Restoring Trust in Public Schools

Robert Pondiscio & Tracey Schirra

Current Issue

Since the founding, Americans have viewed a system of public education as a means of forming children into loyal citizens. Benjamin Rush, one of our first great theorists on the matter, observed that the time to develop the "strongest prejudices in favor of our country" is during the first 21 years of life. A "general and uniform system of education," he declared in 1786, "will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government."

Today, few would defend this understanding of public education — even among those who perceive themselves as champions of public schools. The goal of creating a "homogeneous" people no longer sits well as a practicable or desirable end. This is our failure, not that of the founders — they warned us of the threat that factions posed to the infant republic. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., noted in The Making of Americans, an "anxious theme runs through the writings of all our earliest thinkers about American education," including those of Rush, Noah Webster, and even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These men saw common schools as "the central and main hope for the preservation of democratic ideals and the endurance of the nation as a republic."

But in today's public schools, the domestic antagonisms that the founders feared are surfacing on a daily basis. Ideologues of every stripe seek to control and direct the signals children receive about their country and their place in it. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that their efforts represent calculated attempts to advance a range of political aims — to increase demand for school choice, for example, or to delegitimize schooling by characterizing it as yet another structurally racist institution in need of either radical reform or complete dismantling. As schools have become the latest battleground in our never-ending culture war, clear thinking about their role in society has suffered.

It would be naïve to suggest that our public schools can single-handedly forge consensus on difficult questions of values, including what we want members of the next generation to think about our country. But Americans have been broadly disinclined to ask schools to make the effort at all; instead, we've stood by mutely as American public education has drifted toward an oppositional relationship with its founding purpose of forming citizens, facilitating social cohesion, and transmitting our culture from one generation to the next.

In recent months, a significant majority of states has considered or adopted measures aimed at more closely monitoring or controlling the content of public education. Such measures need no defense; states are well within their constitutional authority to establish and monitor the content of instruction offered in their public schools. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the push for curriculum control and transparency has been conceived mostly in frustration — a "gotcha" mechanism to catch teachers and schools straying beyond their remit. This movement assumes that schools and teachers are not to be trusted, and that increased vigilance will validate this dim view.

Some advocates of curriculum control and transparency measures also willingly admit that they hope their efforts will increase calls for school choice, long favored by conservatives as an essential policy lever to improve K-12 education outcomes. School-choice proponents have every reason to shine a harsh spotlight on public schools' failures: When schools are forced to compete for students — whether their competition takes the form of charter schools or funding mechanisms like vouchers and education savings accounts — they have more incentives to hire the most qualified teachers, adopt a high-quality curriculum, embrace the highest possible standards, and strive for the best outcomes. A rise in disenchantment with local schools can only increase the demand for alternatives.

Yet this approach is short-sighted for several reasons. For starters, even under the most optimistic of scenarios, a majority of American children will never be enrolled in schools of choice in the foreseeable future. Sending children to a local public school is a cultural habit that has persisted for generations. Choice advocates tend to underestimate how difficult it is to break that habit, particularly in communities that lack the population base to support robust alternatives. The disruption to family routines and schedules is also a significant hurdle for schools of choice, especially in suburban and rural locations where families rely on district schools to provide transportation.

More fundamentally, conservatives would be unwise to disengage from debates about the quality and content of public-school curricula — to take no further interest in the subject matter and school culture offered to a large majority of America's children. As former education secretary William Bennett recently observed, "[t]he lack of conservative consensus on content has real and negative consequences....[T]he vacuum cedes the field to the other side, who knows very well what it intends to do."

The movement to more closely control education content and increase curriculum transparency springs from a laudable impulse — indeed, in many ways it is a necessary response to the crisis of trust in public education. And we shouldn't let off the hook schools, teachers, and others who would bend public education to serve their ideological goals. But in their zeal, advocates of these measures threaten to further erode trust in our public schools. They would be better served by focusing their efforts not on condemning or undermining American public education, but on finding ways to restore confidence in it.

