How to get curriculum transparency right for teachers

March 21, 2024

Originally published in Utah Policy.

According to a newly released Sutherland Institute-Y2 Analytics survey, a majority of likely voters in Utah say it is important that instructional materials and curriculum for Utah’s K-12 students be accessible to parents and the public. In fact, most respondents support rewarding teachers for making their curriculum transparent. Fewer support mandating transparency from educators.

In a previous Sutherland-Y2 survey report, likely voters rated curriculum transparency as a moderately important issue to their decision about whom to vote for this election year.

This data suggests that Utah voters care about curriculum transparency but feel that the approach’s impact on teachers matters. Policymakers and education leaders should take note.

The National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union vigorously oppose curriculum transparency out of concern over the burden it may add to teachers’ already intense workload and ability to teach. Advocates of curriculum transparency need to understand this: If policymakers fail to take seriously the additional work that transparency requires from teachers, it will be impossible to get transparency policy right.

Two factors are key to addressing the hurdles educators face: (1) understanding and pursuing transparency methods that benefit teachers, students and parents alike, and (2) rewarding teachers for making the responsible choice to be proactively transparent about instructional materials, assignments and assessments.

Many advocates of curriculum transparency high-center on the opportunity to identify inappropriate materials and prevent teachers from teaching politically charged material in the classroom. As illustrated by some documented instances of teaching gone highly political, this is a legitimate concern for parents and a useful benefit of transparency.

However, many additional – potentially more significant – benefits from curriculum transparency for parents, students and teachers are too often left out of the discussion.

For example, one study found that secondary school teachers who made materials universally accessible online before the term were able to learn from and collaborate with one another. Another study suggested that transparent teachers more carefully examined and aligned activities and assignments with assessments and outcomes.

Basically, being transparent about instruction can help teachers accomplish what they naturally desire: professional growth and improved teaching outcomes.

There are direct benefits to students too. One study showed that transparency can improve students’ confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of skills needed for employment, with larger gains for first-generation, low-income or underrepresented students.

If transparency is done properly, Utah policymakers and educators can harness these benefits for public school students – especially academically at-risk students who may benefit from them the most.

Additionally, when parents know in advance what their child is learning and when it will be taught, they can be better partners in academic outcomes. Curriculum transparency, when done right, will equip parents to bear the part of the academic load that they naturally want to carry: supporting their student’s learning needs.

Making curriculum, instructional materials, learning objectives and assignments transparent will be work for educators. Some teachers may be doing this already, but it will require a change in thinking or procedure from others. This is why – as Utah voters recognize – rewarding teachers for responsibly choosing to be proactively transparent is a good idea.

Teacher burdens leading to teacher burnout is real. Rather than enacting transparency mandates, policymakers should compensate teachers for taking the time before the school year begins to make curriculum available to the public.

There is rarely a detailed policy that fits every state, district or school. But understanding, promoting and pursuing the benefits of curriculum transparency through prudently designed state and local policy reforms can benefit educators, parents and students alike.

Based on their reported policy opinions, Utah voters seem to intuitively grasp this reality. Utah policymakers and education leaders should too.

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