Opinion

What are teachers teaching? We have no idea

N.C. teachers protest at the May 2018 Red for Ed demonstrations in Raleigh. (CJ file photo)
N.C. teachers protest at the May 2018 Red for Ed demonstrations in Raleigh. (CJ file photo)

One of the most peculiar aspects of education in North Carolina is that we know the number of wireless access points per classroom but know very little about whats taught inside of it. 

North Carolinians assume that instruction is uniform across public school classrooms, schools, and districts. But the truth is that the state does not have a standardized curriculum. The lack of standardization produces mind-boggling variation in instructional methods, tasks assigned to students and tests used to determine their progress. 

All classroom instruction starts at the same place: state-mandated content standards.  Standards delineate broad learning goals and include general outlines of topics and themes teachers are expected to cover during the school year. In the  words  of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, standards define what students are expected to know and be able to do by the end of each grade. 

Educators and curriculum experts develop content standards for arts education, career and technical education, English as a second language, guidance, healthful living, information and technology skills, science, social studies, and world languages. These standards are updated periodically and are subject to approval by the State Board of Education. Typically, the revision and approval process take around one year to complete and occurs with little fanfare. Conversely, the new social studies standards approved by the board at its February meeting consumed nearly two years of work and attracted substantial media attention. Over the coming months, DPI staff will develop supplementary resources to help teachers navigate the approved social studies standards. 

Because standards are designed to be a starting point, DPI resources do not include curricular materials, such as worksheets, projects, classroom activities, quizzes, or unit tests. For better or worse, the state grants schools and teachers an extraordinary amount of autonomy regarding curriculum matters. There are risks and rewards to this arrangement. On the one hand, it allows educators to blend knowledge and creativity to tailor standards-aligned lessons to their students’ unique needs. On the other hand, it permits inexperienced and incompetent educators to fill students’ time with ill-conceived busywork pulled from the bowels of the interwebs. At its worst, teachers exploit this flexibility to push an ideological or political agenda on their impressionable pupils. 

In De-Escalating the Curriculum Wars: A Proposal for Academic Transparency in K-12 Education, Matt Beienburg, director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, argues the proliferation of politically infused content has indisputably risen to the forefront of education in some cases even eclipsing the emphasis placed on academic achievement.This includes utilizing the discredited New York Times 1619 Project, the use of materials from the radical Zinn Education Project, and the adoption of lesson plans from social justice websites like Learning for Justice. There is no shortage of left-wing education organizations ready to supply teachers with the means to carry out woke indoctrination with impunity. 

One proposal for balancing teacher autonomy and taxpayer accountability is an academic transparency requirement. Model legislation developed by Beienburg would impose two requirements on public schools. First, each school would be obligated to list on a publicly accessible portion of its website by July 1 all learning materials and activities that were used for student instruction at the school during the prior year, organized at a minimum by subject area and grade.Second, all schools would post any procedures for the documentation, review, or approval of the learning materials used for student instruction at the school, including by the principal, curriculum administrators, or other teachers.These two components may not block all nonsense from entering the classroom, but it would make teachers think twice about what they teach. 

Academic transparency legislation would complement efforts by North Carolina lawmakers’ address deficiencies in the public-school curriculum. In 2011, the General Assembly approved the Founding Principles Act, mandating that high school students receive instruction about the fundamental principles of American government and civic life. Health education, character education, and financial literacy are other content requirements outlined in statutes. The requirement to teach multiplication tables and cursive writing are two notable curriculum mandates passed into law. 

North Carolina public schools are a $14-plus billion industry, yet taxpayers have little information about what happens inside the classroom. An academic transparency requirement is an indispensable way to protect that investment.

Dr. Terry Stoops is director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

This piece originally appeared in the March print issue of Carolina Journal.