A CRISIS OF TRUST

Public education runs on trust. For many of our children, a school is the first institution they enter and learn to navigate without a parent present. As early as age three or four, we send our kids off to school not just to receive an education, but to enable them to participate in an act of civic acculturation, adapt and accommodate themselves to group norms of behavior, and begin the process of being formed into responsible citizens. Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof and his colleague Rachel Kranton observed that schools impart to children not only skills and knowledge, but an image of ideal students and their behaviors. The assumption — which, until recently, was seldom questioned — is that schools and the adults who staff them share with parents and society at large a broad set of values, beliefs, and habits that are consistently valorized in school routines, practices, and expectations.

None of this should be controversial: Parents would not knowingly send their children off alone for six to eight hours every day under the control or influence of people whose values or standards of behavior were anathema to their own. Nor could anyone reasonably expect them to do so.

For generations, these tacit assumptions allowed parents to maintain an arm's-length relationship with their children's teachers, indulging in a level of incuriosity about what their kids do all day in school. Like archaeologists sifting for clues from pottery shards, parents might catch glimpses of their child's classroom life by digging through their backpacks for notes, homework assignments, and books. They may attend parent-teacher conferences twice a year and engage in dinner-table conversations that begin with "how was school today?" and end with the child's monosyllabic "fine."

This arrangement may have left parents somewhat in the dark about daily classroom activities, but it tended not to trigger any great alarm. Polls have long shown that Americans generally hold public education in low regard but give high marks to the schools their own children attend. This is unsurprising: Education is an abstraction, while a school is a fixed, familiar institution filled with people we know and with whom we have routine contact and personal relationships.

Covid-19 challenged this understanding. It disrupted the stable if uneven relationship between American parents and public schools, where nearly 90% of us still send our children every day. For two years, public education in most parts of the country existed in a state of near-constant uncertainty, with school closures, remote instruction, and quarantine rules that sidelined students for weeks at a time at a moment's notice. The disruptions strained parents' patience, particularly where schools maintained strict adherence to masking rules and other features of pandemic life far longer than businesses, churches, and other institutions in the same communities.

Meanwhile, the switch to remote learning meant that lessons were broadcast daily to millions of kitchen tables across the country. While most parents appreciated the efforts made to keep students engaged and learning from home, this shotgun intimacy did not always reflect well on schools or teachers. And as weeks of remote learning stretched into months, cracks appeared in the foundation. Frustrated parents staged "Zoom blackouts" to protest school closures. School-board members sniffed that parents just wanted their free babysitters back.

The disruption to reliable routines worsened in the aftermath of George Floyd's May 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police, when disquieting questions about race, equality, and justice inserted themselves seemingly overnight into the heart of education thought and practice. To the traditional "three Rs" was added a fourth one — race — until it appeared in many schools and districts that race- and gender-based diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives had become the obsessive focus of teachers and administrators, almost to the exclusion of all else.

The determination to promote such causes is not a new feature of public education, however. Progressive reformers have a long history of seeing schools as venues — and children as vessels — for social projects of every era, from assimilating immigrants and pushing the temperance movement more than a century ago to promoting bilingualism and raising awareness of climate change more recently. In fact, by the time the American Educational Research Association published its comprehensive review of teacher education nearly 20 years ago, it was able to report that

[o]ver the last decade or so, conceptualizing teaching and teacher education in terms of social justice has been the central animating idea for education scholars and practitioners...who connect their work to larger critical movements....Advocates of a social justice agenda want teachers to be professional educators as well as activists committed to diminishing the inequities of American society.

This social-justice impulse is baked into education policy and practice. Concerns about the wide and persistent "achievement gap" in outcomes between white and black or Latino students have undergirded much federal education policy on testing and school accountability for more than two decades. They've also driven the flowering of reform initiatives, from the rise of charter schools to the advent of alternative teacher-certification programs like Teach For America. Most of these efforts sought to demonstrate that the fault lay not with minority children or their families, but with the quality of schools they attended.

