UCLA IDEA: Heated Political Rhetoric Spills Over into Classroom, Increasing Stress and Undermining Learning

National survey of teachers finds heightened stress, anxiety, polarization, incivility and hostility among students in first months of Trump administration.

Amid the first months of a Trump administration characterized by highly charged and divisive political rhetoric, a new national survey of public high school teachers finds heightened levels of student stress and anxiety and concerns for their own well being or that of their family members, according to a new study published by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. Teachers in the survey also report a rise in polarization and incivility in classrooms, as well as an increased reliance by students on unreliable and unsubstantiated information. Teachers also report hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Hate speech and acts of intimidation are not new to U.S. schools, but it’s disconcerting that numerous teachers are telling us that the level of animus they are seeing is ‘unprecedented’ in their careers,” says John Rogers, a professor of education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and the lead researcher for the study. “The harsh political environment of the first few months of the Trump administration is clearly spilling over into the classroom, increasing anxiety and undermining learning.”

The study, Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump:  Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools, reports the results of a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 high school teachers conducted in May 2017, examining the impact of the national political environment on students and the implications for student learning. More than 800 teachers also responded to an open-ended question regarding how their “classroom and school climate has changed this past year as a result of changes in national politics.”

More than half of teachers responding to the survey report more students are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety than in previous years, and more than three-quarters say students are concerned about their own well-being or that of family members. Immigration is the issue causing the most concern, with more than half of teachers saying students are concerned about proposals for the deportation of undocumented immigrants.  These concerns are significantly higher in schools serving predominately students of color.

Teachers also report heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms. One teacher said, “In my seventeen years I have never seen anger this blatant and raw over a political candidate or issue.” More than 40 percent of teachers also report that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources, with many linking the use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility.

Teachers also say that a growing number of schools, particularly predominantly White schools, became hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups. More than one quarter of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. Teachers responding to the survey described how the political environment “unleashed” virulently racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic rhetoric in their schools and classrooms.

“Many teachers are telling us that students seem to be ‘emboldened’ to use harsh racist and bigoted rhetoric,” says Rogers.  “They cite examples of students being targeted for the color of their skin, their Muslim faith, or sexual orientation, while others tell stories of students openly embracing racism and white supremacy, and confronting classmates in threatening ways. These acts are taking a toll on young people and undermining student learning.”

Teachers also say that the stresses in the school environment are impacting student learning. 40 percent of teachers reported that students’ concerns over one or more hot-button policy issues including immigration, travel bans with Muslim countries, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, healthcare and the environment impacted students’ learning in terms of their ability to focus on lessons and their attendance.

It is important to note that teachers also have felt heightened stress in the first months of the Trump administration.  More than two-thirds (67.7%) of U.S. public high school teachers reported that the level of stress associated with their work increased during the 2016-17 school year.

Teachers responding to the survey want more help to support civil exchange among students and greater understanding across differences.  They also believe that leadership matters in cultivating positive school culture and student learning. But just 40 percent of teachers report that school leaders are issuing public statements confronting the problems and just over one-quarter say leaders are providing guidance and support. Teachers in schools serving predominately students of color were substantially more likely than teachers in schools with predominately white students to say leaders were speaking out publically or acting to provide teachers with guidance or support.

“Unfortunately, the schools facing the greatest need for leadership to respond to the changing political climate were the least likely to experience it,” says Rogers.

Teachers also strongly support the need for political leaders to address the underlying causes of much campus incivility and stress – the contentious political rhetoric and policies that threaten student well-being. More than 90% of teachers agreed that national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.

“In these tense political times, these findings from America’s teachers have important implication for our nation and its schools,” concludes Rogers. “The growing polarization and contentiousness in classrooms and schools undercuts the democratic purposes of public education. Public schooling emerged in the United States as a strategy for developing the civic commitments and skills of each new generation. Ideally, public schools provide opportunities for students to deliberate productively across lines of difference and practice working together to solve collective problems. The heightened level of incivility makes it more difficult for schools to achieve this valued goal.

A complete version of Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump:  Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools is available online.

The study is a project of the UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The study draws on the results of a nationally representative survey conducted in May 2017 of 1,535 social studies, English, and mathematics teachers working in 333 geographically and demographically representative public high schools in the United States.  The study also draws on extended interviews with 35 teachers from across the United States who participated in the survey.

 

Summary of key findings:

Stress and concerns with welfare have increased, particularly in schools enrolling few White students.

  • More than half (51.4) of teachers reported morestudents experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years.
  • More than three-quarters (79%) of teachers reported students expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families in relation to one or more hot-button issues including immigration, travel limitations on predominantly Muslim countries, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, changes to health care, or threats to the environment.
  • The policy issue prompting most concern among students was immigration. More than half (58%) of teachers reported some students had expressed concerns about proposals for deporting undocumented immigrants.
  • Teachers in schools serving predominately students of color were almost six times more likely (53.8% to 9.1%) than teachers in predominately white schools to report that at least 10% of their students had expressed these concerns.
  • 44.3% of teachers reported students’ concerns about well being in relation to one or more hot-button policy issues impacted students’ learning—their ability to focus on lessons and their attendance.

 

Polarization, incivility, and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen, particularly in predominantly White schools.  

  • More than 20% of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms.
  • 41.0% of teachers reported that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources. Many teachers noted a connection between students’ use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility.

 

A growing number of schools, particularly predominantly White schools, became hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.  

  • 27.7% of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. Many teachers described how the political environment “unleashed” virulently racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic rhetoric in their schools and classrooms.

 

School leadership matters.

More than 40 percent of teachers reported that their school leadership made public statements this year about the value of civil exchange and understanding across lines of difference. But beyond the “public statements” only 26.8% of school leaders actually provided guidance and support on these issues, as reported by teachers in the survey.   Teachers in predominantly White schools were much less likely than their peers to report that their school leaders had taken these actions.

72.3% of teachers surveyed agreed that: “My school leadership should provide more guidance, support, and professional development opportunities on how to promote civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”

 

Teachers strongly supported the need for political leaders to address the underlying causes of much campus incivility and stress – contentious political rhetoric and policies that threaten student well being.

  • More than 90% of teachers agreed “national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”
  • Almost as many (83.9%) agreed that national and state leaders should “work to alleviate the underlying factors that create stress and anxiety for young people and their families.”