Yes, American education has a transparency problem

Robert Pondisco:

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.