Like the daily occurrences in classrooms, this social-justice agenda remained largely invisible to parents despite long being a background feature of public education. After Floyd's death and the resulting protests, however, it asserted itself more noticeably into K-12 public education. Teachers and schools across the country started committing themselves to "anti-racist" pedagogies and curricula, incorporating the views of activist groups like Black Lives Matter into their lessons, and promoting their ideas on social media. Increasing numbers of educators began teaching students that race is a social construct, that "whiteness" comes with inherent privileges, and that racism is not just the result of individual choices and attitudes, but an immutable feature of the American legal system, government policies, and societal structures.

This advocacy was not limited to individual teachers indulging their personal views: According to data compiled by the non-profit advocacy group Parents Defending Education, since the spring of 2020, public schools have spent more than $20 million on DEI programs. Even back in 2017, 79% of districts with more than 100,000 students employed a chief diversity officer or its equivalent to promote DEI within the district. In all likelihood, this percentage has only increased since then.

FROM BANS TO TRANSPARENCY LAWS

The cumulative effect of pandemic disruptions, unprecedented visibility of curriculum and pedagogy via Zoom learning, and the perception that schools have become platforms for ideological activism weakened the bonds between a significant subset of Americans and the local schools they reflexively trusted. A rift between how parents and other stakeholders conceived of public education's mission and the field's conception of itself was beginning to take shape.

Across the country, parents pushed back against the worst excesses of what came to be labeled, however imprecisely, "critical race theory" (CRT) in the classroom: unsubtle lessons requiring elementary-aged children to rank themselves and their classmates according to their privileges, activities like "privilege walks," racial "affinity groups," field trips and events exclusively for students and families of color, and the like. The backlash against CRT in the classroom quickly grew, driving recalls of school-board members and even influencing gubernatorial elections.

Politicians, particularly Republicans, have been eager to capitalize on parental discontent for electoral benefits. As of the spring of 2022, legislators in 42 states have introduced bills outlawing CRT or related concepts from being taught in their states. Fourteen such bills have been passed and signed into law or adopted through other avenues. Many take the form of CRT "bans," which typically prohibit things like "requir[ing] or mak[ing] part of a course" concepts suggesting that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," or that an "individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex." Others state that no educator or school "shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm" teachings that "any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior" to any others, or that "individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin."

Opponents of such laws have been quick to insist, not inaccurately, that no American student at a K-12 public school is studying CRT — a framework for legal analysis that Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and others advanced in the 1970s and '80s. But the point is academic: CRT has deeply influenced educational thought and practice for years. Even when teacher training and classroom practice is not overtly ideological, it is redolent with the ideas of thinkers like Gloria Ladson-Billings, whose work on "culturally relevant" teaching has been a staple of teacher training for 30 years, and Paolo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the most commonly assigned texts in elite colleges of education. Any American teacher who has taught or been trained in the past two decades has worked under a professional regime informed and, in some instances, driven by the ideals and imperatives of CRT.

Regardless of whether public education's energetic focus on DEI or race consciousness more broadly meets the academic definition of CRT, a clear dividing line has emerged between two groups: those who view social-justice imperatives as the principal object of public education, and parents uncomfortable with race, gender, or oppression studies dominating the curriculum and culture of their children's schools, or serving as a singular lens through which children are taught to view American history and society. As one parent put it, "whatever you call it, we don't want it."

Even with the successful passage of anti-CRT bills, some conservatives argue that more measures are required. The pandemic pried open the black box of America's classrooms, and these advocates insist it should stay open. Proposals range from installing cameras in the classroom to enacting curriculum-transparency laws that typically require teachers to post online curriculum plans, lesson plans, lesson materials, or all of the above. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a leading architect of the anti-CRT movement, has set a goal of at least 10 state legislatures passing curriculum-transparency bills this year. "The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — 'transparency' — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny. It's a rhetorically-advantageous position and, when enacted, will give parents a powerful check on bureaucratic power," Rufo tweeted.

