’s not hindered by the left’s entanglements, and is thus much freer to rethink the way that early childhood, K-12, and higher education are organized and delivered.

The right also needs to demonstrate that it cares as much (or more) about the kitchen table issues that affect American families as the culture war issues that animate social media. Affordability, access, rigor, convenience, appropriateness, are the things that parents care about, and the right needs something to offer them.

The question is whether the right will choose to meet the moment at a time when too many public officials seem more interested in social media exposure than solving problems.

We’re optimists. We think the right can rise to the challenge.

It starts with a commitment to principle, shared values, and real world solutions. This is easier than it sounds. After all, the public  sides  with conservatives on hot-button disputes around race, gender, and American history by lopsided margins. Americans broadly  agree  that students should learn both the good and bad about American history,  reject  race-based college admissions,  believe  that student-athletes should play on teams that match their biological sex, and  don’t think  teachers should be discussing gender in K–3 classrooms.

And, while some thoughtful conservatives recoil from accusations of wading into “culture wars,” it’s vital for to talk forthrightly about shared values. Wall Street Journal-NORC  polling , for instance, reports that, when asked to identify values important to them, 94 percent of Americans identified hard work, 90 percent said tolerance for others, 80 percent said community involvement, 73 percent said patriotism, 65 percent said belief in God, and 65 percent said having children. Schools should valorize hard work, teach tolerance, connect students to their community, promote patriotism, and be open minded towards faith and family.

At the same time, of course, educational outcomes matter mightily, for students and the nation . A commitment to rigor, excellence, and merit is a value that conservatives should unabashedly champion. And talk about an easy sell! More than 80 percent of Americans say standardized tests like the SAT should matter for college admissions . Meanwhile, California’s Democratic officials recently approved new math standards that would end advanced math in elementary and middle school and Oregon’s have abolished the requirement that high school graduates be literate and numerate. The right should both point out the absurdity of such policies and carry the banner for high expectations, advanced instruction, gifted programs, and the importance of earned success.

When it comes to kitchen table issues, conservatives can do much more to support parents. That means putting an end to chaotic classrooms. It means using the tax code to provide more financial assistance. It means making it easier and more appealing for employers to offer on-site daycare facilities. It means creating flexible-use spending accounts for both early childhood and K–12 students to support a wide range of educational options. It means pushing colleges to cut bloat and find ways to offer less costly credentials. This means offering meaningful career and technical options so that a college degree feels like a choice rather than a requirement, making it easier for new postsecondary options to emerge, and requiring colleges to have skin in the game when students take out loans (putting the schools on the hook if their students aren’t repaying taxpayers).

Then there’s the need to address the right’s frosty relationship with educators. It’s remarkable, if you think about it, that conservatives—who energetically support cops and have a natural antipathy for bureaucrats and red tape—have so much trouble connecting with teachers. Like police, teachers are  well-liked  local public servants frustrated by bureaucracy and paperwork. It should be easy to embrace discipline policies that keep teachers safe and classrooms manageable, downsize bloated bureaucracy and shift those dollars into classrooms, and tend to parental responsibilities as well as parental rights.  

There’s an enormous opportunities for the right to lead on education today. The question is whether we’re ready to rise to the challenge.

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  • Teachers and Teaching

Controversial Issues Infographic

Many teachers worry about bringing controversy into the classroom because it could spark conflict between students or result in reproaches from administrators or parents, but addressing and thinking through divisive issues is necessary for children who are learning to live, participate, and empathize with diverse perspectives in a democracy.

University of San Francisco professor  Judy Pace , an alum of Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied the predicaments and possibilities of tackling charged topics in class. In her recent book, Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues , she explores how preservice programs prepare teachers to include controversial issues in their teaching . 

What Is a Controversial Issue?

Importantly, Pace notes that controversial issues are not the same as controversial topics, which are polarizing subjects that some stakeholders argue should not be taught. Instead, controversial issues “have to do with open questions  that are significant in terms of society or the past on which it is important to explore different perspectives that have legitimate sources of information,” says Pace. “We’re not talking about something like, ‘Do humans contribute to climate change?’ because that’s a settled question.” For example, open questions that introduce controversial issues and promote critical thinking could range from, “Should we lower the voting age?” to “What kinds of reparations should be paid to the descendants of enslaved people?”

Preparing Teachers for Controversy in Classrooms

Of course, generating these kinds of questions and leading students through open and fair discussions requires skilled teachers. To better understand how educators learn to teach controversial issues, Pace conducted a series of interviews with and observations of four teacher educators — instructors who teach people how to be teachers — and 15 preservice teachers in three different countries including the United States, Northern Ireland, and England.  

While the preservice teachers often worried about the risks associated with teaching controversial issues, Pace noted that the teacher educators acknowledged these anxieties and taught specific strategies to help address these concerns, rather than ignoring them. “In these methods courses, [teacher educators] encouraged [preservice] teachers to explore controversial issues using a variety of pedagogical approaches” that contained the risks, says Pace. Preservice teachers, she found, were often able to adapt the strategies they learned to fit their teaching contexts and their own identities as teachers. “I think [contained risk-taking] provides a way forward in this incredibly contentious political climate we’re trying to navigate.”

Controversial issues "have to do with open questions that are significant in terms of society or the past on which it is important to explore different perspectives that have legitimate sources of information. We’re not talking about something like, ‘do humans contribute to climate change?’ because that’s a settled question.”

Here, Pace provides a few instructional resources, strategies, and practices educators can use when teaching controversial issues:

  • Know your students and understand the community.  “I’d hope every teacher from day one would start developing a culture of trust and respect,” says Pace. A supportive environment provides a foundation for a classroom where students feel they can express themselves and explore ideas. Drawing on existing research , Pace recommends teachers use preliminary surveys to get to know where students stand on issues and what issues they care most about to prepare for discussions and know what voices and perspectives to bring into the conversation.
  • Communicate clearly.  Teachers should be transparent about their rationale for teaching a particular issue and explain how they’re approaching it — the goal is not to get students to adopt a particular stance but to get them to think critically. Parents and administrators should also have an awareness of what’s going on. “I think when teachers are transparent about why and how they’re doing this and keep the lines of communication open, that makes people feel less threatened and less likely to jump to conclusions about what’s going on in the classroom,” says Pace.
  • Be thoughtful when selecting issues.  Again, controversial issues are not the same as controversial topics. They should be related to the curriculum, draw from valid information sources, and should be framed as open questions. Additionally, teachers shouldn’t lead with the most charged discussions but gradually build up student capacity for these issues as the year progresses. Resources like Civic Online Reasoning can help.
  • Structured academic controversy , where students take turns understanding different perspectives presented by sources before coming to a compromise or consensus.
  • Town hall meetings , where groups of students present differing viewpoints and then answer questions before reflecting on their own position.
  • Walking debates , where students physically identify whether they agree or disagree with a particular statement before discussing.
  • Leave room to reflect.  Try to leave time, if not at the end of the class at the end of the week, for students to address emotions, reflect, and debrief. Use writing as a vehicle for individual reflection. This is beneficial not just for students but for teachers as well. Teachers should also find colleagues they can process and reflect with. Additionally, be aware of your own limitations, blind spots, or biases. Actively seek out professional development to provide additional support and to build facilitation skills.

More on teaching controversies from Pace's website.  

Additional Resources

  • Teaching Hard Histories
  • Civics in Uncivil Times
  • Harvard Ed Cast: Teaching Across a Political Divide
  • Teaching Controversial Issues (EdSource Podcast)
  • Teaching Controversial Issues When Democracy Is Under Attack (Brookings)

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The education culture war is raging. But for most parents, it's background noise

Anya Kamenetz

Mother and child reading together.

Math textbooks axed for their treatment of race; a viral Twitter account directing ire at LGBTQ teachers; a state law forbidding classroom discussion of sexual identity in younger grades; a board book for babies targeted as "pornographic." Lately it seems there's a new controversy erupting every day over how race, gender or history are tackled in public school classrooms.

But for most parents, these concerns seem to be far from top of mind. That's according to a new national poll by NPR and Ipsos . By wide margins – and regardless of their political affiliation – parents express satisfaction with their children's schools and what is being taught in them.

The nationally representative poll of 1,007 parents of school-aged children follows up on a similar survey NPR and Ipsos conducted about a year ago. In both polls, parents answered questions about the impact of the pandemic on their children, academically and socially, and about their schools' performance during this time.

NPR/Ipsos Poll: Nearly One-Third Of Parents May Stick With Remote Learning

The Coronavirus Crisis

Npr/ipsos poll: nearly one-third of parents may stick with remote learning.

This year's responses showed positive trends as the nation continues to recover from the worst of the pandemic. Compared to 2021, a growing margin of parents say their child is "ahead" when it comes to math, reading, social skills, and mental health and well-being. Fewer parents say their child is "behind" in those areas. In fact, in 2022, almost half of parents, 47%, agree with the statement: "the pandemic has not disrupted my child's education." That's up from 38% in 2021, and is a view at odds with that of most education researchers, who see big disruptions in indicators like test scores , college attendance , and preschool enrollment .

Education is a concern, but most parents say their own kids' school is doing well

For decades, voters have expressed concern in polls about the state of K-12 education in the U.S. But when you zoom in closer, parents seem to like their own kids' school , and they like their kids' teachers even more.

That's true in the NPR/Ipsos poll as well. Parents named education as their top concern after inflation and crime/gun violence.

However, 88% of respondents agree "my child's teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic." And 82% agree "my child's school has handled the pandemic well."

Parents feel well-informed about curricula, even when there's controversy

That satisfaction extends to hot-button topics. In the poll, 76% of respondents agree that "my child's school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics."

"It really is a pretty vocal minority that is hyper-focused on parental rights and decisions around curriculum," observes Mallory Newall of Ipsos, which conducted the poll.

Just 18% of parents say their child's school taught about gender and sexuality in a way that clashed with their family's values; just 19% say the same about race and racism; and just 14% feel that way about U.S. history.

Christine, a mother in Wisconsin who participated in the poll, is a member of that vocal minority. She asked not to use her last name because she says she's afraid of her child being retaliated against.

Christine, who is white, says her son's teacher has made "snarky comments about white privilege. " She also doesn't approve of her son, who is in high school, being asked what pronouns he prefers to use. Switching to a different school or district would be tough for their family, so, Christine says, "hopefully we can do enough countereducation at home to have it not be detrimental to [his] growth and development."

There is a striking lack of partisan divides in the poll responses

As a pollster, Newall at Ipsos says big partisan divides are "all I see on every topic right now." She was struck by the relative lack of them in this poll.

Christine is the type of discontented parent who's most often reflected in the headlines: a cultural conservative. Yet in our poll, the minority of parents who were unhappy with how their school tackled racism and U.S. history were just as likely to identify as Democrats as Republicans. In other words: For every parent who thinks their child's school is too "woke," there may be one who thinks it isn't woke enough.

Jim Ondelacy is a Native American and a Democrat living in North Richland Hills, Texas, outside Fort Worth. He wishes his son's high school went more in depth and taught more about the nation's history of racism and oppression.

Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs

Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs

"It's more of a water-down effect ... [the teachers] kind of whitewash the way that history is taught to their kids," he says.

He wants the school to teach about the French and Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and about slavery during the Revolutionary War.

"They understand what's happening with Black Lives Matter ... but they don't really understand where it came from and how it started," he says.

The most partisan issue in our poll was gender and sexuality, but still only a minority expressed any concerns. Republicans are closely divided: 26% say schools are not teaching about gender and sexuality in a way that matches their family's values, while 22% say schools are (the remainder don't know or say schools aren't addressing those topics).

Among Democrats, a third agree with their school's approach to gender and sexuality, while only 11% disagree.

Taryn Chatel, in Belmont, Mich., is the mother of a kindergartner, and has a family friend who is transgender. She's hoping the school will introduce the idea of gender diversity, so it's not all on her as a parent. "I really hope the district can get behind a way of implementing this," she says.

The silent majority of parents is unconcerned

Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia have helped make parents' rights into a major political talking point , and Republican-aligned groups like No Left Turn In Education and Parents Defending Education have continuously pushed these issues into the spotlight.

Ralph Wilson , a researcher who studies how partisan donors back the culture war, says these groups imply that they represent a silent majority of conservative-leaning parents. But that's not necessarily the case, he says.

"It's definitely an incredibly small minority that's being amplified with this large, well-funded infrastructure to appear larger and to appear to have more well-founded concerns than they do."

In fact, in our poll, about a third of parents say they "don't know" how their child's school addresses sexuality, gender identity, racism or patriotism. That's far more than the percentage who express any problem – in some cases, twice as many.

Carmen Shipley, in Grand Junction, Colo., says she "picks her battles" when it comes to her daughter's high school.

"I know there's been some controversy ... but I don't honestly pay much attention to that, as much as some others here."

She and her neighbors tend toward the conservative, and the local school board does as well, so she feels like everyone's on the same page. "I have no issues with any of her teachers ... I'm fairly comfortable with all of that."

Besides, she says, her top priority isn't the culture wars; it's making sure her daughter stays engaged with her studies and is prepared for college.

Taylor Jennings-Brown contributed to this report.

Survey: Americans broadly support teaching about (most) controversial topics in the classroom

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, anna saavedra , anna saavedra behavioral scientist - usc dornsife center for economic and social research @annasaavedra19 meira levinson , and meira levinson professor - harvard graduate school of education @meiralevinson morgan polikoff morgan polikoff associate professor of education - usc rossier school of education @mpolikoff.

October 20, 2022

L egislat or s in many U.S. states have been voicing the need to shield children from complexity , controversy, and differing perspectives . Since the beginning of 2022, politicians have introduc ed 13 9 bills across 37 states designed to limit educators’ latitude to address racism, inequity, bias, structural injustices, and gender and sexuality issues in school . Thus far, 20 states have enacted related laws or executive orders . M any of these efforts stymie civic learnin g and discussion of controversial issues, and limit experiential learning about how to engage as local civic actors .

With our colleagues at the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research and USC Rossier School of Education, we wanted to know whether these efforts reflect the American public’s views of what children should learn in school or reflect the will of a loud minority. Between August 15 and September 12, 2022, we administered our Understanding America Study survey to a nationally representative sample of 3,751 adults. We asked about the topics that children should learn about in elementary and high school.

