Polarization and Classroom Practice, Part I: The Political Typologies of American Educators

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

This post represents the first of a four part series on political polarization and classroom practice, ultimately attempting to answer the question of what we can do as educators to bridge this seemingly cavernous fracture in the heart of our democracy. Teaching with controversy is among the most impactful civic learning strategies, yet it is also fraught with danger and educators are wise to proceed with caution.

To kick off this series, I will begin with the political typology of teachers themselves, as the line where we separate the professional from the personal on the political front is complicated.

I’m often asked, “Aren’t teachers overwhelmingly liberal, and don’t they try to make students into little Democrats?” The answer is a definitive no, as teachers’ beliefs are typically reflective of the communities where they teach. Moreover, teachers have forever had a commitment to teaching students about democratic institutions and encouraging participation agnostic of party. If anything, politics, and especially political parties, are often absent from civics curricula.

For further insight, Education Week published a report last month titled Educator Political Perceptions, which summarizes the results of a national survey of more than a thousand educators, half of them teachers, on a range of political issues. When it comes to ideology, educators form a bell curve, with a plurality identifying as moderate (43%), roughly a quarter liberal (24%) or conservative (23%), and only a small percentage far left (5%) or right (4%).

While there is a Democratic tilt when it comes to party affiliation (41% identify as Democrats), 30% identify as Independents, and 27% as Republicans. Similarly, Hillary Clinton gained half of all educators’ presidential votes in 2016, but this was only a tick above her overall national percentage (48.5%). Trump received 29% of educators’ votes, while 13% voted for a third party candidate, and 8% did not vote. One year into the Trump presidency, 80% of his initial supporters among educators still have a favorable opinion of him, compared to 27% among Clinton voters.

During these turbulent political times, educators are divided when it comes to their own political activities. Nearly half have avoided political activities altogether (21%) or some (27%) out of concern that it may create problems for their job in education, while 17% said they’ve tempered activities a little, and 34% not at all. As for the specific political activities educators pursue, contacting elected officials tops the list, followed by trying to persuade friends or colleagues to change their minds on a political topic.

The political typologies of American educators profiled, my next post will focus specifically on civics teachers and the nature by which they bring political controversy into the classroom. I will then address the empirical question of the extent to which political polarization is a mass phenomenon, or more the province of political elites. The series will conclude with some preliminary thoughts about the current challenges of teaching with controversy.

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