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How To Reduce Politicization in U.S. Schools
It’s time to take teachers at their word on politics and curriculum transparency
By Matt Beienburg
It generally pays to listen, even—or especially—to your opponents. So when it comes to the battles raging over critical race theory (CRT), gender identity and other flash points of our public schools’ K-12 curricula, parents and the public ought to simply take a moment and hear for themselves what’s being said. Doing so uncovers two important facts: First, too many public school educators are crystal clear about their intentions to politicize the classroom. Second, proposals for curriculum transparency directly threaten schools’ ability to continue pushing a political agenda and are straightforward to implement.
Politicization of the American Classroom
Left-wing educators and their supporters in the media have relentlessly tried to convince Americans that CRT is nowhere to be found in K-12 education, yet there is substantial evidence that the educational establishment both knows about and actively promotes a CRT-aligned agenda in schools. In March, Accuracy in Media (AIM) released a series of recorded conversations with public school administrators in Idaho and Tennessee who boasted, for instance, of their ability to “worm around” new state laws prohibiting instruction in CRT. In tapes subsequently released from Iowa, AIM likewise captured Hawkeye State administrators’ candid responses:
“Can you teach about systemic oppression and stuff like that and social justice?”
“Yes, we can. We’ve been careful around the wording. . . . We’ve had to move away from like ‘supremacy,’ things like that or anything that says ‘white’ anything in it. But we still use the word ‘oppression.’”
“So we just relabel it and we can still do it?”
“Yeah, that’s the game.”
Unfortunately, a similar game has played out elsewhere around the country. When responding to parents’ objections to a “cultural identity unit,” for instance, public school staff in Missouri advised teachers in April 2021 to “just pull the resource off Canvas so parents cannot see it.” Similar instances of public school staffers actively seeking to conceal the nature of their school’s instruction have played out in states around the country.
But perhaps far more striking than the words spoken behind closed doors are the pronouncements K-12 educators have made publicly.
In June 2021, in the wake of several states passing so-called CRT bans, more than 4,000 teachers across the country publicly signed the Zinn Education Project pledge to keep teaching students “the truth about this country,” including that it was founded on “structural racism and oppression” and that “structural racism is a defining characteristic of our society today.” As the teachers made unambiguously clear, “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events—regardless of the law.”
Teaching kids truthful history is, of course, precisely what these and all teachers should do. But unfortunately, to the activist left, “honest” education—in the words of the nation’s largest teachers’ union—includes critical race theory.
And now, after nearly two years of continued media denials of CRT’s presence in K-12, educators are themselves increasingly giving up their claim that it is nowhere to be found in schools—instead actively defending its necessity in K-12. As UCLA’s Dr. LaToya Baldwin Clark declared in April of her invitation to contribute to the Yale Law Journal: “I write in defense of indoctrination: anti-racist indoctrination. Accordingly, the response to ‘indoctrination’ is not to insist that CRT is not in schools. Instead, CRT is needed in schools to resist the formal colorblindness inherent in the anti-CRT movement.”
Yet even beyond the extraordinary reach of CRT that has been documented in K-12, teachers around the country have also openly declared their intent to politicize the classroom more broadly. Writing in the national journal Education Week in 2020, for instance, teachers declared, “Keeping politics out of the classroom is like keeping the water out of rain. . . . We must take up controversial issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, or inherently political topics such as gun control or climate change.”
In the same publication, a pair of professors from Rutgers and Stanford Universities proposed three guiding principles for the “reconstruction of civic education” in America’s K-12 system: “1. Facts and patriotism are not the answer. . . . 2. It’s long past time to confront white supremacy. . . . 3. Every teacher is a civics teacher.”
In other words, America’s K-12 teachers are now themselves taught by people who call on them to dispense with facts, encouraging students to instead reflect on their “lived experiences”—and to infuse politics into every school.