We found that Americans across the political spectrum believe that high school students should be learning a broad range of 24 civics-related concepts and skills we asked about in our survey—far broader than the loud voices and limiting legislation would make it seem. Here, we summarize and discuss findings from our recent report . Details related to our methodology, questionnaires, toplines, and crosstabs are available here .

Bipartisan support for instilling critical thinking skills and teaching high school students about many, but not all, controversial topics

At the top of the list, 97% of adults (98% D, 97% R) think high school students should be learning how to be critical thinkers by learning to analyze a problem, think about solutions, and argue for a particular solution (Figure 1). Across the aisle, adults think that students should be learning to think for themselves.

Views on civic ed 1

We also found strong support from both Democrats and Republicans for teaching high school students about many topics typically associated with the political right or left. For example, 94% of adults (94% D, 98% R) support high school students learning about the contributions of the Founding Fathers, while 95% of adults (98% D, 92% R) think high school students should learn about the history and consequences of slavery in the U.S.

In fact, at least 59% of adults support teaching high school students about each of the 24 topics we asked about, and most topics receive far higher levels of support. The idea that overwhelming partisan division encompasses all aspects of civic learning is wrong.

However, there are exceptions to the broad bipartisan agreement, especially in the teaching of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) issues. The vast majority (84-86%) of Democrats supported teaching high school students about gay rights, sexual orientation, gender identity, and trans rights—across four separate survey items—but less than half (30-39%) of Republicans agreed. Respondents who do not identify as Democrats or Republicans (e.g., independents, Green Party, Libertarian) fell in between, with 59-66% support.

Bipartisan agreement that high school students should learn different perspectives about controversial issues

Also notable is that large majorities of Democrats and Republicans think that high school students should be learning about different perspectives on controversial issues. For all four issues we asked about (Figure 2), most Republicans and Democrats believe that high school students should be learning about opposing arguments.

Views on civic ed 2

Americans think high school students should be learning about: arguments for limiting immigration (76% D, 81% R) as well as immigrants’ rights (95% D, 80% R); election integrity (95% D, 92% R) as well as voters’ rights (97% D, 90% R); Second Amendment rights (85% D, 90% R) as well as gun control (89% D, 73% R); and both pro-life (77% D, 74% R) and pro-choice (D 92% D, 60% R) perspectives about abortion.

In general, more Democrats than Republicans support students learning a perspective not traditionally held by their party (e.g., with higher proportions of Democrats wanting students to learn about the Second Amendment and anti-abortion views than Republicans wanting students to learn about gun control and pro-choice views). However, a clear majority of adults feel high school students should be learning differing perspectives.

Americans feel some topics are not age-appropriate for younger children

We also asked for Americans’ views on when these controversial topics should be covered in school, to contrast attitudes about exposure in high school versus elementary school. At the elementary level (Figure 3 below), respondents were more skeptical of teaching many civic topics. Fewer than 50% of adults support teaching younger children about 14 of the 24 controversial topic items we asked about.

Views on civic ed 3

For example, Americans generally support teaching elementary students how to think critically (84%) and become involved in government/politics (55%), as well as about the contributions of the Founding Fathers (86%) and women and people of color (85%), patriotism (85%), the environment (76%), slavery (75%), and racial inequality (61%). They are more split in their attitudes about covering immigrant (50%) and voter rights (50%) in elementary grades. Most Americans do not think young students should learn about income inequality (44%), sex education (34%), or LGBTQ issues (27-30%).

As in the case of high school, Democrats are far more likely to favor teaching elementary school students about LGBTQ issues and sex education (expressing support often at 4-5 times the levels of Republicans; see Figure 11 in the full report for more details). But in none of these cases does Democratic support reach even 50%. Adults seem to want the elementary curriculum to stay away from difficult and complicated controversial topics, particularly those addressing sex and sexuality. These views suggest adults feel some civics topics are not age-appropriate for younger children.

At a high level, these results indicate that the American public wants students to be exposed to robust civic learning opportunities throughout K-12 education. They want students to engage with controversial issues, learn multiple sides of issues, and learn critical thinking skills. They also want students to learn how to get involved in government and politics. Their responses do not express general concern that civics education addressing most controversial topics will be politically skewed. Instead, they recognize that the most important way to raise a new generation of responsible citizens is to give them the opportunities to learn and practice these skills from a young age. At the same time, adults are split along partisan lines in their support for high school children learning about LGBTQ issues in school, with bipartisan caution about addressing these topics with elementary school children at all.

Digging further into some of the issues we asked about could uncover less overall support and more partisanship than these results suggest. For example, while strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans feel students should learn about the contributions of the Founding Fathers, there may be disagreement over approaches to what to teach about this topic. Perhaps more Democrats than Republicans feel that children need to know that the Founding Fathers supported and profited from the institution of slavery. Future surveys could dig deeper into these types of questions.

Though there will be disagreements about how to teach controversial topics, outright bans like those considered and required through current legislation seem misaligned with the public’s desires. We need good civic education to preserve and strengthen democracy, and the American people recognize this.

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At a stanford forum, taking a closer look at controversies over curriculum.

Photo of the event's faculty panel

America’s culture wars are playing out in the classroom, with near-daily headlines about attacks on school curriculum. Just about every subject has come under political fire, from math and reading to American history and gender studies.

Dozens of states have recently acted to limit how race and issues of racism can be discussed in schools. Efforts to reform math face backlash from both the right and the left. The so-called “reading wars” pit advocates of different approaches to teaching literacy against one another. On the heels of Florida’s 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” law, lawmakers across the country are pushing bills to limit public schools from addressing sexual orientation or gender identity. Book banning has surged to a level the American Library Association calls “unprecedented.”

Photo of Kahdeidra Monét Martin during town-hall dialogue

Kahdeidra Monét Martin, a postdoctoral scholar at the GSE, poses a question to panelists about the politicization of language in debates over curriculum. (Photo: Ryan Zhang)

To dig more deeply into these controversies and more, Stanford students, faculty, and community members gathered for “Contentious Curriculum,” a two-part forum led by the Graduate School of Education (GSE) on March 7 and 8. The event, held at the Center for Education Research at Stanford, featured talks by GSE faculty and a town-hall dialogue about the past, present, and possible future of conflicts over curriculum. 

Mitchell Stevens , a sociologist and professor at the GSE, organized the event along with Jennifer Wolf , a senior lecturer and director of undergraduate programs at the GSE; Peter Williamson , an associate professor and former faculty director for the Stanford Teacher Education Program ; and GSE doctoral student Abigail Miller.

“GSE faculty are frequently called upon to write and review curriculum. We advise education officials. We train future teachers,” said Stevens. “It seemed incumbent on us to take these current curricular conflicts seriously – and to provide support for one another, as education professionals who are often at the front lines.”

Conditions for controversy

Conflicts over curriculum are nothing new, dating back at least a century to what’s commonly referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” a 1925 case contesting the legality of teaching evolution in science classes in Tennessee schools. What makes school curriculum such a flashpoint for controversy? 

For one thing, said Stevens, the curriculum represents what’s considered “official” knowledge – and it can’t contain everything. 

“Every single curricular decision is an act of exclusion,” he said. “Some stories, some facts, some concepts will be made central, even compulsory. Many others will be excluded.” The need to limit curriculum content, even if only to accommodate the time constraints of the school year, creates conditions ripe for conflict, he said. 

Another factor is the lack of a centralized authority determining what U.S. schools teach, said Stevens. There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States, each charged with making their own decisions about curriculum. “The sheer scale and distributed character of American K-12 education means there are a lot of places where conflict can happen,” he said.

The religious nature of the United States – and its religious plurality – also contributes to the emergence of these conflicts, Stevens said. A 2018 survey  found that 40 percent of Americans felt the Christian Bible doesn't have enough influence on American culture. “But another quarter say the Bible has too much influence on American culture,” he said. “So [we] have strong beliefs about the importance of certain Biblical texts on both sides.”

Some conflict can be attributed to the fact that schools and families are both legally responsible for children, he said. Ideally, parents’ and teachers’ ideas of their children’s best interests coincide – but that’s not always the case. What’s more, Americans have historically tended to be more distrustful of public authorities than their counterparts in other countries, Stevens said. “To the extent that families and schools share responsibility for the tasks of raising children, you have a built-in condition for conflict.”

Mike Hines presenting

GSE Assistant Professor Michael Hines said that while historically marginalized groups have gained more of a place in the curriculum, it has been in ways that leave “the fundamental assumptions of the grand narrative of American history in place.” (Photo: Ryan Zhang)

Competing visions for the future

Michael Hines , an assistant professor at the GSE who teaches courses on the history of education in the United States and the history of African American education, spoke on the enduring politicization of the American classroom and curriculum. 

The public school system has long served, he said, as “the mechanism through which societies reproduce themselves”– a role that makes schools a place where competing visions for the future are created and contested. He pointed to one example of schools becoming a battleground for competing visions: the Freedmen’s schools, built in the aftermath of the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved adults and children in the American South.

“The freed people saw education as a tool to protect their freedom and to secure the political and economic equality that would make that status meaningful,” he said. “White Southerners saw those same schools and curricula as a means of limiting and forestalling Black aspirations, and tying formerly enslaved people to a continued role as exploited labor. And white Northerners saw the schools as an opportunity to fill the roles of their various missionary societies and to prove themselves as Christian philanthropists – a goal that ultimately had little to do with supporting Black freedom.”

Curricular controversies largely revolve around perceived threats to the dominant narrative of American history, he said – which might lead to a “bargain” in which minoritized groups gain more of a place in the curriculum, “but only in ways that largely leave the fundamental assumptions of the grand narrative of American history in place.” Key figures or events might be added to textbooks, often physically separated in the text itself – addressed in color-coded boxes or a list of supplemental readings, he noted – “a clear indication that they’re not part of the central story.” 

Debates over curriculum tend to focus on the content of what’s taught – who is represented, and the values and beliefs that are conveyed. Alfredo Artiles , the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at the GSE, called for expanding the debate to consider who gets access to the content deemed “worthy.” 

“We classify folks, and then we decide they need certain things by nature of their condition,” said Artiles, whose work focuses on the intersection of disability with areas such as race, gender, language, and social class.

Despite significant progress in addressing the needs of students with disabilities, “we need to follow the classifications and the consequences,” Artiles said. “The assumptions we make in categorizing students is that [students with disabilities] require specialized interventions, and that we should be deploying very distinctive curricular differentiations to them.” 

Patricia Bromley , an associate professor at both the GSE and the Doerr School of Sustainability, shared findings from her research into history, civics, and social studies textbooks from around the world dating back to the 1800s.

Most textbook content is not contested, she said; changes observed over time are primarily driven by an evolution in the culture more broadly. “When that shifts,” she said, “we have uncontested changes.” 

Textbooks also appear to be less subject to change than other kinds of curricula. “They're somewhat insulated from politics in a way that school boards are not,” she said, because of the time-consuming and costly nature of the textbook production system. 

Photo of Priya Satia during town-hall dialogue

“It's empowering for each generation that has to engage in this struggle, because that is where the education is actually happening,” said Priya Satia, a professor of history at Stanford, during the town-hall dialogue. (Photo: Ryan Zhang)

The agency of teachers

In a case study on book banning, Wolf and Williamson walked participants through the events following a Tennessee school board’s 10-1 decision to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus from the eighth-grade social studies curriculum last year.

“About 12 days [after the decision], the local paper, the Tennessee Holler , broke the story,” said Wolf. “They had to push hard to get the minutes from the school board meeting. But they broke the story, and then it took off on social media.” The book became so popular after the controversy that it quickly topped best-seller lists and sold out nationwide, prompting a new print run. Meanwhile, a Tennessee pastor in the same county responded by livestreaming a book burning on YouTube, destroying copies of Maus and other books deemed objectionable. 

With conflicts playing out at the district level and beyond, the panelists spoke to the role and agency of teachers themselves. 

“Teachers sit at the heart of this,” said Hines, a former middle-school teacher whose 2022 book, A Worthy Piece of Work , tells the story of a teacher whose groundbreaking Black history curriculum was adopted by the Chicago Public Schools in the 1940s. “No matter what curriculum comes down the pike, teachers are teachers. My mom, who was a fifth-grade math teacher, always told me: ‘I just close my door and teach.’ ”

Stevens hoped the two-night forum provided “some tools for making sense of the ubiquity of these conflicts in American life” and sparked further discussion, he said. “As educators, scholars, and teachers of teachers, it’s important for the GSE to keep these conversations going.”

This forum was supported by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society; GSE programs in Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies (POLS) and International and Comparative Education (ICE), the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP); the Center for Comparative Studies of Race & Ethnicity; and the Stanford Education and Humanities Workshop.

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In Texas, teachers who once taught controversial issues in history and politics are now afraid to do so . Political attacks on school board members across the country also threaten those in California . State laws banning critical race theory in schools are censoring educators and the curriculum.

Does this mean the time has passed when teachers can engage students in open discussion of controversial issues, which we know is a cornerstone of democratic education?

We think the answer is no. We’re convinced it can and should still happen here despite intense political polarization and an increasing number of state laws restricting teacher autonomy.

We’ve worked with educators in deeply divided countries, including Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and South Africa, who are committed to teaching multiple perspectives on divisive questions on national identity and legacies of conflict, so we know it can be done. We also know that teachers may face controversy in the classroom whether or not they intend to. Unquestionably, this pursuit is harder and more dangerous than ever before in the United States.

That means it must be done smarter.

Research shows that some successful teachers use an approach to teaching controversial issues characterized as “contained risk-taking.” This approach encourages inquiry and discussion of open questions related to public policy and contested history from diverse perspectives — Should college be tuition-free for all? What is a fair refugee policy? — while the teacher proceeds with caution by building a supportive environment, selecting and framing issues appropriately, and choosing resources and pedagogies wisely.

We believe that school leaders, like teachers, should act as contained risk-takers. They should support teachers wanting to do this work. At the same time, they need to ensure that teachers are prepared to teach controversial issues skillfully and responsibly.

Professional development is key There is no comprehensive professional development kit that educators can pull off the shelf. But there are abundant curricular and instructional teacher resources, organizations and experts who can help teachers be knowledgeable and thoughtful about how they build a supportive classroom atmosphere, select and frame issues, and structure inquiry and classroom discussion. The Los Angeles County Office of Education has modeled how to provide professional development in civic education to hundreds of teachers.