In principle, transparency needs no apology, either as a matter of ethics or public policy. Teachers are government employees providing a public service at taxpayer expense. With the exception of privacy issues covered under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the work of school personnel is subject to the same standard of public scrutiny as that of law enforcement, public works, or any other government entity. Nor is it reasonable to insist that state guidelines governing classroom content have a "chilling effect" on teacher speech. As Eugene Volokh, a law professor who specializes in First Amendment issues, observes:

Someone's got to decide what is going to be taught in K-12 schools and how it's going to be taught. You can imagine having the teacher decide it, you can imagine having the principal decide it, you can imagine having the local school board decide it, you can imagine having the legislature decide it. But the First Amendment doesn't tell us who makes that decision. And if the legislature wants to say, "Look, we hire teachers to teach our students and to teach our students the way we want those students taught," there's no First Amendment problem with it.

There are significant limitations, however, to focusing solely on curriculum as a means of holding schools and teachers accountable.

THROUGH A DARK LENS

Curriculum transparency is a simple idea — even an obvious one. But if advocates think the curriculum adopted by states or districts offers a clear lens into the student experience in a given school, the evidence suggests they are badly mistaken.

In many schools, there is no formal curriculum whatsoever — which renders transparency laws powerless. Even when district schools have formally adopted curricula, such materials may not drive day-to-day classroom instruction. In a 2019 survey, for instance, RAND found that only 16% of English/language arts teachers regularly use school- or district-created curricula in their classrooms, while 19% reported using curricula they created themselves. A 2016 report found that among elementary-school language-arts teachers, the most common source of teaching materials was Google (95%) followed by Pinterest (86%). The numbers were roughly the same for elementary-school math teachers (98% and 80%, respectively).

Teachers who use school- or district-provided materials may also modify their curricula throughout the year. Eighteen percent of the teachers RAND surveyed in 2019 reported regularly making significant modifications to the curriculum, with 94% of those teachers doing so "to better address students' learning needs on the basis of their test scores." Given that customizing lessons to account for a wide range of skill levels is generally thought of as an essential element of good teaching, this is not surprising. But it does frustrate the goals of transparency advocates.

Curriculum transparency is further complicated by efforts to improve student outcomes through the adoption of academic standards like the Common Core. Every state has standards that describe what children should know or be able to do at various stages of their education. In math, science, and social studies, these tend to describe subject-matter content. In English/language arts, standards tend to include skills that students must learn, practice, and master, such as the ability to identify a theme or analyze how complex characters evolve over the course of a text. These skill-based standards are silent on the works of literature children should read to develop or demonstrate those skills. Even the presence of classic texts on syllabi and reading lists can mask teaching plans that some might find objectionable: Shakespeare's Othello, for instance, can be taught either as a play about racism and misogyny, or as a racist and misogynist play.

What's more, students are not limited to learning from curricular materials. Elementary-school children often read a steady diet of self-selected books from classroom libraries, while older students have access to school libraries that might hold hundreds — even thousands — of books. Such student-directed learning poses an additional impediment to curriculum-transparency efforts, which can only feasibly account for what is taught directly in classrooms.

At root, published curricula are not a reliable or adequate lens into what happens on a given day in a typical American classroom. They tell us virtually nothing about classroom culture and conversation, and shed no light on a school or classroom's "hidden curriculum" — the signals students receive daily about the range of views that are deemed praiseworthy and rewarded as well as those that are condemned and punished. Such background features of school life are no less likely to be the object of legitimate parent and community concern: In a sample of 24 recent parent complaints on concerning practices occurring at schools around the country collected by Parents Defending Education, only five were related to the curriculum. The other 19 dealt with school culture, posters, displays, classroom conversations, teacher training, and other school-based activities and issues — all of which fall outside the traditional understanding of a curriculum.

