Pandemic lesson: Curriculum transparency helps parents, can improve civics education

Written by Derek Monson

July 13, 2021

As a parent of a soon-to-be fourth grader, I’ve had a close-up view of the educational experience during the pandemic. The transition to remote learning to finish our daughter’s second grade year at her public (district) school was pretty rough. But unexpectedly – for us as her parents – she found it more engaging and thrived in the digital learning environment, so we chose to continue the option for her third grade year. Needless to say, the pandemic has brought many new educational experiences.

One of those new experiences has been seeing every day the curriculum material and resources (brief online instructional videos and daily practice slides) being used to deliver academic content to our child. The pandemic was our first experience with readily available and easily accessible (i.e., transparent) curriculum. Most of the curriculum selection was what you might expect, but a few things caught our attention as having a political flavor to them.

An article published by the American Enterprise Institute recommends that state lawmakers adopt elevated curriculum transparency policies to address parental concerns over what children are taught in public schools (or concerns over what students are NOT being taught, as is more important in subjects like civics).

The report recommends that state lawmakers “take action to stem the rise of politics in the classroom.” It examines and critiques both inaction and content bans as inadequate tools for ensuring that classrooms remain places of learning instead of political activism. Inaction leaves the schools to those who want curriculum to forward their political agenda, while content bans can be evaded by activists willing to “repackage, reword, and reinvent their classroom materials under new slogans.”

Then the author turns to curriculum transparency – meaning proactive disclosure by public schools of basic information about curriculum resources and materials being used, broken down by subject and grade. Arguing in favor of this policy approach, the article points out:

Parents can already easily go online to access schools’ financial data, student performance scores, graduation and dropout rates, enrollment processes, and more – all long before being required to make an enrollment decision for their student. Academic transparency would simply extend the same 21st-century access to course content.

Clearly, curriculum transparency can provide a useful tool for parents who want to ensure that their children are getting the best education possible. But it can also be done in ways that help make teachers’ jobs easier as well.

Quoting one former teacher in North Carolina, the article says, “20 years ago I provided all of this information. I turned in my lesson plans to my principal. Doing it electronically now would be so much simpler than what I was expected to do.” The alleviation of this particular burden may vary between states and/or school districts. But this example illustrates it can be done in ways that benefit teachers by lightening their non-teaching workload.

It may be a rare education policy idea that both parents and teachers can embrace. But given how much parents and teachers see eye to eye on civics education and how it is being prioritized and taught, it is fitting that elevated curriculum transparency might offer a way forward that serves both groups’ interests. 

In the digital world where we live now, K-12 students and their parents deserve the equivalent of a syllabus each year for core subjects such as math, language arts, science and social studies – including basic information on the curriculum resources being used by a child’s teacher. If done the right way, we can serve the needs of teachers, parents and students while removing some of the politics and divisiveness over what is taught in the classroom. And that would be good for everyone.

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