A supportive classroom atmosphere depends on a community of learners in which students get to know one another, build trust and feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Teachers must help students develop an appreciation for disagreement, the ability to disagree with others respectfully and strategies for dealing with emotional reactions constructively.

Today, teachers must be careful about expressing their own views. Past research shows that teachers can be transparent about their own political views in class while fostering critical examination of competing perspectives and encouraging students to formulate their own positions. But in this intensely politicized climate, teachers should think hard about the purposes behind disclosing their own views and the potential risks before doing so.

Teachers must thoughtfully select open issues appropriate for their curriculum and students and frame them as questions to encourage inquiry and discussion of diverse perspectives. The sequencing of issues should progress from cooler to hotter. For example, teachers might start off with “should the voting age be lowered to 16?” and move to “should vaccinations and masks be mandated?” Controversies that are empirically settled, such as whether the Holocaust occurred or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, should NOT be examined as open controversial issues, even if groups of people believe otherwise.

Teachers should learn how to 1) apply frameworks such as human rights to help students evaluate different perspectives and 2) find high-quality resources that inform students, represent diverse (and often marginalized) voices and encourage student engagement.

Teachers also need to know different approaches to discussion and align their approach to the types of issues being explored. For example, emotionally charged issues, which may affect certain students deeply, should be handled differently from those that are not so charged. Determining the level of charge requires understanding the students in a given classroom.

Communication with parents and the community is essential School leaders must support teachers by communicating with stakeholders about the value of teaching controversial issues proactively as well as when troubles arise. They must know their communities extremely well.

Teaching controversial issues is a cornerstone of democratic education and, contrary to public opinion, is the antithesis of indoctrination. It is a powerful vehicle for developing civic reasoning and discourse in all subjects as well as independent thinking.

Of course, no matter how thoughtful teachers are in framing and executing lessons on controversial issues, some parents, community members or other stakeholders may react negatively. In those instances, it is important that school leaders support their teachers, assuming that they have made appropriate pedagogical choices. Defending teachers from external threats is, unfortunately, an essential aspect of supporting the civic development of students in this era of political polarization.

Does standing up to parents and other stakeholders carry a certain amount of risk? Certainly. However, for the sake of our democracy, we believe it is a risk worth taking.

Judith L. Pace is a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco and the author of Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues . Wayne Journell is a professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Teaching Politics in Secondary Education: Engaging with Contentious Issues .

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines  and  contact us .

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John Martin 2 years ago 2 years ago

I’ve been teaching CRT in my classrooms for over 25 plus years but I didn’t call it CRT but rather I called it “history”!

tomm 2 years ago 2 years ago

John if you are teaching kids that people with white skin are inherently racist, shame on you. This is one of the basic tenants of CRT, parents are finding out, so don't try and soft sell CRT as just history. It teaches people with dark skin are victims, and the kids with white skin across the isle are oppressors. That divides us as a country which is not what we need to … Read More

John if you are teaching kids that people with white skin are inherently racist, shame on you. This is one of the basic tenants of CRT, parents are finding out, so don’t try and soft sell CRT as just history. It teaches people with dark skin are victims, and the kids with white skin across the isle are oppressors. That divides us as a country which is not what we need to keep this country one that creates opportunity for all no matter what your skin color is. Have you not noticed all the people of color coming across the border seeking a better life?

Paul Muench 2 years ago 2 years ago

“…assuming that they have made appropriate pedagogical choices.” That seems to be the debate.

There is a range of opinion on "controversial issues" and some teachers have political agendas and just don't present a balanced viewpoint. There has been plenty of documented evidence of teacher bias. Teachers are people too so not realistic to give them all the leeway they want. Combine that with a lack of effective accountability thanks to tenure, and parents who are skeptical that teachers will make "appropriate pedagogical choices," we … Read More

There is a range of opinion on “controversial issues” and some teachers have political agendas and just don’t present a balanced viewpoint. There has been plenty of documented evidence of teacher bias. Teachers are people too so not realistic to give them all the leeway they want. Combine that with a lack of effective accountability thanks to tenure, and parents who are skeptical that teachers will make “appropriate pedagogical choices,” we see it as just safer to put some topics off limits.

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Technology might be making education worse

Listen to the essay, as read by Antero Garcia, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education.

As a professor of education and a former public school teacher, I’ve seen digital tools change lives in schools.

I’ve documented the ways mobile technology like phones can transform student engagement in my own classroom.

I’ve explored how digital tools might network powerful civic learning and dialogue for classrooms across the country – elements of education that are crucial for sustaining our democracy today.

And, like everyone, I’ve witnessed digital technologies make schooling safer in the midst of a global pandemic. Zoom and Google Classroom, for instance, allowed many students to attend classrooms virtually during a period when it was not feasible to meet in person.

So I want to tell you that I think technologies are changing education for the better and that we need to invest more in them – but I just can’t.

Given the substantial amount of scholarly time I’ve invested in documenting the life-changing possibilities of digital technologies, it gives me no pleasure to suggest that these tools might be slowly poisoning us. Despite their purported and transformational value, I’ve been wondering if our investment in educational technology might in fact be making our schools worse.

Let me explain.

When I was a classroom teacher, I loved relying on the latest tools to create impressive and immersive experiences for my students. We would utilize technology to create class films, produce social media profiles for the Janie Crawfords, the Holden Caulfields, and other literary characters we studied, and find playful ways to digitally share our understanding of the ideas we studied in our classrooms.

As a teacher, technology was a way to build on students’ interests in pop culture and the world around them. This was exciting to me.

But I’ve continued to understand that the aspects of technology I loved weren’t actually about technology at all – they were about creating authentic learning experiences with young people. At the heart of these digital explorations were my relationships with students and the trust we built together.

“Part of why I’ve grown so skeptical about this current digital revolution is because of how these tools reshape students’ bodies and their relation to the world around them.”

I do see promise in the suite of digital tools that are available in classrooms today. But my research focus on platforms – digital spaces like Amazon, Netflix, and Google that reshape how users interact in online environments – suggests that when we focus on the trees of individual tools, we ignore the larger forest of social and cognitive challenges.

Most people encounter platforms every day in their online social lives. From the few online retail stores where we buy groceries to the small handful of sites that stream our favorite shows and media content, platforms have narrowed how we use the internet today to a small collection of Silicon Valley behemoths. Our social media activities, too, are limited to one or two sites where we check on the updates, photos, and looped videos of friends and loved ones.

These platforms restrict our online and offline lives to a relatively small number of companies and spaces – we communicate with a finite set of tools and consume a set of media that is often algorithmically suggested. This centralization of internet – a trend decades in the making – makes me very uneasy.

From willfully hiding the negative effects of social media use for vulnerable populations to creating tools that reinforce racial bias, today’s platforms are causing harm and sowing disinformation for young people and adults alike. The deluge of difficult ethical and pedagogical questions around these tools are not being broached in any meaningful way in schools – even adults aren’t sure how to manage their online lives.

You might ask, “What does this have to do with education?” Platforms are also a large part of how modern schools operate. From classroom management software to attendance tracking to the online tools that allowed students to meet safely during the pandemic, platforms guide nearly every student interaction in schools today. But districts are utilizing these tools without considering the wider spectrum of changes that they have incurred alongside them.

photo of Antero Godina Garcia

Antero Garcia, associate professor of education (Image credit: Courtesy Antero Garcia)

For example, it might seem helpful for a school to use a management tool like Classroom Dojo (a digital platform that can offer parents ways to interact with and receive updates from their family’s teacher) or software that tracks student reading and development like Accelerated Reader for day-to-day needs. However, these tools limit what assessment looks like and penalize students based on flawed interpretations of learning.

Another problem with platforms is that they, by necessity, amass large swaths of data. Myriad forms of educational technology exist – from virtual reality headsets to e-readers to the small sensors on student ID cards that can track when students enter schools. And all of this student data is being funneled out of schools and into the virtual black boxes of company databases.

Part of why I’ve grown so skeptical about this current digital revolution is because of how these tools reshape students’ bodies and their relation to the world around them. Young people are not viewed as complete human beings but as boxes checked for attendance, for meeting academic progress metrics, or for confirming their location within a school building. Nearly every action that students perform in schools – whether it’s logging onto devices, accessing buildings, or sharing content through their private online lives – is noticed and recorded. Children in schools have become disembodied from their minds and their hearts. Thus, one of the greatest and implicit lessons that kids learn in schools today is that they must sacrifice their privacy in order to participate in conventional, civic society.

The pandemic has only made the situation worse. At its beginnings, some schools relied on software to track students’ eye movements, ostensibly ensuring that kids were paying attention to the tasks at hand. Similarly, many schools required students to keep their cameras on during class time for similar purposes. These might be seen as in the best interests of students and their academic growth, but such practices are part of a larger (and usually more invisible) process of normalizing surveillance in the lives of youth today.

I am not suggesting that we completely reject all of the tools at our disposal – but I am urging for more caution. Even the seemingly benign resources we might use in our classrooms today come with tradeoffs. Every Wi-Fi-connected, “smart” device utilized in schools is an investment in time, money, and expertise in technology over teachers and the teaching profession.

Our focus on fixing or saving schools via digital tools assumes that the benefits and convenience that these invisible platforms offer are worth it.

But my ongoing exploration of how platforms reduce students to quantifiable data suggests that we are removing the innovation and imagination of students and teachers in the process.

Antero Garcia is associate professor of education in the Graduate School of Education .

In Their Own Words is a collaboration between the Stanford Public Humanities Initiative  and Stanford University Communications.

If you’re a Stanford faculty member (in any discipline or school) who is interested in writing an essay for this series, please reach out to Natalie Jabbar at [email protected] .

The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021

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Higher education isn’t a stranger to scandals and controversies, and 2021 was no exception. While some scandals from previous years approached their inevitable conclusions, the COVID-19 pandemic—or ongoing pandemic, as we enter its third year—fueled a swath of lawsuits at colleges around the country. What’s more, students also took to the picket lines at some universities, demanding better treatment (and bigger paychecks).

Here is a recap of the three biggest scandals and controversies from 2021.

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The “varsity blues” fallout.

Unfortunately, the “ Varsity Blues ” scandal lacked Jon Voight, James Van Der Beek, or Scott Caan stealing a police car . But the college admissions scandal—which originally made headlines back in 2019, entangling some celebrities and other big names— effectively wrapped up in 2021 with guilty pleas, guilty verdicts, and sentences being doled out.

To recap, Operation Varsity Blues (as dubbed by federal investigators) involved a criminal conspiracy to get students placed into a number of top universities, such as the University of Southern California , the University of Texas , and Yale University , sometimes without students’ knowledge. Test scores were altered. Learning disabilities were conjured up in order to gain access to additional accommodations. Some students were even photoshopped into sports teams—showing them participating in sports that they never actually played.

It’s a long, intricate story. But as of the end of 2021, most of the dust has settled, with dozens of parents being implicated, along with college coaches and athletic administrators, and the ringleader of the whole thing, William Rick Singer.

“Money and connections are at the center of the Varsity Blues Scandal. What made this scheme different was that Rick Singer used the athletics department to be the primary vehicle of deception rather than the college’s development, alumni, or admissions office directly,” says Sara Harberson , a college admissions expert, former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, and the founder of Application Nation, a private, subscription-based Facebook group designed to help parents navigate the admissions process. “Interestingly, the parents paid Singer only a fraction of what would be expected from a college to get a weaker student admitted.” 

While the dust may be settling from the Varsity Blues scandal, Harberson says these types of schemes—those that involve lying or cheating to get a student into their desired school—remain common. And if anyone is to blame, it’s those people who work in admissions offices, to whom it would have been “blatantly obvious” that “things were not adding up in a student’s application,” she says.  

“It still feels like 1952 in college admissions. Who you know, who you pay off, and who you are remain powerful tools that the wealthy and connected families use knowingly and effectively.” 

Columbia University’s student-worker strike

At one point in 2021, the biggest strike in America was unfolding on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. Roughly 3,000 student-workers, mostly graduate students, went on strike at the beginning of November in response to what the Student Workers of Columbia (a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union) says are unfair labor practices. 

Johannah King-Slutzky, a Ph.D. student in Columbia’s department of English and comparative literature, says that she and others took to the picket line to secure higher wages, more benefits, further recognition of student union members, and changes to Columbia’s system for investigating claims of discrimination and harassment. All told, she says, the dispute has been ongoing in some form or another since 2014.

“Columbia had a record-breaking year for earnings, and they have been trying to pinch pennies,” King-Slutzky says, citing the university’s latest annual report . “Columbia is one of the wealthiest universities in the country. It charges the highest tuition in the country, and despite its incredible wealth, it’s extracting as much as it can from its students and graduate students.”

Columbia University has published a proposal in response to the strike, which would include pay increases, stipends, and the creation of health care funds for student workers and their dependents. 

However, the students feel that it’s not nearly enough. 

“We’ve been asking for a couple of years for a fair contract, and the university has stonewalled us and refused to bargain in good faith,” says Daniel Santiago Sáenz, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at Columbia, who is also an international student who was born in Colombia but grew up in Canada. “We’re just asking for what we believe to be a fair contract.”

The key issue, he says, is that the cost of living in New York City is simply too high—and student worker wages are too low—to make ends meet. As an international student, too, he’s not legally allowed to find another job off-campus, blocking one potential outlet for additional income.

In aggregate, the situation at Columbia is complicated. The striking students say they are looking for meager increases in pay and benefits in order to help offset the costs of living, studying, and working in an expensive city. And they feel pretty good about their chances, looking ahead.

“Many of us come from working-class, low-income, or underrepresented minority groups in academia. This strike is a class struggle, says Sáenz. “We’ll see what other doors this can open for a more stable and healthier academia.”

Remote-learning lawsuits resulting from campus closures

When the pandemic hit college campuses in March 2020, many students were forced to go home—and stay there. As a result, a number of students felt that they were getting shortchanged; they were paying full tuition and not really getting the on-campus experience and tutelage they expected. More than 4,200 colleges and universities nationwide closed their campuses to some degree, affecting nearly 26 million students. So it was only a matter of time before students started filing lawsuits in an effort to recoup some of that tuition.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed around the country, and the top five collegial targets of those lawsuits were USC, the University of Miami, New York University , Cornell University , and Pennsylvania State University—although each had fewer than 10 COVID-related cases filed against them as of December 2021, according to data from Carla Rydholm, senior director of product management at Lex Machina , a legal analytics company. 

