Poll finds Boston teachers open to lessons on race, sexism

Only 36% said current curriculum is ‘culturally relevant’

BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOL teachers believe issues of race and racism should be taught in public schools, particularly in the older grades, according to a survey conducted by Educators For Excellence, a national teacher-led organizing group.

The survey of 110 Boston teachers, sponsored by the Barr Foundation, includes a number of revealing details about the position of Boston teachers on curriculum disputes and on the challenging post-pandemic state of students’ academic achievement and mental health.

Educators For Excellence lists “anti-racism” as part of its mission, and the organization has spearheaded a campaign to advocate for a more racially diverse curriculum in schools and more racially diverse teachers. Legislation on Beacon Hill seeking those changes failed to pass in the current legislative session.

Educators For Excellence used the survey to wade into the cultural debates over what should be taught in the classroom. Currently, according to Education Week, 42 states have introduced bills that would limit certain types of teaching about racism or sexism, such as teaching about “critical race theory,” and 17 states actually passed policy restrictions.

According to the survey, Boston teachers were far less likely than teachers nationally to support legislation banning certain lessons about racism or sexism, with 66 percent opposing legal limits on classroom conversation compared to 41 percent nationally. (No such bill has been introduced in Massachusetts.)

Currently, the poll found, Boston teachers have a relatively low opinion of their schools’ curriculum. Only 44 percent said they felt the curriculum was “high quality and well-aligned to learning standards” and only 36 percent felt it was “culturally relevant” to the student population. More than half (57 percent) said they often create their own lessons to supplement the curriculum.

Asked whether students should be taught about specific topics related to racism, Boston teachers tended to say yes, with an emphasis on middle and high school. More than half of the teachers felt that topics like slavery, the civil rights movement, and the Civil War should be taught across all grade levels. But fewer than half felt that racial inequality in America’s past or present, systemic racism, and students’ personal experiences with racism should be taught in elementary school. Teachers wanted those topics to be reserved for older students.

There was also less support for teaching younger students about the history of lesbian, gay, and transgender people, with only a quarter of teachers wanting those lessons taught in elementary school, and 79 percent saying they should be taught to high schoolers.

Lisa Lazare, executive director of Educators For Excellence Boston, said the survey pointed to the fact that educators are “really dissatisfied with the curriculum,” and they want race-related issues to be included in the curriculum. “Overwhelmingly, Boston educators do believe topics like the Civil War and slavery and racism absolutely should be taught in schools. Where we differ is how we’re doing it, how we’re managing conversations at different levels,” Lazare said.

In other areas, the survey echoed the sentiments of other studies and polls which have found that children continue to struggle with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and interrupted learning. Two-thirds of the Boston teachers said their students were further behind today academically compared to a typical class before the pandemic. More than half reported that violence in schools was worse than before the pandemic. And 77 percent of teachers said their students had worse mental health than pre-pandemic.

As school districts, including Boston, have a huge influx of federal COVID recovery money to spend, officials at Educators For Excellence see the survey as a tool to guide Boston’s expenditures. The survey asked teachers what Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s priorities should be in improving education, and the most popular responses were increasing resources for high-needs students and schools (45 percent) and improving mental health supports for students (40 percent).