August 12, 2021
During a State Board of Education meeting last week – in which the board decided to leave the new public school diversity, equity and inclusion rule unchanged – an example was shared that highlighted the way that curriculum transparency can work to depoliticize the classroom.
According to news coverage of the state board meeting:
[State Superintendent Syd] Dickson said the State School Board now has a statewide contract with Canvas, which should make it easier for parents to see the content and materials their children’s teachers are using.
She said she had seen “some samples” where teachers have attached links to material that may not be linked to a state standard or was not age appropriate. State School Board employees need to carefully vet what is sent to teachers, and educators themselves need to make sure “they thoroughly go through whatever that material is,” she said.
She continued, “I think if we could get our teachers to stay politically neutral, that it would be most helpful.”
Because curriculum materials being used by teachers were posted in a way that made them transparent to Dickson, she was able to spot materials that might cause trouble in the classroom. This creates the opportunity for such curriculum choices to be “headed off at the pass,” so to speak, keeping them out of the classroom and avoiding controversy that could politicize what is being taught or how it is being taught – e.g., the controversy surrounding critical race theory in public schools.
That is the power of curriculum transparency.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess recently described how increased transparency for parents has been one of the positive side effects of remote learning brought on by the pandemic – and he called for that to become the enduring legacy of the pandemic’s impact on schools:
In the course of the pandemic, parents got new visibility into what kids are learning, what teachers are teaching, and how schools are using their time. Perhaps the thing I’ve heard most often from parents during the past 12 months (and occasionally thought myself) is: “I had no idea.” They had no idea this teacher was so organized, their child was so confused about parts of speech, or how much (or how little) learning actually occurs during their kid’s school day.
This is something that, as a parent of a grade school child, I can attest to personally. My third grader spent all of last year (and the last part of her second grade year) learning remotely via the math and language arts lecture videos and practice slides that her school district produced for remote learners. While she worked (often in the same room with me while I worked remotely), my wife and I got to see for the first time what she was being taught and what she was learning – in many cases as she was learning it. We also got to see the devotion and preparation of her schoolteachers as they held weekly video calls with her to check in and help with things she might have been struggling with.
A few of the district’s curriculum choices made us raise our eyebrows a bit, such as some of the political figures that they chose for biographical sketches and stories for language arts lessons. But we chose to simply supplement her learning in this regard, because the way the district presented these political figures was balanced and fair.
While that curriculum transparency was powerful and helpful to our child’s education and to us as parents, the most powerful form of transparency against the politicization of classroom content is proactive disclosure of curriculum before classroom instruction begins. The Canvas program shared in the news coverage of the state board meeting is one such example. An equivalent form of transparency could be a syllabus sent to parents at the beginning of the school year for subjects that get repeated in schools every year, such as math, language arts, science, and social studies (which would encompass civics and history).
By allowing parents, school administrators and others to see the curriculum materials that a teacher intends to use before they come up in class, trouble spots in curriculum can be identified and communicated back to the teacher – for the teacher’s sake as much as for students and parents. If done right, proactive curriculum transparency can help both teachers and parents, since it can be structured to lighten teachers’ administrative workloads so they can focus more on teaching. As noted by a teacher in North Carolina, for example, digitizing the submission of lesson plans (as Canvas does) would lessen the burden of that requirement for some teachers while also allowing greater curriculum transparency.
The win-win potential of curriculum transparency is important, since survey data suggests that parents and teachers are on the same page when it comes to things like civics and history education – where classroom politicization is most likely to occur. Instead of pursuing a path that unnecessarily divides parents and teachers – such as some proposals to ban curriculum do – curriculum transparency (if done right) can build on and further strengthen the unity that already exists between parents and teachers.
While proactive curriculum transparency is essential to mitigating the politicization of the classroom, it is insufficient on its own to fully solve the issue. Stronger incentives are required to ensure that transparency leads to diligence in curriculum selection among administrators, teachers and parents. The next installment in this series will delve into the policy that creates such incentives: education choice.
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