But the lingering question is, Do any of these lawsuits have a chance of being successful?

“In general, in order to have standing, plaintiffs only have to show that they have suffered some cognizable injury,” says Jonathan B. Orleans, a higher ed and employment attorney at the law firm Pullman & Comley . “In these cases, the plaintiffs contend that what they have received is less than what they paid for, so they have suffered monetary damages. I haven’t seen a decision throwing any of these cases out of court for lack of standing.” 

Orleans says that most schools are asking the courts to dismiss the cases, but whether or not any of them end up being successful remains to be seen.

“The results depend very much on the specific facts in each case, and to some extent on the particular state in which the school is located,” he says. “Keep in mind that contracts are governed by state law, not by federal law, so we won’t necessarily get nationwide uniformity in the decisions in these cases.”

Further, many of these lawsuits may be the result of legal professionals looking for a payday.

“These suits are clearly driven by lawyers, not the students who are largely thankful schools did not completely close down,” says Dwayne Robinson, a partner at the Miami-based law firm Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton , which served as counsel for Miami-Dade County College—one of many schools that was a target of lawsuits following COVID-related shutdowns.

Javier Lopez, the managing partner at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, adds that while these lawsuits mainly concern students and schools, the general public has an interest in keeping an eye on them, as the taxpayer, ultimately, is on the hook for damages.

“We taxpayers fund these schools even if we will never attend them,” Lopez says. “So every time a public college or university spends money because a student claims they did not get to use the student union or the basketball gym for as long as they expected, we are all footing that bill.”

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Jessica Grose

Get tech out of the classroom before it’s too late.

An illustration of a large open laptop computer with many teeth, biting down on a small schoolhouse.

By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

Jaime Lewis noticed that her eighth-grade son’s grades were slipping several months ago. She suspected it was because he was watching YouTube during class on his school-issued laptop, and her suspicions were validated. “I heard this from two of his teachers and confirmed with my son: Yes, he watches YouTube during class, and no, he doesn’t think he can stop. In fact, he opted out of retaking a math test he’d failed, just so he could watch YouTube,” she said.

She decided to do something about it. Lewis told me that she got together with other parents who were concerned about the unfettered use of school-sanctioned technology in San Luis Coastal Unified School District, their district in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Because they knew that it wasn’t realistic to ask for the removal of the laptops entirely, they went for what they saw as an achievable win: blocking YouTube from students’ devices. A few weeks ago, they had a meeting with the district superintendent and several other administrators, including the tech director.

To bolster their case, Lewis and her allies put together a video compilation of clips that elementary and middle school children had gotten past the district’s content filters.

Their video opens on images of nooses being fitted around the necks of the terrified women in the TV adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It ends with the notoriously violent “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence from “A Clockwork Orange.” (Several versions of this scene are available on YouTube. The one she pointed me to included “rape scene” in the title.) Their video was part of a PowerPoint presentation filled with statements from other parents and school staff members, including one from a middle school assistant principal, who said, “I don’t know how often teachers are using YouTube in their curriculum.”

That acknowledgment gets to the heart of the problem with screens in schools. I heard from many parents who said that even when they asked district leaders how much time kids were spending on their screens, they couldn’t get straight answers; no one seemed to know, and no one seemed to be keeping track.

Eric Prater, the superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, told me that he didn’t realize how much was getting through the schools’ content filters until Lewis and her fellow parents raised concerns. “Our tech department, as I found out from the meeting, spends quite a lot of time blocking certain websites,” he said. “It’s a quite time-consuming situation that I personally was not aware of.” He added that he’s grateful this was brought to his attention.

I don’t think educators are the bad guys here. Neither does Lewis. In general, educators want the best for students. The bad guys, as I see it, are tech companies.

One way or another, we’ve allowed Big Tech’s tentacles into absolutely every aspect of our children’s education, with very little oversight and no real proof that their devices or programs improve educational outcomes. Last year Collin Binkley at The Associated Press analyzed public records and found that “many of the largest school systems spent tens of millions of dollars in pandemic money on software and services from tech companies, including licenses for apps, games and tutoring websites.” However, he continued, schools “have little or no evidence the programs helped students.”

It’s not just waste, very likely, of taxpayer money that’s at issue. After reading many of the over 900 responses from parents and educators to my questionnaire about tech in schools and from the many conversations I had over the past few weeks with readers, I’m convinced that the downsides of tech in schools far outweigh the benefits.

Though tech’s incursion into America’s public schools — particularly our overreliance on devices — hyperaccelerated in 2020, it started well before the Covid-19 pandemic. Google, which provides the operating system for lower-cost Chromebooks and is owned by the same parent company as YouTube, is a big player in the school laptop space, though I also heard from many parents and teachers whose schools supply students with other types and brands of devices.

As my newsroom colleague Natasha Singer reported in 2017 (by which point “half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students” were, according to Google, using its education apps), “Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable”: potential lifetime customers.

The issue goes beyond access to age-inappropriate clips or general distraction during school hours. Several parents related stories of even kindergartners reading almost exclusively on iPads because their school districts had phased out hard-copy books and writing materials after shifting to digital-only curriculums. There’s evidence that this is harmful: A 2019 analysis of the literature concluded that “readers may be more efficient and aware of their performance when reading from paper compared to screens.”

“It seems to be a constant battle between fighting for the students’ active attention (because their brains are now hard-wired for the instant gratification of TikTok and YouTube videos) and making sure they aren’t going to sites outside of the dozens they should be,” Nicole Post, who teaches at a public elementary school in Missouri, wrote to me. “It took months for students to listen to me tell a story or engage in a read-aloud. I’m distressed at the level of technology we’ve socialized them to believe is normal. I would give anything for a math or social studies textbook.”

I’ve heard about kids disregarding teachers who tried to limit tech use, fine motor skills atrophying because students rarely used pencils and children whose learning was ultimately stymied by the tech that initially helped them — for example, students learning English as a second language becoming too reliant on translation apps rather than becoming fluent.

Some teachers said they have programs that block certain sites and games, but those programs can be cumbersome. Some said they have software, like GoGuardian, that allows them to see the screens of all the students in their classes at once. But classroom time is zero sum: Teachers are either teaching or acting like prison wardens; they can’t do both at the same time.

Resources are finite. Software costs money . Replacing defunct or outdated laptops costs money . When it comes to I.T., many schools are understaffed . More of the money being spent on tech and the maintenance and training around the use of that tech could be spent on other things, like actual books. And badly monitored and used tech has the most potential for harm.

I’ve considered the counterarguments: Kids who’d be distracted by tech would find something else to distract them; K-12 students need to gain familiarity with tech to instill some vague work force readiness.

But on the first point, I think other forms of distraction — like talking to friends, doodling and daydreaming — are better than playing video games or watching YouTube because they at least involve children engaging with other children or their own minds. And there’s research that suggests laptops are uniquely distracting . One 2013 study found that even being next to a student who is multitasking on a computer can hurt a student’s test scores.

On the second point, you can have designated classes to teach children how to keyboard, code or use software that don’t require them to have laptops in their hands throughout the school day. And considering that various tech companies are developing artificial intelligence that, we’re meant to understand, will upend work as we know it , whatever tech skills we’re currently teaching will probably be obsolete by the time students enter the work force anyway. By then, it’ll be too late to claw back the brain space of our nation’s children that we’ve already ceded. And for what? So today’s grade schoolers can be really, really good at making PowerPoint presentations like the ones they might one day make as white-collar adults?

That’s the part that I can’t shake: We’ve let tech companies and their products set the terms of the argument about what education should be, and too many people, myself included, didn’t initially realize it. Companies never had to prove that devices or software, broadly speaking, helped students learn before those devices had wormed their way into America’s public schools. And now the onus is on parents to marshal arguments about the detriments of tech in schools.

Holly Coleman, a parent of two who lives in Kansas and is a substitute teacher in her district, describes what students are losing:

They can type quickly but struggle to write legibly. They can find info about any topic on the internet but can’t discuss that topic using recall, creativity or critical thinking. They can make a beautiful PowerPoint or Keynote in 20 minutes but can’t write a three-page paper or hand-make a poster board. Their textbooks are all online, which is great for the seams on their backpack, but tangible pages under your fingers literally connect you to the material you’re reading and learning. These kids do not know how to move through their day without a device in their hand and under their fingertips. They never even get the chance to disconnect from their tech and reconnect with one another through eye contact and conversation.

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” prescribes phone-free schools as a way to remedy some of the challenges facing America’s children. I agree that there’s no place for smartphones on a K-12 campus. But if you take away the phones and the kids still have near-constant internet connectivity on devices they have with them in every class, the problem won’t go away.

When Covid hit and screens became the only way for millions of kids to “attend” school, not having a personal device became an equity issue. But we’re getting to a point where the opposite may be true. According to the responses to my questionnaire, during the remote-school era, private schools seemed to rely far less on screens than public schools, and many educators said that they deliberately chose lower-tech school environments for their own children — much the same way that some tech workers intentionally send their kids to screen-free schools.

We need to reframe the entire conversation around tech in schools because it’s far from clear that we’re getting the results we want as a society and because parents are in a defensive crouch, afraid to appear anti-progress or unwilling to prepare the next generation for the future. “I feel like a baby boomer attacking like this,” said Lewis.

But the drawbacks of constant screen time in schools go beyond data privacy, job security and whether a specific app increases math performance by a standard deviation. As Lewis put it, using tech in the classroom makes students “so passive, and it requires so little agency and initiative.” She added, “I’m very concerned about the species’ ability to survive and the ability to think critically and the importance of critical thinking outside of getting a job.”

If we don’t hit pause now and try to roll back some of the excesses, we’ll be doing our children — and society — a profound disservice.

The good news is that sometimes when the stakes become clear, educators respond: In May, Dr. Prater said, “we’re going to remove access to YouTube from our district devices for students.” He added that teachers will still be able to get access to YouTube if they want to show instructional videos. The district is also rethinking its phone policy to cut down on personal device use in the classroom. “For me,” he said, “it’s all about how do you find the common-sense approach, going forward, and match that up with good old-fashioned hands-on learning?” He knows technology can cause “a great deal of harm if we’re not careful.”

Jessica Grose is an Opinion writer for The Times, covering family, religion, education, culture and the way we live now.

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Trade Schools Home > Articles > Issues in Education

Major Issues in Education: 20 Hot Topics (From Grade School to College)

By Publisher | Last Updated August 1, 2023

In America, issues in education are big topics of discussion, both in the news media and among the general public. The current education system is beset by a wide range of challenges, from cuts in government funding to changes in disciplinary policies—and much more. Everyone agrees that providing high-quality education for our citizens is a worthy ideal. However, there are many diverse viewpoints about how that should be accomplished. And that leads to highly charged debates, with passionate advocates on both sides.

Understanding education issues is important for students, parents, and taxpayers. By being well-informed, you can contribute valuable input to the discussion. You can also make better decisions about what causes you will support or what plans you will make for your future.

This article provides detailed information on many of today's most relevant primary, secondary, and post-secondary education issues. It also outlines four emerging trends that have the potential to shake up the education sector. You'll learn about:

  • 13 major issues in education at the K-12 level
  • 7 big issues in higher education
  • 5 emerging trends in education

13 Major Issues in Education at the K-12 Level

Major Issues in Education

1. Government funding for education

School funding is a primary concern when discussing current issues in education. The American public education system, which includes both primary and secondary schools, is primarily funded by tax revenues. For the 2021 school year, state and local governments provided over 89 percent of the funding for public K-12 schools. After the Great Recession, most states reduced their school funding. This reduction makes sense, considering most state funding is sourced from sales and income taxes, which tend to decrease during economic downturns.

However, many states are still giving schools less cash now than they did before the Great Recession. A 2022 article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes that K-12 education is set to receive the largest-ever one-time federal investment. However, the CBPP also predicts this historic funding might fall short due to pandemic-induced education costs. The formulas that states use to fund schools have come under fire in recent years and have even been the subjects of lawsuits. For example, in 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the legislature's formula for financing schools was unconstitutional because it didn't adequately fund education.

Less funding means that smaller staff, fewer programs, and diminished resources for students are common school problems. In some cases, schools are unable to pay for essential maintenance. A 2021 report noted that close to a quarter of all U.S. public schools are in fair or poor condition and that 53 percent of schools need renovations and repairs. Plus, a 2021 survey discovered that teachers spent an average of $750 of their own money on classroom supplies.

The issue reached a tipping point in 2018, with teachers in Arizona, Colorado, and other states walking off the job to demand additional educational funding. Some of the protests resulted in modest funding increases, but many educators believe that more must be done.

2. School safety

Over the past several years, a string of high-profile mass shootings in U.S. schools have resulted in dozens of deaths and led to debates about the best ways to keep students safe. After 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, 57 percent of teenagers said they were worried about the possibility of gun violence at their school.

Figuring out how to prevent such attacks and save students and school personnel's lives are problems faced by teachers all across America.

Former President Trump and other lawmakers suggested that allowing specially trained teachers and other school staff to carry concealed weapons would make schools safer. The idea was that adult volunteers who were already proficient with a firearm could undergo specialized training to deal with an active shooter situation until law enforcement could arrive. Proponents argued that armed staff could intervene to end the threat and save lives. Also, potential attackers might be less likely to target a school if they knew that the school's personnel were carrying weapons.

Critics argue that more guns in schools will lead to more accidents, injuries, and fear. They contend that there is scant evidence supporting the idea that armed school officials would effectively counter attacks. Some data suggests that the opposite may be true: An FBI analysis of active shooter situations between 2000 and 2013 noted that law enforcement personnel who engaged the shooter suffered casualties in 21 out of 45 incidents. And those were highly trained professionals whose primary purpose was to maintain law and order. It's highly unlikely that teachers, whose focus should be on educating children, would do any better in such situations.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), giving teachers guns is not the answer. In a March 2018 survey , 74 percent of NEA members opposed arming school personnel, and two-thirds said they would feel less safe at work if school staff were carrying guns. To counter gun violence in schools, the NEA supports measures like requiring universal background checks, preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns, and banning assault weapons.

