Curriculum transparency: why your school needs it

January 6, 2021

Curriculum transparency can help parents become education advocates for their children, according to Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

Being an advocate is a powerful role, especially during times of uncertainty in education.

“During the pandemic, parents have had a unique opportunity to review what’s taking place in their child’s virtual classroom,” says Butcher. “Families should use this time period to become more informed about what their children are learning so that they can be better advocates for them once schools return to in-person instruction.”

As a culture war continues to heat up around subjects like American history and civics, it seems obvious that parents – not policymakers – ought to make the final call about their student’s education.

But this requires that they be given as much information as possible in the first place.

Enter curriculum transparency: policies that increase parental access to what schools are teaching students. It seems too obvious that this should already be the case; in fact, it seems odd the curriculum wouldn’t be transparent, but a further look reveals that robust curriculum transparency has not yet been realized in most places.

To learn more, Sutherland Institute’s education fellow Christine Cooke Fairbanks interviewed Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher for additional insights on the topic.

Fairbanks: What is curriculum transparency, and what are different policies/ways to achieve this goal?

Butcher: Taxpayers – parents included – should be able to review what public schools are teaching. This sounds simple, but according to Goldwater Institute research released earlier this year, some states make it difficult for taxpayers to access this material. Policies that require parents to physically visit a school district’s office to see the school’s reading list or that limit the times of day during which someone can access the material are obstacles to civic engagement. These policies matter to communities because instructional content is diverging from what parents want taught in schools: Results from a Heritage Foundation survey conducted in 2020 found that nearly 70 percent of parents want their children taught that “slavery was a tragedy that harmed the nation, but our freedom and prosperity represent who we are as a nation, offering a beacon to those wanting to immigrate here” (full results will be available in a forthcoming paper).

Yet curricular content based on the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” teaches that America’s “founding ideals were false when they were written” and aims to reframe American history around slavery. The material is now available in some 4,500 classrooms. This material is also riddled with factual inaccuracies. In California, the state board of education is developing an ethnic studies curriculum that, as of August, taught about “empire building … and its relationship to white supremacy” and devoted an entire section to intersectionality, a term of victimization from Critical Race Theory that fuels identity politics. If parents do not know what their children are being taught, they cannot effectively advocate for factually accurate teaching materials that represent their values and the values of their community.

Fairbanks: What are both the benefits and burdens of curriculum transparency for schools and teachers?

Butcher: The benefits will accrue to the most important individuals in the K-12 system: students. Currently, 76 percent of 8th graders score at or below a “basic” level on a national comparison of civics knowledge. This means that more than three-quarters of a representative sample of our nation’s middle schoolers have only a partial knowledge of the grade-level content these children should know about how our government works.

Test scores such as these are regularly used to demonstrate the crises in student achievement, especially among minority and low-income students, in K-12 schools. Some 80 percent of black 4th grade students cannot read at what is reasonably considered to be the appropriate grade level. When a 4th grader is not reading at grade level, this can impact his or her entire education career. Minority students already have the lowest college completion rates. Thus it matters greatly when we learn that students in schools with majority-minority enrollments are learning less than their peers during the pandemic – and that teacher unions lobby against reopening schools for in-person instruction.

Taken together, all of this means that when parents recognize their child is struggling, they can either try to move a child to a different school or find out what is happening in the classroom and talk with school officials about instructional content. The former option is not yet available to every family thanks to special interest groups such as unions and their lobbying, which means the latter activity is nothing short of urgent for parents of struggling students.

Fairbanks: How might transparency of curriculum increase or decrease “political” turmoil over curriculum choices?

Butcher: Political turmoil in locally controlled K-12 schools will never be completely eliminated, thanks in part to the aforementioned teacher unions. Even without special interest groups, though, a variety of different values and interests are represented in every community – which is a feature, not a bug, of authentic American diversity.

Policymakers’ responsibility is to protect the fairness of this representative system and the rights of individuals and families. Once we add to the discussion concepts such as Critical Race Theory, which seeks to destabilize what adherents consider to be systems of power and what the rest of us call a government by the people, for the people, “political turmoil” converts from one of many competing issues to the driving force in local decision making.

Consider, for example, the Falls Church school board’s recent decision to rename two district schools, Thomas Jefferson Elementary and George Mason High School. The board chose to rename the schools as an effort to achieve so-called “equity.” Yet a community survey prior to the board’s decision found that a majority of respondents wanted to keep the names. A 2007 Manhattan Institute report finds that school officials are increasingly opting for apolitical school names, which discredits both America’s Founders and also our students, who should be given role models to follow. Local school officials’ objective should not be to lessen political turmoil for the sake of avoiding conflict, but, instead, to teach students the importance of free speech and other vital liberties and be prepared to engage with parents and families over the naming of schools or curricular content.

And when school district leaders, such as those in Falls Church, make the unconscionable decision to reject the interests of its community under the false pretense that it will improve “equity,” we are reminded again of the importance of giving parents choices over how and where their children learn so they have alternatives when school district leaders practice identity politics.

Fairbanks: How can parents learn about curriculum choices even if there is no transparency policy in place?

Butcher: During the pandemic, parents have had a unique opportunity to review what’s taking place in their child’s virtual classroom. Families should use this time period to become more informed about what their children are learning so that they can be better advocates for them once schools return to in-person instruction.

Outside of the pandemic, and when parents and students have no alternatives beyond an assigned school, the responsibility lies with policymakers to create more opportunities for all families. These opportunities should include not just the ability to review what their children are being taught, but the chance to find a better option when an assigned school is failing their child.

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