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Educators Have Lost the Public’s Trust. How Can They Get It Back?
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Educators Have Lost the Public’s Trust. How Can They Get It Back?

For starters, they can call out indefensible conduct.

Americans say they’re losing confidence in the nation’s teachers. “Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education,” the Washington Post noted. Gallup reported that trust in teachers has dropped from an all-time high of 75 percent in 2020 to an all-time low of 64 percent today. No one is happy about where things stand.

The stark decline in how much Americans say they trust schools has been fueled by a precipitous drop on the right. In July, Gallup found that just 13 percent of Republicans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in public schools.

These numbers should be unsurprising to anyone who’s followed the events of the past three years: Teacher unions battling to keep schools closed and leaning on the CDC to make reopening as onerous as possible. Dismal remote learning. The National School Board Association urging that angry parents should be treated as “domestic terrorists.” 

Educators sense the skepticism and know that it has real implications. Jay Wamsted, a middle school math teacher from Atlanta, recently penned a much-discussed essay for Education Week fretting that the lack of trust and the ensuing policy fights make teaching more difficult. Wamsted argues, “We need to grant our teachers freedom to answer questions” without his feeling compelled to “choose between my students’ education or my own job security.” Wamsted is right to note that complex issues inevitably arise in the course of schooling and that good teachers want and need the ability to address these in thoughtful, responsible ways.

But the problem is that many parents don’t trust all educators to do just that. While education leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have blamed right-wing “extremists” for undermining public support through a campaign of “lies, smears, and distortions,” the inconvenient fact is that there are educators out there publicly bragging about their efforts to infuse their dogmas into school practices and policy.

Online platforms offer some truly jarring examples. Over the past couple weeks, Project Veritas has released a series of troubling videos in which educational leaders are caught talking frankly about how they promote ideological agendas at school.

In one video, an assistant principal at an elementary school in Greenwich, Connecticut, explained that he factors faith and ideology into hiring decisions. He relates, “If they’re Catholic? [They’re] conservative … you don’t hire them.” In another video, an assistant principal at a New York City charter elementary school explained that a teaching candidate who suggests “everyone is equal” or implies that it’s okay to try to “be colorblind” just “wouldn’t get hired,” dismissing such notions as naïve and archaic. 

In a third video, the director of student activities at New York City’s private Trinity School was caught boasting that, “It’s definitely a school where conservatives would not feel comfortable.” She says, “Unfortunately, it’s the white boys who feel very entitled to express their opposite opinions and just push back,” adding, “I think they need to go. … I think they’re really awful people.” She mused, “We need to find some, like, Dexter, sort of like a vigilante, taking people out… You know the show, Dexter [about a serial killer vigilante]? … Like, here’s your community of targets.”

While these videos have resulted in local discipline and condemnation, the silence of national educational leaders has been deafening. Worse, the Connecticut Education Association did take note of the Connecticut video, but only for the purpose of attacking the messenger. In an email obtained by National Review, CEA president Kate Dias wrote, “Project Veritas has dropped a hit piece using an administrator in Greenwich. While a teacher was not used (so far) the narrative is …  not kind to educators.” Dias told union leaders to stonewall reporters “that have not been vetted” and to “not comment on the Greenwich video at all.”

The Project Veritas videos may be recent and eye-catching but the phenomena they capture are far from isolated occurrences. 

Indeed, one needn’t go undercover to find cause for concern. The internet is dotted with teachers proclaiming their ideological agendas and mocking parents who might object. One video shows a high school teacher in Oakland boasting that he’s created a “transition closet” that allows students “to wear the clothes their parents approve of, come to school, and then swap out into the clothes that fit who they truly are … like Superman changing in a phone booth.” 

There’s the preschool teacher, clad in rainbow tutu, rainbow eyeshadow, and rainbow suspenders, annoyed that some parents take issue with her emphasis on gender and sexuality. She stands in front of her classroom Black Lives Matter/Pride flag, rolls her eyes, and flips off the parents. There’s the Florida teacher who denounces state guidance requiring that she communicate with parents about a student’s gender identity as akin to “living in a fascist police state.” There’s the teacher who performs a song in which she makes faces and claps along as she sings, “Parents are [clap] terrorists.”  

And then there’s an entire industry of fly-by, high-priced teacher trainers providing mandatory workshops who can give parents the impression that unhinged revolutionaries have set up shop in their schools. In Virginia’s Loudoun County, trainers have taught educators that that an attachment to notions of “individual achievement,” “individual thinking,” or “self-expression” is a racist hallmark of “white individualism.” In Seattle, teachers learned that the U.S. is a “race-based white-supremacist society” whose school system commits “spirit murder” against black children, and that white teachers need to “bankrupt [their] privilege in acknowledgment of [their] thieved inheritance.” In Buffalo, teachers have been directed to promote “queer-affirming network[s] where heteronormative thinking no longer exists” and the “disruption of Western nuclear family dynamics.”

The offenders may only comprise a tiny portion of the nation’s millions of professional educators. And, yet, that can be enough to erode trust—especially when the union’s response is to counterpunch rather than clean house. That’s when trust disintegrates.

For an instructive example from outside of schooling, consider how this has played out in policing. Some prominent anti-police voices will acknowledge that the lion’s share of cops may be personally virtuous—but then argue that’s not the issue. The point, they say, is that they’ve seen enough misconduct that they’ve lost faith in police professionalism, are skeptical even of the “good” cops, and doubt that police departments are willing or able to address malfeasance. 

How can educators rebuild public trust?

A good place to start would be education leaders and professional associations being the first to call out indefensible conduct. The Project Veritas videos should’ve been greeted by educational leaders flatly declaring, “This is unacceptable. It’s never okay for educators to demean a student or teacher based on their race, gender, or faith. And we mean that, whether or not it comports with our politics.”

Educators should have no problem stridently, unequivocally denouncing a school leader who yearns for a serial killer vigilante to “take out” some of her students.

Individual words and actions are a matter of individual misconduct. The profession’s response, however, is a measure of institutional trustworthiness. School leaders should work to reassure the public that these figures don’t represent their profession. There should be public statements and missives to parents saying, “We just want to take this excuse to reaffirm that we think all forms of bigotry are unacceptable; that this is about principle, not politics.”

Regaining the public’s trust will require more than empty words and pleas for empathy. It will require actively reassuring Americans of every stripe that their children are welcome, that their values are respected, and that their schools will address tough issues in a professional, responsible fashion. 

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hayley Sanon is program manager of the Conservative Education Reform Network at AEI.