3. Disciplinary policies

Data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in 2021 suggests that black students face disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion from school. For instance, in K-12 schools, black male students make up only 7.7 percent of enrollees but account for over 40% percent of suspensions. Many people believe some teachers apply the rules of discipline in a discriminatory way and contribute to what has been termed the "school-to-prison pipeline." That's because research has demonstrated that students who are suspended or expelled are significantly more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued guidelines for all public schools on developing disciplinary practices that reduce disparities and comply with federal civil rights laws. The guidelines urged schools to limit exclusionary disciplinary tactics such as suspension and expulsion. They also encourage the adoption of more positive interventions such as counseling and restorative justice strategies. In addition, the guidelines specified that schools could face a loss of federal funds if they carried out policies that had a disparate impact on some racial groups.

Opponents argue that banning suspensions and expulsions takes away valuable tools that teachers can use to combat student misbehavior. They maintain that as long as disciplinary policies are applied the same way to every student regardless of race, such policies are not discriminatory. One major 2014 study found that the racial disparities in school suspension rates could be explained by the students' prior behavior rather than by discriminatory tactics on the part of educators.

In 2018, the Federal Commission on School Safety (which was established in the wake of the school shootings in Parkland, Florida) was tasked with reviewing and possibly rescinding the 2014 guidelines. According to an Education Next survey taken shortly after the announced review, only 27 percent of Americans support federal policies that limit racial disparities in school discipline.

4. Technology in education

Technology in education is a powerful movement that is sweeping through schools nationwide. After all, today's students have grown up with digital technology and expect it to be part of their learning experience. But how much of a role should it play in education?

Proponents point out that educational technology offers the potential to engage students in more active learning, as evidenced in flipped classrooms . It can facilitate group collaboration and provide instant access to up-to-date resources. Teachers and instructors can integrate online surveys, interactive case studies, and relevant videos to offer content tailored to different learning styles. Indeed, students with special needs frequently rely on assistive technology to communicate and access course materials.

But there are downsides as well. For instance, technology can be a distraction. Some students tune out of lessons and spend time checking social media, playing games, or shopping online. One research study revealed that students who multitasked on laptops during class scored 11 percent lower on an exam that tested their knowledge of the lecture. Students who sat behind those multitaskers scored 17 percent lower. In the fall of 2017, University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski cited such research as one of the main reasons she bans electronics in her classes.

More disturbingly, technology can pose a real threat to student privacy and security. The collection of sensitive student data by education technology companies can lead to serious problems. In 2017, a group called Dark Overlord hacked into school district servers in several states and obtained access to students' personal information, including counselor reports and medical records. The group used the data to threaten students and their families with physical violence.

5. Charter schools and voucher programs

School choice is definitely among the hot topics in education these days. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was a vocal supporter of various forms of parental choice, including charter schools and school vouchers.

Charter schools are funded through a combination of public and private money and operate independently of the public system. They have charters (i.e., contracts) with school districts, states, or private organizations. These charters outline the academic outcomes that the schools agree to achieve. Like mainstream public schools, charter schools cannot teach religion or charge tuition, and their students must complete standardized testing . However, charter schools are not limited to taking students in a certain geographic area. They have more autonomy to choose their teaching methods. Charter schools are also subject to less oversight and fewer regulations.

School vouchers are like coupons that allow parents to use public funds to send their child to the school of their choice, which can be private and may be either secular or religious. In many cases, vouchers are reserved for low-income students or students with disabilities.

Advocates argue that charter schools and school vouchers offer parents a greater range of educational options. Opponents say that they privatize education and siphon funding away from regular public schools that are already financially strapped. The 2018 Education Next survey found that 44 percent of the general public supports charter schools' expansion, while 35 percent oppose such a move. The same poll found that 54 percent of people support vouchers.

6. Common Core

The Common Core State Standards is a set of academic standards for math and language arts that specify what public school students are expected to learn by the end of each year from kindergarten through 12th grade. Developed in 2009, the standards were designed to promote equity among public K-12 students. All students would take standardized end-of-year tests and be held to the same internationally benchmarked standards. The idea was to institute a system that brought all schools up to the same level and allowed for comparison of student performance in different regions. Such standards would help all students with college and career readiness.

Some opponents see the standards as an unwelcome federal intrusion into state control of education. Others are critical of the way the standards were developed with little input from experienced educators. Many teachers argue that the standards result in inflexible lesson plans that allow for less creativity and fun in the learning process.

Some critics also take issue with the lack of accommodation for non-traditional learners. The Common Core prescribes standards for each grade level, but students with disabilities or language barriers often need more time to fully learn the material.

The vast majority of states adopted the Common Core State Standards when they were first introduced. Since then, more than a dozen states have either repealed the standards or revised them to align better with local needs. In many cases, the standards themselves have remained virtually the same but given a different name.

And a name can be significant. In the Education Next 2018 survey, a group of American adults was asked whether they supported common standards across states. About 61 percent replied that they did. But when another group was polled about Common Core specifically, only 45 percent said they supported it.

7. Standardized testing

Issues in Education

During the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) years, schools—and teachers—were judged by how well students scored on such tests. Schools whose results weren't up to par faced intense scrutiny, and in some cases, state takeover or closure. Teachers' effectiveness was rated by how much improvement their students showed on standardized exams. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which took effect in 2016, removed NCLB's most punitive aspects. Still, it maintained the requirement to test students every year in Grades 3 to 8, and once in high school.

But many critics say that rampant standardized testing is one of the biggest problems in education. They argue that the pressure to produce high test scores has resulted in a teach-to-the-test approach to instruction in which other non-tested subjects (such as art, music, and physical education) have been given short shrift to devote more time to test preparation. And they contend that policymakers overemphasize the meaning of standardized test results, which don't present a clear or complete picture of overall student learning.

8. Teacher salaries

According to 2021-22 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in most states, teacher pay has decreased over the last several years. However, in some states average salaries went up. It's also important to note that public school teachers generally enjoy pensions and other benefits that make up a large share of their compensation.

But the growth in benefits has not been enough to balance out the overall low wages. An Economic Policy Institute report found that even after factoring in benefits, public-sector teachers faced a compensation penalty of 14.2 percent in 2021 relative to other college graduates.

9. The teaching of evolution

In the U.S., public school originated to spread religious ideals, but it has since become a strictly secular institution. And the debate over how to teach public school students about the origins of life has gone on for almost a century.

Today, Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection is accepted by virtually the entire scientific community. However, it is still controversial among many Americans who maintain that living things were guided into existence. A pair of surveys from 2014 revealed that 98 percent of scientists aligned with the American Association for the Advancement of Science believed that humans evolved. But it also revealed that, overall, only 52 percent of American adults agreed.

Over the years, some states have outright banned teachers from discussing evolution in the classroom. Others have mandated that students be allowed to question the scientific soundness of evolution, or that equal time be given to consideration of the Judeo-Christian notion of divine creation (i.e., creationism).

Some people argue that the theory of intelligent design—which posits that the complexities of living things cannot be explained by natural selection and can best be explained as resulting from an intelligent cause—is a legitimate scientific theory that should be allowed in public school curricula. They say it differs from creationism because it doesn't necessarily ascribe life's design to a supernatural deity or supreme being.

Opponents contend that intelligent design is creationism in disguise. They think it should not be taught in public schools because it is religiously motivated and has no credible scientific basis. And the courts have consistently held that the teaching of creationism and intelligent design promotes religious beliefs and therefore violates the Constitution's prohibition against the government establishment of religion. Still, the debate continues.

10. Teacher tenure

Having tenure means that a teacher cannot be let go unless their school district demonstrates just cause. Many states grant tenure to public school teachers who have received satisfactory evaluations for a specified period of time (which ranges from one to five years, depending on the state). A few states do not grant tenure at all. And the issue has long been mired in controversy.

Proponents argue that tenure protects teachers from being dismissed for personal or political reasons, such as disagreeing with administrators or teaching contentious subjects such as evolution. Tenured educators can advocate for students without fear of reprisal. Supporters also say that tenure gives teachers the freedom to try innovative instruction methods to deliver more engaging educational experiences. Tenure also protects more experienced (and more expensive) teachers from being arbitrarily replaced with new graduates who earn lower salaries.

Critics contend that tenure makes it difficult to dismiss ineffectual teachers because going through the legal process of doing so is extremely costly and time-consuming. They say that tenure can encourage complacency since teachers' jobs are secure whether they exceed expectations or just do the bare minimum. Plus, while the granting of tenure often hinges on teacher evaluations, 2017 research found that, in practice, more than 99 percent of teachers receive ratings of satisfactory or better. Some administrators admit to being reluctant to give low ratings because of the time and effort required to document teachers' performance and provide support for improvement.

11. Bullying

Bullying continues to be a major issue in schools all across the U.S. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study , around 22 percent of students in Grades 6 through 12 reported having been bullied at school, or on their way to or from school, in 2019. That figure was down from 28 percent in 2009, but it is still far too high.

The same study revealed that over 22 percent of students reported being bullied once a day, and 6.3 percent reported experiencing bullying two to ten times in a day. In addition, the percentage of students who reported the bullying to an adult was over 45 percent in 2019.

But that still means that almost 60 percent of students are not reporting bullying. And that means children are suffering.

Bullied students experience a range of emotional, physical, and behavioral problems. They often feel angry, anxious, lonely, and helpless. They are frequently scared to go to school, leading them to suffer academically and develop a low sense of self-worth. They are also at greater risk of engaging in violent acts or suicidal behaviors.

Every state has anti-bullying legislation in place, and schools are expected to develop policies to address the problem. However, there are differences in how each state defines bullying and what procedures it mandates when bullying is reported. And only about one-third of states call for school districts to include provisions for support services such as counseling for students who are victims of bullying (or are bullies themselves).

12. Poverty

Student poverty is a growing problem. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that as of the 2019-2020 school year, low-income students comprised a majority (52 percent) of public school students in the U.S. That represented a significant increase from 2000-2001, when only 38 percent of students were considered low-income (meaning they qualified for free or discounted school lunches).

The numbers are truly alarming: In 39 states, at least 40 percent of public school enrollees were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 22 of those states had student poverty rates of 50 percent or more.

Low-income students tend to perform worse in school than their more affluent peers. Studies have shown that family income strongly correlates to student achievement on standardized tests. That may be partly because parents with fewer financial resources generally can't afford tutoring and other enrichment experiences to boost student achievement. In addition, low-income children are much more likely to experience food instability, family turmoil, and other stressors that can negatively affect their academic success.

All of this means that teachers face instructional challenges that go beyond students' desires to learn.

13. Class size

According to NCES data , in the 2017-2018 school year, the average class size in U.S. public schools was 26.2 students at the elementary level and 23.3 students at the secondary level.

But anecdotal reports suggest that today, classrooms commonly have more than 30 students—sometimes as many as 40.

Conventional wisdom holds that smaller classes are beneficial to student learning. Teachers often argue that the size of a class greatly influences the quality of the instruction they are able to provide. Research from the National Education Policy Center in 2016 showed smaller classes improve student outcomes, particularly for early elementary, low-income, and minority students.

Many (but not all) states have regulations in place that impose limits on class sizes. However, those limits become increasingly difficult to maintain in an era of budget constraints. Reducing class sizes requires hiring more teachers and constructing new classrooms. Arguably, allowing class sizes to expand can enable districts to absorb funding cuts without making reductions to other programs such as art and physical education.

7 Big Issues in Higher Education

Big Issues in Higher Education

1. Student loan forgiveness

Here's how the American public education system works: Students attend primary and secondary school at no cost. They have the option of going on to post-secondary training (which, for most students, is not free). So with costs rising at both public and private institutions of higher learning, student loan debt is one of the most prominent issues in education today. Students who graduated from college in 2022 came out with an average debt load of $37,338. As a whole, Americans owe over $1.7 trillion in student loans.

Currently, students who have received certain federal student loans and are on income-driven repayment plans can qualify to have their remaining balance forgiven if they haven't repaid the loan in full after 20 to 25 years, depending on the plan. Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program allows qualified borrowers who go into public service careers (such as teaching, government service, social work, or law enforcement) to have their student debt canceled after ten years.

However, potential changes are in the works. The Biden-Harris Administration is working to support students and make getting a post-secondary education more affordable. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Education provided more than $17 billion in loan relief to over 700,000 borrowers. Meanwhile, a growing number of Democrats are advocating for free college as an alternative to student loans.

2. Completion rates

The large number of students who begin post-secondary studies but do not graduate continues to be an issue. According to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report , the overall six-year college completion rate for the cohort entering college in 2015 was 62.2 percent. Around 58 percent of students completed a credential at the same institution where they started their studies, and about another 8 percent finished at a different institution.

Completion rates are increasing, but there is still concern over the significant percentage of college students who do not graduate. Almost 9 percent of students who began college in 2015 had still not completed a degree or certificate six years later. Over 22 percent of them had dropped out entirely.

Significant costs are associated with starting college but not completing it. Many students end up weighed down by debt, and those who do not complete their higher education are less able to repay loans. Plus, students miss out on formal credentials that could lead to higher earnings. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2021 students who begin college but do not complete a degree have median weekly earnings of $899. By contrast, associate degree holders have median weekly wages of $963, and bachelor's degree recipients have median weekly earnings of $1,334.

Students leave college for many reasons, but chief among them is money. To mitigate that, some institutions have implemented small retention or completion grants. Such grants are for students who are close to graduating, have financial need, have used up all other sources of aid, owe a modest amount, and are at risk of dropping out due to lack of funds. One study found that around a third of the institutions who implemented such grants noted higher graduation rates among grant recipients.

3. Student mental health

Mental health challenges among students are a growing concern. A survey by the American College Health Association in the spring of 2019 found that over two-thirds of college students had experienced "overwhelming anxiety" within the previous 12 months. Almost 45 percent reported higher-than-average stress levels.

Anxiety, stress, and depression were the most common concerns among students who sought treatment. The 2021 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) noted the average number of appointments students needed has increased by 20 percent.

And some schools are struggling to keep up. A 2020 report found that the average student-to-clinician ratio on U.S. campuses was 1,411 to 1. So, in some cases, suffering students face long waits for treatment.

4. Sexual assault


The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 75 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to law enforcement, so the actual number of incidents could be much higher.

And the way that colleges and universities deal with sexual assault is undergoing changes. Title IX rules makes sure that complaints of sexual assault or harassment are taken seriously and ensuring the accused person is treated fairly.

