Jeremy C. Young and Sam LaFrance: Utah audit report targets schools and censors teachers

Report lays out a roadmap for conducting microscopic monitoring of Utah’s educators.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police keep a watchful eye as protesters swarm the Granite school board of education meeting 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.

As free expression advocates at PEN America, we’ve seen an avalanche of educational gag orders emerge across the country since 2021. Utah’s no exception: It’s one of 19 states that have restricted teachers’ ability to discuss subject matter related to issues of race, gender and sexual identity in the classroom.

But even compared to other efforts across the country, the Utah Legislative Auditor General’s recent report on K-12 curriculum stands out as especially alarming.

To monitor compliance with the state’s censorious policies against teaching so-called “divisive concepts,” Utah’s legislative leadership commissioned a sweeping audit of state curricular practices. Auditors conducted surveys and interviews with teachers and parents, reviewed reports from a state hotline and examined instructional materials from across the state.

The result? A report that lays out a roadmap for conducting microscopic monitoring of Utah’s educators. Utah isn’t the first state to issue guidance that makes an educational censorship policy worse; Florida just did so, too. But the Utah report breaks new ground with three key misunderstandings of how education works.

First, the audit criticizes snippets of content without the context in which they are presented. Auditors examined reading assignments in 44 courses that teachers placed online, in accordance with the recent national push for increased “curriculum transparency.” But this movement to require teachers to post publicly the minutiae of classroom instruction encourages critics to use out-of-context excerpts to unreasonably censor teachers. That appears to have happened in the Utah report, too.

For example, it criticizes a high school English course for being “heavily focused on racism … and marginalized minorities” – a reasonable focus that does not contradict Utah state standards. Another passage critiques a single sentence in an assigned book, without considering, as teachers and curriculum committees do, whether the book as a whole is appropriate or relevant.

Such findings mirror the worst offenses of groups such as Moms for Liberty that circulate individual images and paragraphs from award-winning books, as an excuse to ban materials without even reading them. It’s astonishing to see a similar tactic adopted by a state government agency.

Second, the report catastrophizes about the impact of “potentially questionable content” on students. One graphic outlines “four primary points” where such content can “enter the system,” as though books, discussion guides and teacher training programs were vectors for infectious diseases. Another image implies that exposure to “questionable content” poses a danger similar to falling off a cliff and being carted away in an ambulance.

Finally, the report reflects a troubling view of classroom instruction. The auditors lament that “it is not possible to monitor all that is discussed in the classroom.” The report sees classroom innovation, that teachers might occasionally go off-script to help a student learn, as “the greatest risk that controls cannot fully address.”

Audit Manager Leah Blevins admits that many teachers told the auditors, “I am afraid. I don’t know what I can and can’t say so I just don’t say anything.” This aligns with what we’ve seen in states and districts with similar policies.

Earlier this year, researchers showed that these policies’ chilling effect on teachers’ speech is magnified when school leaders do exactly what the auditors did: hunt through course materials for “potentially questionable content” to vilify in public, leaving teachers wondering whether their courses – or their jobs – will be next.

Yet Blevins audaciously insists that the report does the opposite: it actually “support[s] those teachers so they know what they can say.”

Does it? The report’s main purpose, it seems, is to suggest that the state usurp local control over the curriculum. One of us taught college in Utah for four years, and we know that Utah school districts don’t need the state Legislature telling them what to put in their curricula. Luckily, the state Department of Education and the state superintendents’ association agree.

Utahns can help teachers by reassuring them that their efforts to teach students relevant material will be defended against state government influence. Better still, they should repeal the Board of Education’s gag order policy that created this nonsense in the first place. And they should consign this report to the rubbish heap of “potentially questionable materials” threatening Utah schools.

Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America and a former college history teacher in Utah.

Samantha LaFrance

Sam LaFrance is the program coordinator of free expression and education at PEN America.