LOS ANGELES — While Americans remain fiercely divided over politics and candidates, a new study shows that parents want their children to contend with controversy in school.

The study, titled "A House Divided? What Americans Really Think About Controversial Topics in School," collected data from 3,751 respondents.

The study was conducted through the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

What You Need To Know

  • A study released Wednesday shows that parents want their high schoolers to grapple with controversial topics

  • The William and Flora Hewlett funded the USC study in part Foundation 

  • Over 90% of respondents wanted their high school students to learn about slavery, while less than 60% wanted them to learn about gender identity or trans rights

  • The study showed that of the 3,751 respondents included, just 4% understood critical race theory well enough to explain it to others

“It’s certainly unusual to see education be so prominent in the news but also the subject of such partisan rancor,” said USC professor and behavioral scientist and one author of the study Anna Saavedra. “I’ve never seen education be such a hot topic before.”

The other authors listed are Morgan Polikoff, Daniel Silver, Amie Rapaport, and Marshall Garland.

The surprise, Saavedra said, was that so many parents agreed both sides of controversial subjects should be taught. She was equally surprised that parents want the option of taking their students out of a class that teaches information with which they disagree.

About 90% of respondents think American slavery should be taught in high school, while about 70% want it taught in elementary school. Parents were overwhelmingly more willing for high school students to engage with controversial subjects while being more reluctant for elementary school students to learn about them.

But other topics are clearly divided along partisan lines.

The study showed that 60% of parents wanted their high school students to learn about LGBTQ issues, while respondents who identified as Republicans did not agree.

Critical race theory also proved to be divisive. The study showed that most respondents couldn’t properly identify what the theory is and about half of the respondents admitted they did not know what critical race theory is.

Almost all respondents could not pass a basic knowledge test, including the core tenets of the theory. Only 4% knew enough to explain it to others.

“But they overwhelmingly support a societal goal of treating all people the same without regard to the color of their skin, and, to a lesser extent, that America is meritocratic—both ideas CRT would contest,” the authors noted. 


CRT has been among the most politically charged topics during recent political campaigns. Republicans have objected to teaching CRT and have espoused a broad definition of the theory that their Democrats counterparts loudly decried.

The result has been an unprecedented interest in what students learn in school, Saavedra said.

The impact on how and what is taught, she said, is hard to predict since teachers have varying autonomy over their lesson plans depending on where they teach. The stakes are especially high as the country awaits the highly expected midterm elections in November.

“We figured no matter what the results [of the study] they would be informative for the election discussions,” she said.