Administrators were also required to adjudicate such cases based on a preponderance of evidence, meaning that they had to believe that it was more likely than not that an accused was guilty in order to proceed with disciplinary action. The "clear and convincing" evidentiary standard, which required that administrators be reasonably certain that sexual violence or harassment occurred, was deemed unacceptable.

Critics argued that the guidelines failed to respect the due process rights of those accused of sexual misconduct. Research has found that the frequency of false sexual assault allegations is between two and 10 percent.

In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era guidelines. The intent was to institute new regulations on how schools should handle sexual assault allegations. The changes went into effect on August 14, 2020, defining sexual harassment more narrowly and only requiring schools to investigate formal complaints about on-campus incidents officially filed with designated authorities, such as Title IX coordinators. The updated guidelines also allow schools to use the clear and convincing standard for conviction.

Victims' rights advocates were concerned this approach would deter victims from coming forward and hinder efforts to create safe learning environments.

The Biden administration is expected to release their proposed revisions to Title IX in October 2023 which could see many of the Trump administration changes rescinded.

5. Trigger warnings

The use of trigger warnings in academia is a highly contentious issue. Trigger warnings alert students that upcoming course material contains concepts or images that may invoke psychological or physiological reactions in people who have experienced trauma. Some college instructors provide such warnings before introducing films, texts, or other content involving things like violence or sexual abuse. The idea is to give students advance notice so that they can psychologically prepare themselves.

Some believe that trigger warnings are essential because they allow vulnerable people to prepare for and navigate difficult content. Having trigger warnings allows students with post-traumatic stress to decide whether they will engage with the material or find an alternative way to acquire the necessary information.

Critics argue that trigger warnings constrain free speech and academic freedom by discouraging the discussion of topics that might trigger distressing reactions in some students. They point out that college faculty already provide detailed course syllabi and that it's impossible to anticipate and acknowledge every potential trigger.

In 2015, NPR Ed surveyed more than 800 faculty members at higher education institutions across the U.S. and found that around half had given trigger warnings before bringing up potentially disturbing course material. Most did so on their own initiative, not in response to administrative policy or student requests. Few schools either mandate or prohibit trigger warnings. One notable exception is the University of Chicago, which in 2016 informed all incoming first-year students that it did not support such warnings.

6. College accreditation

In order to participate in federal student financial aid programs, institutions of higher education must be accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. By law, accreditors must consider factors such as an institution's facilities, equipment, curricula, admission practices, faculty, and support services. The idea is to enforce an acceptable standard of quality.

But while federal regulations require accreditors to assess each institution's "success with respect to student achievement," they don't specify how to measure such achievement. Accreditors are free to define that for themselves. Unfortunately, some colleges with questionable practices, low graduation rates, and high student loan default rates continue to be accredited. Critics argue that accreditors are not doing enough to ensure that students receive good value for their money.

7. College rankings

Every year, prospective college students and their families turn to rankings like the ones produced by U.S. News & World Report to compare different institutions of higher education. Many people accept such rankings as authoritative without truly understanding how they are calculated or what they measure.

It's common for ranking organizations to refine their methodologies from year to year and change how they weigh various factors—which means it's possible for colleges to rise or fall in the rankings despite making no substantive changes to their programs or institutional policies. That makes it difficult to compare rankings from one year to the next, since things are often measured differently.

For colleges, a higher ranking can lead to more visibility, more qualified applicants, and more alumni donations (in short: more money). And the unfortunate reality is that some schools outright lie about test scores, graduation rates, or financial information in their quest to outrank their competitors.

Others take advantage of creative ways to game the system. For example, U.S. News looks at the test scores of incoming students at each institution, but it only looks at students who begin in the fall semester. One school instituted a program where students with lower test scores could spend their first semester in a foreign country and return to the school in the spring, thus excluding them from the U.S. News calculations.

Rankings do make useful information about U.S. colleges and universities available to all students and their families. But consumers should be cautious about blindly accepting such rankings as true measures of educational quality.

5 Emerging Trends in Education

Emerging Trends in Education

1. Maker learning

The maker movement is rapidly gaining traction in K-12 schools across America. Maker learning is based on the idea that you will engage students in learning by encouraging interest-driven problem solving and hands-on activities (i.e., learning by doing). In collaborative spaces, students identify problems, dream up inventions, make prototypes, and keep tinkering until they develop something that makes sense. It's a do-it-yourself educational approach that focuses on iterative trial and error and views failure as an opportunity to refine and improve.

Maker education focuses on learning rather than teaching. Students follow their interests and test their own solutions. For example, that might mean creating a video game, building a rocket, designing historical costumes, or 3D-printing an irrigation system for a garden. It can involve high-tech equipment, but it doesn't have to. Repurposing whatever materials are on hand is an important ideal of the maker philosophy.

There is little hard data available on the maker trend. However, researchers at Rutgers University are currently studying the cognitive basis for maker education and investigating its connection to meaningful learning.

2. Moving away from letter grades

Many education advocates believe that the traditional student assessment models place too much emphasis on standardization and testing. They feel that traditional grading models do not sufficiently measure many of the most prized skills in the 21st-century workforce, such as problem-solving, self-advocacy, and creativity. As a result, a growing number of schools around the U.S. are replacing A-F letter grades with new assessment systems.

Formed in 2017, the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a group of more than 150 private high schools that have pledged to get rid of grade-based transcripts in favor of digital ones that provide qualitative descriptions of student learning as well as samples of student work. Some of the most famous private institutions in America have signed on, including Dalton and Phillips Exeter.

The no-more-grades movement is taking hold in public schools as well. Many states have enacted policies to encourage public schools to use something other than grades to assess students' abilities. It's part of a larger shift toward what's commonly known as mastery-based or competency-based learning, which strives to ensure that students become proficient in defined areas of skill.

Instead of letter grades, report cards may feature phrases like "partially meets the standard" or "exceeds the standard." Some schools also include portfolios, capstone projects, or other demonstrations of student learning.

But what happens when it's time to apply to college? It seems that even colleges and universities are getting on board. At least 85 higher education institutions across New England (including Dartmouth and Harvard) have said that students with competency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged during the admission process.

3. The rise of micro-credentials

Micro-credentials, also known as digital badges or nanodegrees, are mini qualifications that demonstrate a student's knowledge or skills in a given area. Unlike traditional college degrees that require studying a range of different subjects over a multi-year span, micro-credentials are earned through short, targeted education focused on specific skills in particular fields. They tend to be inexpensive (sometimes even free) and are typically taken online.

Some post-secondary schools are developing micro-credentialing partnerships with third-party learning providers, while other schools offer such solutions on their own. A 2020 Campus Technology article stated 70 percent of higher education institutions offer some type of alternative credentialing.

Micro-credentials can serve as evidence that students have mastered particular skills, but the rigor and market worth of such credentials can vary significantly. Still, they are an increasingly popular way of unbundling content and providing it on demand.

4. Flipped classrooms

A growing number of schools are embracing the notion of flipped learning. It's an instructional approach that reverses the traditional model of the teacher giving a lecture in front of the class, then sending students home to work through assignments that enhance their understanding of the concepts. In flipped learning, students watch lecture videos or read relevant course content on their own before class. Class time is devoted to expanding on the material through group discussions and collaborative learning projects (i.e., doing what was traditionally meant as homework). The instructor is there to guide students when questions or problems arise.

Provided that all students have access to the appropriate technology and are motivated to prepare for each class session, flipped learning can bring a wide range of benefits. For example, it allows students to control their own learning by watching lecture videos at their own pace; they can pause, jot down questions, or re-watch parts they find confusing. The model also encourages students to learn from each other and explore subjects more deeply.

Flipped learning is becoming widespread in all education levels, but it is especially prevalent at the college level. In a 2017 survey , 61 percent of college faculty had used the flipped model in some or all of their classes and another 24% of instructors were considering trying it.

5. Social-emotional learning

There is a growing consensus that schools are responsible for fostering students' social and emotional development and their cognitive skills. Social-emotional learning (SEL) focuses on helping students develop the abilities to identify their strengths, manage their emotions, set goals, show empathy, make responsible decisions, and build and maintain healthy relationships. Research has shown that such skills play a key role in reducing anti-social behavior, boosting academic achievement, and improving long-term health.

Every state has developed SEL competencies at the preschool level. The number of states with such competencies for higher grades is growing.

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Home / Learning / Challenges And Controversial Issues In Special Education Today

Challenges And Controversial Issues In Special Education Today

Delve into the turbulent currents of today’s Special Education landscape. Explore the battlegrounds of inclusion, the intricate dance of diagnosis, and the technological revolution’s disruptive impact. Controversial Issues in Special Education Today takes you on a thrilling roller coaster ride through the hot-button topics that ignite fiery discussions and challenge the status quo. Brace yourself for a thought-provoking journey into the heart of educational controversy.

The landscape of special education is continually evolving, shaped by societal changes, advancements in research, and shifting educational paradigms.

This evolution has given rise to various controversial issues that demand careful consideration. In this brief introduction, I will provide an overview of these emerging challenges within the field of special education .

Controversial Issues In Special Education

One of the primary issues is the ongoing debate over inclusive education. While it aims to provide equal educational opportunities for students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms, it raises questions about whether it adequately addresses the diverse needs of these students.

Additionally, the assessment and identification of students with disabilities have been a subject of contention, with concerns about overdiagnosis or underdiagnosis.

Furthermore, the role of technology in special education has generated debates regarding its potential benefits and drawbacks.

The increased use of assistive technology and online learning platforms has prompted discussions about accessibility and the effectiveness of these tools in meeting individual learning needs.

Inclusion Vs. Segregation Study

In the ever-evolving landscape of special education, a heated and persistent debate revolves around the most effective approach for educating students with disabilities.

This profound discussion centers on the dichotomy between inclusive classrooms and specialized settings, each with its own set of proponents and arguments.

Inclusive Classrooms

  • Equality and Diversity: Advocates for inclusive education passionately assert that diversity within the classroom is not only a strength but also a reflection of society’s values. Inclusion champions equality, ensuring that students of all abilities share the same learning space.
  • Social Integration: A core tenet of inclusion is the belief that students with disabilities benefit from interacting with their typically developing peers. Proponents argue that this social integration can lead to improved social skills and a sense of belonging.
  • Legal Mandates: In many countries, laws and regulations mandate inclusive education. These legal frameworks are seen as essential in upholding the principle of equal access to education for all students, regardless of their abilities.

Specialized Settings

Tailored support.

Advocates of specialized settings contend that these environments can offer a higher level of tailored support for students with complex needs. The argument is that such settings can better address the specific challenges that certain students face.

Reduced Distractions

It is posited that specialized settings can provide a less distracting learning environment, particularly beneficial for students with sensory sensitivities or attention-related issues.

Individualized Education

In specialized settings, individualized education plans (IEPs) can be meticulously crafted to cater to the unique and specific requirements of each student. This individualized approach is perceived as crucial for meeting the diverse learning needs within the special education spectrum.

Restraints And Seclusion In Special Education

In the realm of special education, the subject of utilizing restraints and seclusion techniques for managing challenging behaviors has stirred significant controversy and raised ethical and safety concerns that warrant a thorough examination.

This multifaceted issue compels us to delve deeper into the intricate web of implications surrounding the practice.

Ethical Considerations

  • Dignity and Respect: Critics vehemently argue that the application of restraints and seclusion can potentially infringe upon a student’s inherent dignity and respect. Subjecting a student to such measures may be seen as degrading and inhumane, causing emotional and psychological harm.
  • Autonomy and Consent: A central ethical concern revolves around the question of autonomy and informed consent. When these techniques are employed, students may have limited agency and input in the decision-making process, leading to questions about their rights and personal autonomy within the educational context.
  • Potential for Trauma: There exists a compelling concern regarding the potential for trauma. Encounters with restraints and seclusion can be profoundly distressing for students, potentially resulting in long-term psychological and emotional consequences.

Safety Considerations

  • Physical Safety: While restraints and seclusion may be implemented with the intention of maintaining physical safety, there are inherent risks involved. Misapplication or excessive use of these techniques can lead to physical harm, not only for the students but also for the staff responsible for their implementation.
  • Staff Training: The effective and safe use of restraints and seclusion hinges on the competence and preparedness of staff members. Inadequate training can lead to unintended consequences, including accidents or incidents that escalate rather than resolve.
  • Legal Implications: Many regions have established legal regulations governing the use of restraints and seclusion in educational settings. Failure to adhere to these regulations can carry legal consequences for educational institutions, further emphasizing the gravity of the matter.

Balancing the imperative of maintaining safety within special education settings with the ethical quandaries surrounding restraints and seclusion remains an intricate and contentious undertaking.

Ongoing dialogue, rigorous examination, and a commitment to finding alternative, less intrusive strategies are vital components of addressing the complex ethical and safety considerations inherent to these practices.

Psychotropic Medications In Educational Settings

Psychotropic Medications In Educational Settings

In the realm of special education, the use of psychotropic medications to address behavioral and emotional challenges in students has emerged as a topic of intense debate, sparking concerns and ethical dilemmas.

This complex issue warrants a comprehensive exploration, delving into the various dimensions of the controversies surrounding the administration of psychotropic medications in educational settings.

Overreliance On Medication

One of the prominent controversies centers on the perception of an overreliance on psychotropic medications as a convenient and expedient solution for managing behavioral issues in students.

Critics argue that this approach may overshadow the significance of identifying and addressing underlying psychological, emotional, or environmental factors contributing to a student’s challenges.

Long-Term Effects And Developmental Considerations

A paramount concern pertains to the potential long-term effects of psychotropic medications, particularly when administered to children and adolescents.

The use of these medications in developing brains has raised questions about their safety, potential side effects, and the impact on a student’s overall cognitive and emotional development.

Informed Consent And Ethical Complexities

The administration of psychotropic medications in special education often involves minors, introducing a complex ethical dimension.

Questions arise regarding informed consent when parents or legal guardians make decisions on behalf of students who may not possess the capacity to fully understand the implications of medication.

Ethical concerns also extend to the student’s autonomy and the potential for coercion in medication decisions.

Exploring Alternatives To Medication

Advocates for alternative approaches emphasize the need to prioritize non-pharmacological strategies for managing behavioral and emotional challenges.

These alternatives may include behavioral interventions, counseling, therapy, and environmental modifications.

Proponents argue that exploring these avenues before resorting to medication is crucial for understanding the underlying causes of the student’s difficulties.