Curriculum Transparency Is a Potential Solution
One need not look far to find public school teachers themselves calling for—or blowing the whistle on—the infusion of politics into our kids’ K-12 classrooms. At the same time, as discussed above, even aggressive actions to “ban” the likes of CRT are ultimately a partial, whack-a-mole solution at best—one that the education establishment has already demonstrated a willingness and ability to evade or defy.
Indeed, over the past year, nearly a dozen states have passed through at least one legislative chamber versions of the Academic Transparency Act, which would require public schools to post on a publicly accessible portion of their website a listing of the learning materials used for student instruction. Pioneered by the Goldwater Institute—where I work—and championed by parent and policy advocates around the nation, this approach would preserve public schools’ autonomy to set their own curriculum and pedagogy, while bringing accountability—via transparency—to the instruction taking place there.
In essence, rather than springing on families politicized content like The New York Times’ 1619 Project—which is typically omitted, even when used in class, from schools’ officially published curricula—schools would be required to take responsibility for their selection of materials by publicly disclosing it up front. (Technically, under the academic transparency approach, schools are required to report materials only after their use—allowing teachers to flexibly supplement their lesson plans throughout the year—but the list of materials used in one year provides the single best predictor of what parents can expect their students to encounter at the same school the following year.)
That means schools assigning “White Fragility,” “How To Be an Anti-Racist” or the “Gender Unicorn” will have to disclose that to parents before those families decide to enroll their children at the school. For the first time, parents will be able to evaluate nearby schools based on the actual appropriateness and caliber of resources used—not simply left to guess based on the schools’ glossy curriculum guides or state standards typically posted online. Such guides reveal little more than broad outlines of the topics to be discussed, saying little about the actual materials used to present those topics.
Teachers around the nation, from North Carolina to California to Arizona, have already endorsed this approach, noting that it would not only help parents engage in their children’s education, but would also help teachers themselves. They could see what other effective veteran educators are using in their classrooms and save part of the four hours each week they spend (on average) scouring the internet for resources.
Indeed, as one such North Carolina educator testified to lawmakers, “As a former Wake County teacher, 20 years ago I provided all of this information. I turned in my lesson plans to my principal. Doing it electronically now would be so much simpler than what I was expected to do. . . . This is a great collaborative effort for teachers and educators to find other resources that are effectively being used across the state and posting those and making them available for their colleagues. . . . So all of this is stuff that I had to do as a teacher that now as a parent I would greatly appreciate.”
Unsurprisingly, despite such testimony from teachers in favor of the proposed legislation, teachers’ unions and other activist organizations, such as the ACLU, have aggressively targeted the proposal, mobilizing members to oppose it as “teacher abuse” that would “chill” conversations around race and gender.
Yet even educators who have opposed transparency policies admit that they are easy to implement. When questioned by lawmakers about his testimony against South Dakota’s proposed transparency measure, for instance, one superintendent admitted in spring 2022 that his own district had already adopted an almost identical approach to ensure curriculum accountability: “We as a district decided that the teachers were going to put their lesson plans online so they’re available to the parents. We do that already.”
And in Kansas, despite testifying against their academic transparency legislation because it was “unnecessarily punitive to teachers,” one former teacher of the year acknowledged: “We also have the ability to push out lesson plans on interactive websites such as Google Classroom. . . . My parents can see everything that I am teaching for the entire week, Monday through Friday, with all of the links that I use. . . . We attach every link that we have. . . . We’ve attached all of the video links.”
How, one might wonder, can academic transparency be widely and freely practiced already—yet crushingly impossible to implement if enacted by state legislatures? Perhaps it is possible by the same logic that holds that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools anywhere in America, but that it’s also imperative that state legislatures not stop teachers from teaching it. Instead of accepting this nonsensical logic, parents and lawmakers should listen to the actual words of teachers and activists. These words reveal the all too frequently political aims of K-12 educators, as well as the importance and opportunity of establishing curriculum transparency.