Protecting against politicizing the classroom: A Q&A on curriculum transparency

Written by Derek Monson

August 27, 2021

“There is no one silver bullet to defeating the rise of politics in the classroom,” says Matt Beienburg, director of education policy and the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute in a Q&A with Sutherland Institute vice president of policy Derek Monson.

“Full academic transparency” is essential, however, according to Beienburg, because it “would provide protection against political materials slipping secretively into any course of study.” But transparency must also be bolstered by education choice policies “so that if a nearby school does insist on teaching politically radical content, those families have opportunities … to credibly choose someplace else for their children.”

Beienburg believes that meaningful transparency has three essential elements: (1) It applies “to all instructional materials, not simply to textbooks or other resources that are officially adopted by a school district,” (2) it “give[s] parents the ability to review materials without having to jump through a bunch of hoops … by requiring schools to disclose online a list of the materials used in the classroom,” and (3) it makes curriculum available “to current and prospective parents, so that families can make informed decisions before they are locked into a given schooling environment.”

Some K-12 schools have already embraced meaningful curriculum transparency. “Their [curriculum] materials are a badge of honor – something they are proud of and willing to share,” says Beienburg. “It ought to be that way for schools all throughout K-12.”

You can read the full Q&A between Monson and Beienburg about curriculum transparency below.

Monson: One of the critiques of a policy of banning critical race theory (CRT) concepts or pedagogies is that it is a “partial bandage” for the problem that can be, and already is, evaded. What examples or evidence can you describe or point to for CRT bans being evaded?

Beienburg: The best place to start is with the words of CRT proponents themselves. For example, in response to several states passing anti-CRT legislation, The Zinn Education Project – one of the most active leftwing curriculum providers in the country – launched a nationwide pledge drive for teachers to declare that they would continue to teach various extensions of CRT’s underlying principles, saying: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events – regardless of the law.”

Since it launched, nearly 6,000 teachers have publicly signed their names to the pledge, declaring the need to teach “the truth about this country: It was founded on dispossession of Native Americans, slavery, structural racism and oppression; and structural racism is a defining characteristic of our society today … the major institutions and systems of our country are deeply infected with anti-Blackness and its intersection with other forms of oppression.” Clearly, these thousands of educators fully intend to continue teaching the takeaways of CRT: that America, the Constitution, and principles such as equality before the law are designed to perpetuate racial oppression.

These teachers recognize they are no longer legally allowed to explicitly promote certain specific tenets of CRT – such as saying that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, is inherently racist,” but in most cases they will continue to be able to teach historically revisionist and discredited materials such as the 1619 Project or, as we’ve seen in cases ranging from Wisconsin to Arizona, are now packaging their efforts under more benign slogans such as “culturally relevant pedagogy.”

Monson: Is curriculum transparency a partial bandage to the controversy around CRT in public schools also, or is it a comprehensive solution? If it’s the former, what other policies do you recommend for a comprehensive solution?

Beienburg: There is no one silver bullet to defeating the rise of politics in the classroom, but academic (curriculum) transparency would put a decisive stop to the ability of schools to smuggle controversial content in absent parental awareness. Unlike narrower solutions, full academic transparency would provide protection against political materials slipping secretively into any course of study, a safeguard that is increasingly necessary as even fields like science and math are becoming ever more inundated with the ideological axioms of CRT and the like.

At the same time, lawmakers should ensure that parents have meaningful access to educational alternatives, so that if a nearby school does insist on teaching politically radical content, those families have opportunities – whether public, private, or homeschooling – to credibly choose someplace else for their children instead.

Monson: What are the essential elements of a sound K-12 curriculum transparency policy? Are there some states that clearly stand out over others in the quality and effectiveness of their curriculum transparency policies, and if so, what are the “best practices” they have adopted that a state like Utah should consider?

Beienburg: There are several essential elements of a meaningful transparency policy: First, states must ensure that transparency applies to all instructional materials, not simply to textbooks or other resources that are officially adopted by a school district. Schools and educators are increasingly supplementing those core resources with articles and essays (such as the 1619 Project) from the internet with virtually zero outside awareness, yet these are often the most controversial materials of all, and parents must have knowledge of their use.

Second, effective transparency policies give parents the ability to review materials without having to jump through a bunch of hoops – like having to submit costly records requests or taking time off to travel to a district office to comb through a wall of file cabinets. By requiring schools to disclose online a list of the materials used in the classroom, states can ensure that parents are able to easily review and identify the content their kids will encounter. Lastly, this information must be made available to current and prospective parents, so that families can make informed decisions before they are locked into a given schooling environment. Waiting for a student to come home with something in their backpack is far too late.

Already in 2021, the North Carolina House of Representatives and the Arizona state senate have passed versions of transparency legislation featuring each of these elements, with Wisconsin, Texas, and others actively considering them.

Monson: Colleges and universities have largely solved the curriculum transparency issue by producing syllabi that include topics covered and curriculum resources (e.g., textbooks) in each class. Is proactive curriculum transparency – in the form of an annual syllabus for core subjects like math, language arts, science and social studies – feasible for K-12 districts and public schools?

Beienburg: While online transparency is standard practice throughout much of higher education, it has also been effectively deployed in K-12 education as well. One of the most academically prestigious charter networks in the southwest, Great Hearts Schools, for instance, advertises reading lists featuring extraordinary detailed information, including the individual poems, short stories and other works of literature students will encounter. Likewise, the Hillsdale Academy, a private K-12 school affiliated with Hillsdale College, has compiled curriculum materials online, including course syllabi, weekly curriculum outlines, reading lists, and a bibliography of materials. For such schools, their materials are a badge of honor – something they are proud of and willing to share. It ought to be that way for schools all throughout K-12.

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