Stigmatization And Social Implications

The use of psychotropic medications can carry a stigma, potentially resulting in labeling and discrimination against students.

This stigma may have a profound impact on the student’s self-esteem and social integration within the educational environment. The fear of being labeled as “medicated” can deter students from seeking help or disclosing their struggles.

Lack Of Standardization And Consistency

Critics of the current practices in prescribing psychotropic medications for students with special needs point to a lack of standardized guidelines within the field of special education.

The absence of clear protocols raises concerns about inconsistencies in practice, the potential for misdiagnoses, and variations in the quality of care received by students across different educational settings.

Funding And Resource Allocation  

The allocation of funding and resources within the realm of special education is a complex and often contentious issue. In this discussion, we will delve into the challenges and considerations that surround this crucial aspect of providing quality education to students with special needs.

Limited Funding Sources

  • Insufficient Funding: One of the primary challenges in special education is the chronic issue of insufficient funding. Special education programs often require additional resources and support, but they frequently operate with constrained budgets.
  • Dependence on Public Funding: Many special education programs heavily rely on public funding, which can be inconsistent and subject to budget cuts during economic downturns. This reliance on public funds poses a vulnerability to the stability of these programs.

Resource Allocation Dilemmas

  • Equitable Distribution: Ensuring equitable resource distribution among students with diverse needs is a significant challenge. Schools must allocate resources based on the unique requirements of each student, which can be logistically and ethically complex.
  • Balancing Inclusion and Specialization: Striking the right balance between inclusive education in mainstream classrooms and specialized settings can be challenging. Decisions about resource allocation must consider the best approach for each student’s individual development.

Personnel And Training

  • Shortage of Qualified Personnel: A critical challenge in special education is the shortage of qualified teachers and support staff. The demand for skilled professionals often exceeds the available workforce.
  • Ongoing Training Needs: Effective resource allocation should also address the ongoing training needs of educators and support staff. Keeping them updated with the latest methodologies and strategies is essential for delivering quality special education services.

Legal And Ethical Considerations

  • Legal Mandates: Legal requirements, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), dictate that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. Compliance with these mandates can place additional financial pressures on schools and districts.
  • Ethical Responsibilities: Ethical considerations come into play when resource allocation decisions impact students’ access to quality education. Ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed is a moral obligation.

Parental Involvement And Advocacy

  • Parental Advocacy: Parental involvement and advocacy play a pivotal role in securing resources for their children. Parents often have to navigate complex bureaucracies and advocate for the services their children require.
  • Disparities: Disparities in advocacy and resources can exist, with well-informed and empowered parents potentially having an advantage in securing necessary support.

Teacher Shortage And Qualification

Teacher Shortage And Qualification

The shortage of qualified special education teachers has significant implications for both students with special needs and the education system as a whole. In this detailed examination, we will explore the multifaceted impact of this critical issue.

Limited Access To Quality Education

  • Resource Constraints: The shortage of qualified special education teachers often results in larger class sizes and reduced individualized attention for students with disabilities. This can hinder the quality of education they receive.
  • Uneven Distribution: Teacher shortages are not uniform across regions, leading to disparities in access to specialized educators. Rural and underserved areas are often hit hardest by this issue.

Increased Workload And Burnout

  • Heavy Workload: The shortage of special education teachers places an immense workload on the existing educators, who are often required to manage caseloads far larger than recommended.
  • Emotional Toll: The emotional demands of teaching students with disabilities, coupled with the pressure of addressing diverse needs, can lead to high levels of burnout among educators.

Inadequate Support For Diverse Needs

  • Complex Needs: Students with disabilities often have complex needs that demand specialized expertise. The shortage of qualified teachers can result in students not receiving the specific support they require.
  • Inclusion Challenges: The push for inclusive education is further complicated when there aren’t enough trained teachers to support students with disabilities effectively in mainstream classrooms.

Impact On Student Outcomes

  • Academic Achievement: Research indicates that students with disabilities achieve better outcomes when taught by qualified special education teachers. The shortage can compromise their academic progress.
  • Social and Emotional Development: Specialized educators play a crucial role in fostering social and emotional development in students with disabilities. The shortage can limit opportunities for these students to develop these essential skills.

Budgetary And Administrative Strain

  • Hiring Difficulties: Schools and districts often face challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified special education teachers. The recruitment process can be costly and time-consuming.
  • Financial Impact: The shortage can result in higher salaries and incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers, straining already tight education budgets.

Increased Reliance On Paraprofessionals

  • Use of Paraprofessionals: To cope with the shortage, schools may rely more on paraprofessionals who may not have the same level of training and qualifications as certified special education teachers.
  • Quality Concerns: While paraprofessionals provide valuable support, their use as primary instructors can raise concerns about the quality of education provided to students with disabilities.

Continual Policy and Advocacy Efforts

  • Policy Reforms: Addressing the shortage of qualified special education teachers requires sustained policy efforts to attract individuals into the field, improve teacher preparation programs, and offer incentives for educators to work in underserved areas.
  • Advocacy Initiatives: Special education advocacy groups play a crucial role in raising awareness of the teacher shortage issue and advocating for solutions at the local, state, and national levels.

Legislation And Compliance In Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of special education in the United States.

In this analysis, we will explore the historical development and key amendments of IDEA, highlighting its profound impact on special education.

Origins And Historical Context

  • Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975): IDEA’s precursor, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was enacted in 1975. It was a landmark law that mandated a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all students with disabilities.
  • Closing Educational Gaps: This legislation aimed to address the educational disparities faced by children with disabilities, ensuring they had access to the same educational opportunities as their peers without disabilities.

IDEA 1990: A Pivotal Amendment

  • Renaming and Expansion: IDEA underwent a significant transformation in 1990 when it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This amendment expanded the scope of services and protections for students with disabilities.
  • Inclusion Mandate: IDEA 1990 introduced the concept of inclusive education, emphasizing the importance of educating students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment alongside their non-disabled peers.

IDEA 1997: Greater Parental Involvement

  • Parental Participation: The 1997 amendments to IDEA further strengthened the role of parents in the decision-making process regarding their child’s special education services. It emphasized collaboration between parents and educators.
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs): IDEA 1997 emphasized the development of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as a cornerstone of special education, ensuring that each student’s unique needs and goals were addressed.

IDEA 2004: A Comprehensive Overhaul

  • Accountability and Assessment: The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA placed a stronger emphasis on accountability in special education. It introduced measures for assessing and improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • Highly Qualified Teachers: IDEA 2004 required that special education teachers be highly qualified, ensuring that educators possessed the necessary skills and expertise to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

Key Components Of IDEA

  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): IDEA guarantees all eligible students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education, tailored to their individual needs.
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): IDEA emphasizes the placement of students in the least restrictive environment where they can succeed, promoting inclusive education whenever possible.
  • Procedural Safeguards: The law provides parents and students with certain procedural safeguards, such as due process rights and the right to dispute decisions regarding special education services.

Ongoing Impact And Challenges

  • Improved Outcomes: IDEA has significantly improved educational outcomes for students with disabilities, increasing graduation rates and access to post-secondary education and employment opportunities.
  • Funding and Compliance Challenges: Despite its successes, IDEA has faced challenges related to funding shortages and compliance issues. Meeting the law’s requirements can be resource-intensive for schools and districts.

Teacher Shortage And Qualification

The controversial issues within the realm of special education, including debates over inclusion versus segregation, the use of restraints and seclusion, psychotropic medication administration, funding and resource allocation, teacher shortages, and the evolving Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), are deeply complex and multifaceted.

These challenges demand informed, compassionate, and holistic responses from educators, policymakers, parents, and advocates alike.

While these issues may present formidable hurdles, they also offer opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and progress in the field of special education.

By engaging in open dialogue, advocating for policy reforms, and embracing evidence-based practices, we can work collectively to advance the cause of equitable and inclusive education for all, ultimately improving the lives and futures of students with disabilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is there a shortage of qualified special education teachers.

The shortage is due to factors such as high demands, limited teacher preparation programs, and challenges in recruiting and retaining educators.

How has the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) evolved over time?

IDEA has evolved through amendments to expand services, enhance parental involvement, and increase accountability in special education.

What Are Some Key Ethical Concerns?

Ethical concerns include issues related to student dignity, autonomy, and the potential for emotional trauma.

What Is The Significance Of The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)?

LRE emphasizes placing students in the educational setting that is least restrictive and most appropriate for their individual needs.

How Does The Shortage Of Qualified Special Education Teachers Affect Students?

It can lead to larger class sizes, reduced individualized attention, and disparities in access to specialized educators, impacting the quality of education for students with disabilities.

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110+ Controversial Debate Topics to Challenge Your Students

Don’t be surprised when the discussion gets heated…

controversial issues on education

It can be tempting to steer away from controversial debate topics in the classroom. But teaching students to discuss hot topics calmly and rationally is vital. Show them how to think critically about a subject, then use facts to support their point of view. These controversial topics can work well for classroom debates, persuasive essays , or fishbowl discussions .

Note: Each topic includes a link to an article from a reliable source that provides pros and/or cons to help kids make their arguments.

Education Controversial Debate Topics

Science and health controversial debate topics, civics controversial debate topics, social justice controversial debate topics, more controversial debate topics.

  • Should students be required to wear school uniforms?
  • Should schools eliminate dress codes?

Should schools eliminate dress codes?

  • Are private schools better than public schools?
  • Should schools be allowed to teach critical race theory?
  • Are standardized tests effective?
  • Should schools teach abstinence instead of sexual education?
  • Should schools make condoms available to students?
  • Is year-round school better for students?
  • Should schools ban junk food?
  • Are single-gender schools better for students?
  • Is it ever OK to cheat on homework or a test?
  • Should we make college free for everyone?
  • Should we allow schools to ban books from their libraries?
  • Does religion have a place in public schools?
  • Should charter schools receive public school funds?
  • Are school voucher systems a good idea?

Are school voucher systems a good idea?

  • Is in-person school better than online school?
  • Should schools have surveillance cameras in classrooms and hallways?
  • Should schools install safe rooms in case of mass shootings or natural disasters?
  • Should all teachers be armed in the classroom to help protect their students?
  • Is it important for schools to provide mental health support to students?
  • Should schools allow students to use phones during the school day?
  • Is recess important at every grade level?
  • Should we put equal value on vocational education and academics?
  • Is homeschooling good for children?
  • How much emphasis should school put on reading from the “canon” versus reading more contemporary voices?
  • Should humans eat animals?
  • Is it OK to keep animals in zoos?
  • Should we completely ban cigarette smoking and vaping?

Should we completely ban cigarette smoking and vaping?

  • Should we ban plastic bottles and bags?
  • Is it worth it to spend money exploring space?
  • Should vaccines be mandatory?
  • Are GMOs more helpful than harmful?
  • Is animal cloning ethical?
  • Should human cloning be legal?
  • Should we use stem cells from human embryos for scientific research?
  • Is it better to provide drug addicts with treatment instead of punishment?
  • Should we ban the use of fossil fuels?

Should we ban the use of fossil fuels?

  • Should assisted suicide be legal?
  • Will expanded use of artificial intelligence be good for humanity?
  • Should all countries have to give up their nuclear weapons?
  • Is universal government-sponsored healthcare a good idea?
  • Should we ban testing on animals?
  • Should net neutrality be mandatory for internet service providers?
  • Is our society too reliant on technology?
  • Can we truly do anything about human-caused global warming?
  • Are electric vehicles better than gas-powered ones?
  • Does our society have a harmful “diet culture”?
  • Would taxing unhealthy foods help fight obesity?

Would taxing unhealthy foods help fight obesity?

  • Can alternative energies replace fossil fuels?
  • Is nurture more important than nature when raising a child?
  • Should we lower the voting age to 16?
  • Should we lower the drinking age to 18?
  • Is democracy the best form of government?
  • Should all Americans be required to vote?
  • Should we raise the driving age to 18?

Should we raise the driving age to 18?

  • Is a progressive income tax better than a flat tax?
  • Should parents be punished legally for their children’s crimes?
  • Should abortion be legal?
  • Would it be better to appoint Supreme Court judges for fixed terms?
  • Should people have to take a parenting class before having a child?
  • Should we legalize marijuana at the federal level?
  • Would it be better to legalize, tax, and regulate all drugs (including alcohol) instead of banning them?
  • Should the United States implement a universal basic income?
  • Should we redirect some or all police force funding to social services?
  • Do gun safety laws infringe on the Second Amendment?
  • Should we require people of all genders to register for the draft?
  • Should anyone over 12 be tried as an adult in court?

Should anyone over 12 be tried as an adult in court?

  • Is it right to require people to take drug tests before receiving government aid like welfare?
  • Should we do away with gender-specific public bathrooms?
  • Is the local minimum wage truly a living wage?
  • Why haven’t we had a female U.S. president yet?
  • Should men be allowed to make laws that affect women’s bodies?
  • Should the government provide funding for public art programs?
  • Are there any reasonable limits to freedom of speech?
  • Is security more important than freedom?

Is security more important than freedom?

  • Should we abolish the death penalty?
  • Is a strong middle class vital to the economy?
  • Should we make the path to American citizenship easier?

Should we make the path to American citizenship easier?

  • Is the American justice system inherently racist?
  • Will stricter gun control laws help stop mass shootings?
  • Is it logical to continue building a wall between the United States and Mexico?
  • How much of a problem is ageism in our society?
  • Should felons be allowed to vote after serving their time in prison?

Should felons be allowed to vote after serving their time in prison?

  • Does socioeconomic prejudice affect our society?
  • Should we automatically deport illegal immigrants, regardless of how long they’ve been in the country?
  • What is the role of media in fighting systemic racism?
  • Does segregation still exist in the United States?
  • Are white-collar jobs better than blue-collar jobs?
  • Does religion do more harm than good?
  • Will we ever achieve world peace?
  • Should parents use their kids’ cell phones to track where they are?
  • Should we let young children play contact sports like football?

Should we let young children play contact sports like football?

  • Are the prices of pharmaceutical drugs reasonable?
  • Who should cover the medical costs of people without insurance?
  • Is video gaming a sport?
  • Should parents be allowed to pierce a baby’s ears?
  • Should we ban all violent video games?
  • Are beauty pageants sexist?
  • Should kids get participation trophies for sports?

Should kids get participation trophies for sports?

