New teacher guidelines would strengthen their standing

Written by Derek Monson

November 26, 2021

Originally published by Deseret News.

The first legislative proposal to expand transparency in Utah’s public school curriculum was presented to policymakers this week.

For this legislation to drive successful policy reform, it must enlarge parents’ voice in the selection of district curriculum. It must also treat educators as professionals by giving them clear guidelines — best practices for professional conduct that frees teachers from pedagogical uncertainty.

Curriculum transparency is good public policy because, when done right, it supports and strengthens the parent-teacher partnership. It should be self-evident that the combination of a parent and a teacher jointly engaged in the education of a child is most conducive to student learning and success.

Strengthening that natural partnership means: (1) empowering the voice of parents as priority participants in their child’s education, and (2) recognizing and respecting educators as professionals with clear guidelines for professional conduct. Done right, this should create confidence among all stakeholders and allow teachers to teach.

The proposed curriculum transparency legislation admirably empowers the voice of parents. It requires school districts to include parents in the process of reviewing and recommending curriculum resources and classroom materials to the local school board.

Before approving the list of recommended resources and materials, school boards must post it online for 30 days. School board approval also must take place in a public meeting where parents are given an opportunity to express their views.

In short, the legislation will successfully build the parent side of the parent-teacher partnership by: (1) empowering the voice of parents in the process of selecting district-approved curriculum and classroom resources, and (2) making the process more accountable to parents’ values and perspective.

The proposal could do better on the teacher side of the parent-teacher partnership, however. Educators should have a list of issues that fit the district’s definition of controversial issues that is approved by the local school board. Educators should also be required, as a matter of best practice, to offer multiple viewpoints on any controversial issue they discuss in the classroom — with a recognition that all opinions must be respected in the process.

Teachers also ought to have a designated classroom materials adviser they can go to for an informed second opinion on whether a video, book or resource not on the district-approved list may be problematic for students or parents. This should be particularly useful for less experienced educators.

These kinds of provisions strengthen the teacher side of the parent-teacher partnership. They offer clear guidelines for teachers to follow for controversial issues and supplemental classroom materials. As professionals, they can align their professional conduct with these best practices and, as a result, be freed from some of the uncertainty over whether a classroom resource or controversial issue will land them in hot water.

Some characterize new professional guidelines for teachers as disrespecting their professional standing, but this view is misplaced. Being a professional does not give unrestricted license to do whatever you think best in a moment. To the contrary, professionals embrace reasonable guidelines and rules on their professional conduct. That is one reason why society respects them as professionals and parents in Utah trust them.

Lawyers and doctors, for instance, agree to a code of ethics that guides their professional conduct in the states where they are licensed. As professionals entrusted with something as important to society and individuals as the molding of young minds, educators ought to be held to appropriate professional standards comparable to the standards required of those who care for our health or our laws.

When thoughtfully designed, curriculum transparency legislation may create additional, reasonable professional guidelines for educators. By doing so, it elevates the professional standing of educators and further strengthens the parent-teacher partnership to the benefit of students.

Lawmakers should be commended for bringing forward proposals to support the parent-teacher partnership through increased curriculum transparency. All legislation, of course, could benefit from improvements. But the proposal put forward this week is a good start toward empowering parents and freeing educators to improve student learning in Utah.

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