Yes, American education has a transparency problem

On an episode of Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show a few months ago, conservative pundit Matt Walsh argued there should be cameras in every American classroom so parents can monitor what their kids are learning. “You’re sending them to a government building for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years,” he said. “What’s going on inside that building?” Carlson eagerly seconded the motion: “If there’s something happening in a public school that shouldn’t be on film, it shouldn’t be happening in the first place.”

More recently, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley introduced a Parents’ Bill of Rights Act that would, among other measures, give parents power to review curriculum materials, assemblies, and activities. “Education has taken a back seat to radical politics in many schools and parents are taking notice,” Hawley insisted. “It’s time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats, and empower them to start a new era of openness in education.”

Via Twenty20

When lightning-rod figures like Hawley and Tucker Carlson take up an issue, it will inevitably be dismissed as mere culture war divisiveness. That’s unfortunate, because regardless of who is sounding the alarm, American education has a transparency problem. We know surprisingly little about what kids do all day in the typical public school classroom.

Teachers don’t generally conceive of themselves as government employees, but they are. This alone suggests that transparency should be the default mode. At the same time, there’s a difference between a cop, a sanitation worker, and a teacher charged with the care and education of two dozen children whose privacy is protected under various state and federal laws. The politics are also complicated and unpredictable. The same people who demand body cameras on police officers might be horrified at the suggestion they be worn at all times by kindergarten teachers.

To a degree most people don’t fully appreciate, the American public school classroom is a bit of a black box. According to a RAND study, nearly every US teacher draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. Only one in four secondary-school social-studies teachers cited resources “provided by my school or district” as comprising the majority of what they use in class on a given day.

All this creation, customization, and tinkering is not evidence of teachers subversively undermining officially sanctioned curriculum. Often it is the curriculum. Teachers are expected to “differentiate instruction” to account for disparate skill levels or to make lessons more engaging. Often they are left to their own devices to choose texts to meet vaguely written “standards” that describe the literacy skills children should master but are silent on specific texts or content. A few years ago a researcher from the University of Southern California had to file Freedom of Information Act requests merely to find out what textbooks were in use in several states. The issue wasn’t secrecy but indifference: School districts were either not required to post the information publicly or didn’t think it important enough to report.

Most Americans are only now becoming aware of the degree to which race and “equity” concerns are central to education policy and practice, but it’s not a recent development. To receive my own masters degree in elementary education 20 years ago, I had to demonstrate my ability to “teach for social justice” and willingness work as “an agent of change.” This implies a significant degree of teacher discretion, which I exercised in my classroom. It was news to me some years later to learn the courts generally regard teachers as “hired speech” and that school boards — not teachers — have nearly unquestioned authority to set and enforce school curriculum. My question, then and still: what curriculum? There wasn’t one.

The vast gray area between classroom practice, school culture, court decisions, and teachers’ status as public employees has remained largely unexamined because Americans have historically expressed trust in teachers and in their kids’ schools. But that’s now straining under the weight of COVID-19 closures, mask mandates, and fights over critical race theory.

Parent advocacy groups are complaining when schools deliberately keep parents in the dark when their children select different gender identities at school. There have also been reported instances of teachers misleading parents about social justice-tinged lessons — precisely the kind of “gotcha” moments that send conservative parents rushing to the barricades and with good reason. But such episodes are not surprising given the long-standing dynamics at play in public education.

The transparency impulse is the right one, and long overdue. Just bear in mind that regardless of who is pushing for more openness in schools or why, decades of ingrained habit and classroom practice make it far harder than most people imagine to answer with confidence that age-old question: “What did you learn in school today?”

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