  • Should there be a minimum age for owning a smartphone?
  • Is it possible to be an ethical hunter?
  • What is the best way to deal with homelessness?
  • Was Russia justified in attacking Ukraine?
  • Should both parents receive equal amounts of paid leave when they have or adopt a child?
  • Are stereotypes ever right?
  • Do people have a responsibility to step in when they see a crime in action?
  • Are “Stand Your Ground” laws effective?
  • Is there any benefit to teaching proper grammar and spelling, or should we allow language to be descriptive instead of prescriptive?
  • What gives people true power in the United States?

What gives people true power in the United States?

  • Is conflict necessary for change?
  • Is war ever justified?

What controversial debate topics do you use with your students? Come share in the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .

Plus, 35 strong persuasive writing examples (speeches, essays, ads, and more) ., you might also like.

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Opinion Front

Opinion Front

Controversial Issues in Education

There is no dearth of controversial issues in education. From the debates on efficacy of standardized testing to including sex education in schools, controversies are an integral part of any educational system. Discussed below are some burning issues in the U.S. educational system.

Controversial Issues in Education

“Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.” ― Thomas J. Watson Jr.

The education system of the United States of America has been frequented by controversies since the time it was established. Initially, education was confined to the stronger sex, with women getting this right after a significant period of struggle, albeit in separate colleges. Even then, there was a debate whether gender should be a constraint to the differential treatment in learning. It was only in the year 1972 when Title IX of the Education Amendments was passed, which stated that discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program is strictly prohibited by federal law.

Not only gender discrimination, there are various issues that have surrounded the right to receive equal and progressive education of the citizens of the United States. And yes, there are many laws formulated to protect U.S. students, and govern the practices followed by nation’s educational institutions. However, in the midst of all these precautionary and disciplinary actions, there are still innumerable controversial issues that haunt today’s educational system. The following section throws light on some of these debatable aspects.


The educational system in the United States is one of the most powerful in the entire world. And it’s obvious that with power, arguments and disputations are bound to come along. Although, there can be an exhaustive list of associated controversies, some of the most discussed issues in the circle have been discussed as follows.

Prayers in Public Schools

All public schools in the United States are prohibited to make religious prayers mandatory, in compliance with the first provision of the First Amendment , a.k.a., the Establishment Clause . It states that any government institution is prohibited to establish any religion. However, contradicting that is the second provision of the amendment―the Free Exercise Clause ―which states that citizens have the “right to practice their religion as they please, as long as the practice does not run afoul of a “public morals” or a “compelling” governmental interest,” as explains the United States Courts .

Parents who don’t believe in the existence of any deity have been against recitation of Bible hymns in public schools, and several cases have gone to the courtrooms. However, the issue still remains unresolved.

Sex Education

School authorities, health care institutions, and parents have all been confused and divided when it comes to sex education. Should kids be presented the facts as they are, or should sex education be completely avoided? The biggest dilemma in this respect is if sex education is the responsibility of school, or should parents take the charge?

With the rise in teenage pregnancies and risks of STDs, a small number of U.S. schools had administered distribution of condoms in schools during the 1990s. However, the controversy that surrounded this measure was whether this step would prevent teenage pregnancies and STDs, or would it encourage teens to become sexually active? Issues related to sex continue to be one of the most debatable issues in education all across the globe.

Corporal Punishment

Interestingly, it is the state government that rules the policies regarding corporal punishments in school―the federal government has no law stating the same. As a result, each state has different guidelines when it comes to this issue.

While some states, particularly those in Southern U.S., consider punishments such as spanking to be quite okay in schools, as they serve well to instantaneously correct undisciplined behavior without any extreme action, in certain states, this form of punishment is completely banned in public schools. Those who oppose corporal punishment in schools do so on the grounds of the physical and mental trauma that may harm the child’s psyche and development. Also, unfortunately, these measures are sometimes used unfairly towards certain students who belong to a specific minority or racial group.

Gun Control

The debate on gun control in school premises became all the more heated up after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. This incident is considered to be the most “deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in U.S. history,” as stated in Wikipedia.

Post the massacre, many states in the country revised their policies of gun control. In fact, many states came up with the provisions to allow teachers to carry guns to school, with the school administrator’s consent. Also, many schools have implemented teacher’s training to use guns and thereby defend school children and themselves under such threats. However, many have voiced concern that the presence of guns in school could be potentially dangerous, especially if in control of inexperienced hands.

Online Education

It is evident that technological growth is bound to influence the teaching techniques in educational institutions. We can already see the emergence of non-traditional concepts such as flipped schools , Massive Opening Online Courses (MOOCs) , etc., where online education plays a substantial role than the traditional face-to-face student-teacher interaction. Although this new wave of learning has shown positive results when it comes to the participation of students, a debate still exists.

Those who oppose this method of learning argue that a personal interaction, which lacks in online courses, is the key element to build a student-teacher bond that plays a crucial role in the whole teaching process. Without the physical presence of a tutor, it would be difficult for students to clear the basic understanding, or clarify the complexities of a particular subject.

Content of Textbooks

There has always been an unending debate on the content of textbooks used in public schools, especially from the viewpoint of Creationism vs Evolution . There are numerous cases where parents have reached courtrooms just because the textbooks of their children questioned their religious/scientific beliefs.

While there have been endless efforts to bring about a balance in the texts included in the school curriculum, because the two aspects (religion and science) are bound to be contradictory to each other, the controversy remains to be very much around.

Teachers’ Assessment and Evaluation

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 , which is considered as a major milestone on America’s road to recovery, also emphasizes on the reformation of the education system in the country. One aspect of this act is to ensure that all schools have qualified and efficacious teachers, and that their efficiency is evaluated on a regular basis.

The controversy lies not in the intention but the implementation of this task. Many suggest that the ideal way of evaluation is to assess the results of a teacher’s current students, and compare them with the previous results of the same students, or with other students belonging to the same grade. However, the question is whether this method would give a fair idea regarding the teacher’s potential, as the students he/she is teaching may also include those who are weak in studies, or are low-performing.

School Uniform and Clothing

Even school uniforms have been the subject of controversies! Although they’re a norm in most countries, there are various pros and cons of this subject that have been debated all across the globe. Speaking of the United States, the main challenge lies in establishing norms that give students the right to dress as per their individuality. Of course, there are restrictions to ensure that children don’t wear something sexually or socially provocative.

A major part of the controversy lies in the subject of cross-gender dressing. While the Equal Protection Clause of the 14 th amendment protects all U.S. citizens from discrimination based on gender, not all schools have been open in this respect. Then again, the basic issue of whether all schools should implement standardized uniforms to avoid these conflicts, still remains unresolved.

Common Core State Standards

This federal initiation has been surrounded with both supporters and criticizers all across the nation. The Common Core State Standards are established for all K-12 students, determining the criteria for what each student must know in order to be promoted to the next grade or graduate from high school. The subjects involved are English language arts and mathematics. The main objective is to regulate a uniform standard nationwide, so that all students are equally groomed to enter college programs and employment.

Those in favor appreciate this endeavor and consider it as a substantial step to improve the country’s education system entirely. However, there are many who state that this initiation would suppress creativity and emphasize more on uniformity when it comes to the learning styles. Also, there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ because each state comprises different cultural and learning values.

Students with Special Needs

Students with special needs and/or learning disabilities need special care and attention―and mostly, some additional facilities―to make the learning experience easier for them. The 2004 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives right to all students with special needs to get education in public schools that are well-equipped to handle the special requirements they need. Also, if the child is unable to blend in the common classroom, a special arrangement may also be made. However, problems arise when all the parties involved, fail to come to a common conclusion.

While parents argue that being in the midst of regular children would serve the purpose of allowing their child to learn in a normal environment, there are concerns if the teacher qualified to handle regular students would do a justifiable job in handling and accommodating the special needs of that perticular child. Oftentimes, the administration is accused of not investing enough in resources to bring about an apt environment for such students, thereby making parents wonder if integration is in fact an ideal option for their child. Also, if students with learning disabilities are favored in any way, there is huge cry of unfair competition by mainstream students.

Racial Discrimination

According to the U.S. Education Department’s 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection , African-American students are punished and/or expelled at a triple rate, when compared to white students. Also, most students belonging to the minority group fail to get access to institutions with experienced teachers, and are more often stuck at educational facilities that don’t even have licensed tutors. These, along with many other factors, have resulted in an increased percentage of school dropouts among minority students.

Although racial discrimination is considered to be unlawful in the country, there are still various districts in the nation where race-based segregation is clearly evident. Racism still continues to be a sensitive issue, where any kind of state intervention will only worsen the fragility of the issue.

Abandoning Letter Grading System

The United States has always graded their students as per the letter grading system ranging from A to F. However, there has been a debate on this issue, where many consider this grading system to be inefficient in tracking the actual progress of students. It lacks accuracy and an in-depth understanding of the actual position of a student in a specific subject.

Many authorities have proposed adapting a more detailed report card in place of alphabetical grades, so as to overcome this loophole. However, there are others who state that this archaic system needs no reformation at all. Also, understanding grades seem much easier to many parents than detailed reports, and yes, grades have more or less become ‘the’ terminology to express results. Nonetheless, whether or not this reformation is accepted by the nation, it continues to be one of the most controversial topics on this list.

As we had mentioned earlier, the issues that come under this subject are endless. And while we have explained just a couple of them, that doesn’t negate the importance of the others. Some more heated issues in the education system include animal dissection , home-schooling , bilingual education , high stakes testing , etc. While experts can have many debates in an attempt to end the endless controversies that keep popping up off and on, the truth is that it is unlikely for these issues to reach a satiable conclusion.

With each and every person involved in the educational system, having his/her own set of believes and staunch opinions about one or more facets, it is highly possible that with the increase in more educational reformations, the number of these issues will only rise. Nonetheless, the best we can do is accept, adapt, or choose the side that suits our needs in the best possible manner.

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Contentious 49th District town hall: Residents criticize Sen. Cleveland on rent limit bill Updated 16 hours ago

One person from the audience asked, “how many rentals do you own”.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, center, answers a question during a 49th Legislative District town hall on Saturday at Fourth Plain Community Commons in Vancouver. The event was also attended by Sen. Annette Cleveland, left, and Rep. Sharon Wylie, right.

A Saturday town hall hosted by 49th Legislative District lawmakers turned contentious over such hot-button issues as housing and education.

In a packed room at Fourth Plain Community Commons in central Vancouver, some attendees refused to write their questions on notecards as requested, instead voicing their opinions about the outcome of the legislative session that ended March 7.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, received a hefty stack of cards asking why she voted “no” on House Bill 5961 , which would have limited rent increases to 15 percent a year.

Some housing advocates have criticized Cleveland for killing the bill.

“We have worked very, very hard over the past number of years now in the Legislature to focus on housing production, to focus on housing preservation, to focus on prevention of homelessness,” Cleveland said. “I’m concerned that the way that the bill was written that I had before me in the Senate Housing Committee, it would actually be counter to much of the work that we have done to increase affordable housing supply and to help better prevent homelessness.”

She said there are “known consequences” to rent caps, such as decreased housing production and discouraging renters from moving. Additionally, she said the bill would have allowed landlords to increase rent by 15 percent year after year.

“The issue here is I don’t know that the solution being proposed is going to actually accomplish what we want it to,” she said.

That drew ire from some attendees. One person from the audience asked, “How many rentals do you own?”

“I don’t own any rentals,” Cleveland responded. “It would be so much easier for me to just look the other way and focus on another bill. But you know what? That’s not my job. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to analyze policy, ask hard questions, determine that I’ve looked at the policy from each and every perspective, and ensure that when I cast my vote, yes, it’s actually going to accomplish the goal that is intended.”

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, drew applause when she said she supported the bill. However, she praised Cleveland for working to avoid unintended consequences.

“I have different life experience than my senator. I agree with her on a lot of things, but I would have kept (this bill) going even though it was unlikely to get there in a short session,” Wylie said. “This conversation is not over. This rent stabilization approach isn’t the same as rent control in New York City.”

Wylie said poor policy decisions made at the federal level 50 years ago are responsible for today’s housing and mental health crises.

“It can’t be fixed overnight, but we are committed to doing that work, to listening to everybody and trying to come up with the best policy with the fewest unintended consequences,” Wylie said.

Attendees also asked the lawmakers about what they are doing to address the opioid crisis.

Cleveland cited House Bill 1956 , which will require schools to provide education about fentanyl and other opioids, along with other bills that will extend crisis relief and behavioral health services to young people.

“It is the worst crisis that I think has ever been seen in terms of drugs,” Cleveland said.

Wylie agreed, adding, “It is a monster problem, and it is a moving target.”

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, an instructional coach at Evergreen Public Schools, answered multiple questions about education.

One attendee asked about local budget cuts and why the state isn’t fully funding education.

Stonier responded that she, too, is frustrated about school funding.

“It is why I ran for office in the first place,” she said. “As I have grown in leadership roles, I have done my best to find my way into rooms where decisions are made about K-12 funding. And I think I’ve been a bit successful in that. That does not surface in our legislative budget this year. And I am aware of that.”

She said declining enrollment and loss of pandemic-era funding have led to a “tough situation,” and she implored parents to stay engaged and to look toward the next legislative session, when lawmakers will have more time and resources compared with this year’s short session.

“The only reason we’ve been able to cover the gap for so many years is because we have had those extra funding opportunities, and those are just not sustainable,” Stonier said. “My plea to all of you is to remember how incredibly important it is for the community to continue supporting the efforts of our public school system.”

Stonier also addressed concerns about House Bill 2331 , which she introduced and was signed into law. It bolsters the review process for books in school libraries and prevents school boards from removing or restricting instructional materials by protected classes, such as people of color or the LGBTQ+ community.

“It is clear by the data and by reports all across the country that our LGBTQ authors, and books with characters that reflect our LGBTQ community, are the ones that are the most exponentially highest under attack when it comes to book removals,” Stonier said. “When that is the case, then I believe we need to have a policy in place to protect what is already protected in federal law.”

Stonier also addressed Initiative 2081 , which created a “parents’ bill of rights” that states what information a parent of a child in a public school is entitled to, including instructional materials.

“The parent initiative that we passed does nothing,” she said. “The far-right proponents of this, they feel quite successful that they have made it fearful for gay kids to get help at school. That was their intent. They also intended to undermine confidence in our public school system. We are not going to let that happen.”

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