Utah auditors see no evidence that critical race theory is widely taught — but found a few ‘bad examples’

The problem, a new audit said, is that the state has no formal process for setting curriculum, which creates significant differences between districts and schools.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police keep a watchful eye as protesters swarm the Granite School Board on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, opposing the teaching of critical race theory in schools, alongside those that support it, despite that it’s currently not being taught anywhere in Utah. A state audit released on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, confirmed there is no widespread teaching of the theory in the state's public K-12 schools.

There’s no evidence that any widespread teaching of critical race theory is happening in Utah classrooms — despite “considerable concerns expressed by parents” — according to a state audit released this week.

But because there’s no set process for how schools and districts should create curriculum, the audit noted, there’s significant variability in how subjects are taught and what materials are used. And some “bad examples” of lessons or trainings creep in.

In one high school, an English class was “heavily focused on racism, cultural erasure and marginalized minorities,” the report said. And a high school history class used a book that said the founding of America was “based on the ideology of white supremacy.”

An English class in a middle school had students assess how “privileged” they were, based on their appearance, gender, native language and where they live. And teachers at a different school went through training that stated Utah has a violent history, and Pioneer Day is a celebration of white supremacy.

While some might not see those as concerning, the 68-page audit said, the highlighted cases could be seen as crossing the line set by state lawmakers last year on what Utah educators are not allowed say about race in the classroom. That includes any discussion of critical race theory — the college-level academic framework that centers racism as a defining characteristic of American society — or any assertion that one race is “inherently superior or inferior.”

“Those bad examples are not the norm, though,” said Leah Blevins, the audit manager from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, who presented the findings to state lawmakers on Monday.

The auditors reviewed more than 500 parent complaints, looked at lessons for 44 different courses across five school districts and spoke with more than 150 parents and teachers. Those four lessons and trainings were all they found of anything nearing critical race theory, Blevins said; and only two seem to definitely cross the line, the audit said.

She suggested the bigger issue is that teachers in Utah need clearer guidelines for curriculum— rather than a piecemeal system where direction differs depending on the school district.

What ends up happening, Blevins said, is extreme differences in what materials are presented to students and sometimes little overview or checks ahead of a classroom discussion.

“This is really a balance between having local control and having some guardrails in place,” she said.

She said teachers told auditors that more direction would help, and some are currently feeling afraid of what they can or cannot say without clear guidelines in place. Creating some definitions or processes, the audit said, would also help to prevent some “potentially questionable content” from being presented in the classroom.

The current setup

The Legislature has long said it doesn’t want to dictate curriculum for schools, and that should be done at a local level. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, reiterated that during the discussion of the audit Tuesday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

The only topic the state has put limits on is sex education, which must stress abstinence. And last year, lawmakers passed the critical race theory bill outlining what teachers cannot say about racism.

Aside from that, the Utah State Board of Education is tasked with setting “core standards,” which outline the essential knowledge and skills a student should leave a course with. That would include requirements such as students in eighth grade U.S. history learning about the Constitution.

The state board provides suggestions of vetted textbooks, but districts are not required to use those.

From there, state law conflicts on who within a district should work on curriculum and instructional materials. One part of state code says it’s up to local school boards to implement standards “using instructional materials that best correlate to core standards.” Another part says “each school may select instructional materials” deemed appropriate.

In Davis School District, for example, there’s a top-down approach, where the school board has set clear policies to approve materials for classroom use, the audit said.

But only eight of the 41 public school districts in the state have approved materials lists like that, according to the report. In other districts, it’s left up to teachers to decide individually, without input or feedback, what materials to use. Some choose not to use textbooks and instead use more contemporary articles, the audit said. And there are no guidelines at all for talking about emerging social issues that come up during the school year.

School districts also vary on what training they provide teachers on remaining neutral in the classroom. Utah law states teachers are not supposed to indicate any religious or political opinions to students; but many districts don’t explain that.

Trusting teachers and providing recommendations

The audit was requested by state lawmakers last year, when critical race theory was being widely debated. They asked auditors to look at “the appropriateness of the teaching that is occurring in Utah’s public education system” after a number of parents raised concerns and a few videos of teachers discussing topics went viral, both in Utah and in other states.

“Most courses we reviewed for this audit,” the report said, “did not appear to reflect parent and community concerns gathered from hotlines and interviews.”

The audit also noted that many of the concerns expressed by those outside the classroom “frequently lacked corresponding documentation.” The most complaints were raised about English, history and health classes, the audit said.

There were a few cases, it said, where cartoons with racial themes or videos with profanity were presented. But those were in the minority.

“During this audit, educators repeatedly reported that they are professionals who can be trusted to do what is best for students,” the auditors wrote. “We concur with teachers’ stated opinion that they are professionals who are dedicated to their students.”

The goal is not to “teacher proof” the classroom and limit freedom or autonomy of educators, the audit said. The idea is to create a formal process for developing curriculum that could help teachers feel confident in what they’re teaching and parents more comfortable with what their children are learning.

The audit presented examples from nearby states that have done that.

In Arizona, the state code requires local school boards to approve courses of study and textbooks. In Idaho, there is an appointed committee that selects curriculum for use in classrooms across the state. And in Wyoming, district superintendents are tasked with setting curriculum and approving materials.

The audit recommends that the Legislature consider establishing a formal process for making curriculum, across districts. That could still maintain local control, such as requiring all school boards to have a policy for approving curriculum and materials, for example.

The audit also recommends having each district set up a hotline where parents could call with concerns and having a process to respond to those, too. Currently, the Utah State Board of Education has a statewide hotline, and complaints are forwarded to each district. But there’s no mechanism to check if those have been addressed or not.

The audit said only one district website appeared to have a hotline for curriculum complaints that was easy to find.

Having both a set process for approving curriculum and a process for reviewing concerns will allow districts to be both proactive and reactive, according to the audit.

And auditors encouraged state lawmakers to formalize some kind of training for teachers on neutrality in the classroom, as well as training on how to handle emerging social issues.

Reactions from state leaders

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said Monday that she supports the recommendations and would like to see a more formal curriculum process in Utah — while still maintaining local control.

Having local districts choose their materials helps them match content to the students based on their needs, she told lawmakers during the hearing. The state board of education, Dickson said, has a process for reviewing materials and could help school districts set up something similar.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Superintendent Sydnee Dickson at a news conference on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.

Dickson also said she was glad to see the confirmation that critical race theory is not being widely taught in Utah. But she said the concerns have still weighed on teachers.

“Teachers are in a place where they don’t know what they can or cannot say. And we have a responsibility to help them with that,” she added.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said there is “heightened awareness with parents right now” with curriculum. And he wants to see the state do more to “rein in bad content.”

Senate President Adams said he liked the idea of the proactive and reactive measures. Local control is important, he said, “but it’s really important we get it right.”

“There’s nothing more sensitive to a parent’s life than their kids,” Adams said. “And the curriculum that their kids are being taught is very important to them. There needs to be good processes for approving that.”

Adams said he was particularly concerned by the example of Pioneer Day that came up in the teacher training, where educators were told it was about white supremacy. The auditors said that was prior to the critical race theory bill passed last year, and they believe that training has since been amended.

The interim audit committee that reviewed the report has passed it on to the education committee to study further for possible bill proposals in the future, based on the recommendations.