MEANINGFUL TRANSPARENCY

As demonstrated above, much of contemporary classroom practice is ad hoc, improvisational, and left largely to the discretion of teachers — and thus far outside the purview of state legislators and even local school boards. It's not hard to see how this can play a part in diminishing faith in public education: The absence of a well-articulated curriculum taught with fidelity can contribute to the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there are no limiting principles in place — that teachers are free to close the classroom door and teach whatever and however they like.

Similarly, it's not hard to see how demands for enhanced transparency as now conceived will be ineffective. Such measures will likely fail to pierce the veil of actual classroom practice, becoming a meaningless compliance item that fritters away even more teacher time that might be spent working with students or building closer relationships with their families to enhance trust and strengthen outcomes.

Yet the fact that current efforts fail to shed sufficient light on the broad range of inputs shaping the student experience does not mean we should abandon the transparency impulse or create ever more intrusive and burdensome transparency schemes. Instead, parents, taxpayers, and other stakeholders should insist that public schools make their practices less hidden from public view and more easily captured by reasonable transparency measures. This is essential to rebuilding trust in public education.

A common refrain among those who oppose academic-transparency measures is the insistence that schools are already sufficiently clear and communicative about what they teach. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently observed that "[g]ood schools and good school districts have always had curriculum transparency — including extensive two-way communication between parents and educators on what we are teaching and how to support our kids." This is clearly an overstatement. In 2015 Morgan Polikoff, a researcher at the University of Southern California, reviewed public reports and filed more than 3,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to find out which textbooks were being used in five states — California, Illinois, Florida, New York, and Texas. "Knowledge of what is going on inside schools strikes me as the most basic function of the district office," he observed. "And yet I would estimate around 10% of the districts that have responded to my FOIA requests have said they have no documents listing the textbooks in use, and probably another 30-50% clearly [had] to invent such a document to satisfy my request."

This suggests the sticking point is not secrecy, but indifference: Districts appear to consider textbooks — a basic instructional tool — not important enough to track. Some suggest the growing popularity of online gradebooks and "parent portals" like Google Classroom, Jupiter, and Engrade meet transparency requirements. But these platforms tend to be used to post student grades and monitor student progress, not to display teaching materials.

Perhaps "curriculum" is simply too large and imprecise a category to provide meaningful transparency at schools. A better approach might be to get teachers and schools in the habit of making classroom-level lesson plans and assignments readily available to parents and the public.

This would require a change in teacher practice, as there is no widely accepted format or standard within the teaching profession for preparing lesson plans. Districts and schools vary in whether they expect teachers to create and make lesson plans available to supervisors on a daily or weekly basis, or even at all.

The absence of widely accepted common practices for lesson planning and classroom assignments should be of particular concern to those who are troubled by inequities in public schooling. A review of more than 1,500 literacy, science, and social-studies assignments collected by the Education Trust for a 2015 report found that fewer than four in 10 school tasks were aligned with any grade-appropriate state learning standard; in high-poverty schools, the rate of alignment to standards was considerably lower still.

This more granular, classroom-level standard of transparency could rise above the level of compliance and improve teacher practice. If the bar for visibility were set, not at the level of curriculum, but at the lesson-planning and assignments stages, it would contribute to more conscientious lesson planning, greater attention to standards and rigor in teacher training and professional development, and, over time, an increase in the likelihood of setting higher expectations in schools serving disadvantaged students.

MAKING SCHOOLS BETTER

We should be skeptical of claims that transparency efforts are unnecessary, redundant, or overly burdensome. At the same time, the focus on using transparency as a mechanism to catch teachers behaving badly or using materials that conflict with community tastes and values is misguided. Transparency should be employed not to point out public schools' systemic rot or justify their abandonment, but to improve their performance and rebuild Americans' trust in them.

A dose of humility is needed here, too. It is impossible to capture at a distance and to universal satisfaction everything that happens in a school that shapes the student experience. That our current debates have revealed the complexity of implementing transparency measures is not an argument against transparency per se; it is rather evidence of how badly transparency is needed to restore faith and confidence in an essential institution, improve academic outcomes for our children, and form members of future generations into responsible American citizens.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tracey Schirra is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.


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