This week, the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee discussed options for increasing curriculum transparency for parents of public school students. With one Utah school district recently dropping its social and emotional learning curriculum after parents informed them of an age-inappropriate link included in it, the time is right for this discussion.
Parents deserve to know how their elected school district representatives are choosing public school curriculum and what materials teachers will use to instruct their child.
Teachers deserve the freedom to adapt curriculum to their class’s needs and to focus on teaching rather than administrative burdens. Parents, teachers and children deserve a learning experience that is a partnership between all three parties.
Full-scope curriculum transparency – in curriculum selection, approved curriculum materials and instructional content – will help support such a learning experience. It will prevent some of the most extreme examples of politicization of public school instruction, as transparency for parents will discourage activism in the classroom. It will also make Utah the national leader in openness and transparency in taxpayer-funded public schools.
Curriculum transparency ought to begin with local elected school boards. The school districts these boards oversee are charged with selecting curriculum for district public schools. Of course, local school board meetings, where curriculum decisions are finalized, are already open public meetings. But Utah can do better.
The process for determining sex education curriculum is the model for such transparency. Every school district is legally required to have a “curriculum materials review committee” that has “at least as many parents as school employees” and which reviews and recommends curriculum materials in sex education. Building on that successful model, districts should be required to seek curriculum recommendations from parent-heavy curriculum review committees in subjects like math, language arts, science and social studies.
Utah already has a good start with transparency in curriculum material and instructional content. Utah lawmakers enacted a law this year requiring that local school boards make curriculum “readily accessible and available for a parent to view” on an annual basis. Boards are also required to notify parents in the district how to access curriculum, and to post those instructions on the district website.
There is much more Utah can and should do. The example already exists in a now routine form of curriculum transparency in higher education: a class syllabus. Just as every college course proactively gives students an outline of topics that will be discussed and the instructional resources that will be used, our K-12 public schools should proactively inform students and parents of the topics and resources they will encounter in a given school year.
Consider the benefits of a syllabus approach to classroom instruction. Some subjects, such as math, may be relatively straightforward because pedagogy, text and source materials are more consistent. In other subject like civics and history (i.e., social studies) more upfront work will be necessary because the standards are sometimes vague.
Syllabus-level transparency does not have to burden teachers. Much of the work, like listing topics covered in a subject and disclosing district curriculum resources, can and should be done by school districts. Teachers can then add to the syllabus additional classroom resources they choose as part of their regular creation and use of lesson plans. In some states, curriculum transparency has been used to lessen burdens on teachers in areas like lesson planning. Utah can and should do the same.
Rather than viewing curriculum transparency as a burden or limitation on teachers, we can creatively implement it in ways that lighten teachers’ load. We can enact curriculum transparency in sufficient scope to reassure parents that schools are being open about what they are teaching their kids.
Most importantly, we can recognize curriculum transparency as a necessary practice in preserving the trust and partnership among districts, teachers and parents that is required to prepare future generations for citizenship, leadership, prosperity and happiness.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute, a conservative Utah think tank that focuses on civics education reform in Utah’s public schools.