Thursday, September 30, 2021

How Do We Achieve Effective Classroom Transparency

A Pennsylvania rep just offered up yet another proposal to reveal the inner workings of school classrooms by requiring schools to post textbook lists, curriculum, and lesson plans. It's another one of those endlessly repeating cycles of education, currently being goosed along by the anti-indoctrination crowd.

Because the initiative is coming from a whole host of bad faith actors who are simply looking for ways to intimidate teachers and strip mine school content for any "proof" that schools are teaching something from the ever-lengthening laundry list of complaints that started with That Race Stuff and now includes mentions of sea horse sex--anyway, because that's the crowd pushing this, there's a knee jerk reaction among educators to resist it.

But here's the thing--the desire of parents and taxpayers to know how their children are being taught and their money being spent is a perfectly legitimate desire (that's why it is so effective for the anti-public school crowd to harness it). There have always been, and will always be, some folks who are asking these questions in good faith. Taxpayers fork over perfectly good money for this, and for parents, school is the first significant part of a child's life where the parent must give up control, which is a scary thing. 

It is not enough to say, "Just trust us, and no, you can't see within the black box." Parents and taxpayers are entitled to see.

The challenge has always been how to see effectively and without derailing the process. The Big Standardized Test is a great example of ineffective accountability-- it interferes and warps the thing it's trying to show us, and doesn't even provide a good look at what we're trying to see.

So how do we do it?

Live video?

Some folks want to strap body cams on teachers or live video feeds in the room. I've heard from plenty of teachers who say, "Sure. Let them see how their kid actually behaves in class," and there is a certain appeal to teachers in having a video record to contradict student claims about how the teacher did something mean to them. 

In my teaching days, I would have been perfectly happy to have parents come sit in my classroom, but I'm not sure that would have been fair to the students. The live camera feed idea is a non-starter simply because it is a huge violation of the rights of the other students in the classroom, particularly because to provide any transparency for parents, the video would have to be stored somewhere so they could watch at their convenience (I'm not seeing anybody getting an hour off from work so they can watch their child's fifth period math class). I am not in any hurry to advance the surveillance state, and any such video system would immediately draw the attention of a hundred "We'll monitor student behavior to spot potential problems and academic issues"--oh, wait-- those companies are already at work.

Post it all on the internet?

The more popular plan is some version of the PA bill-- get everything posted on line. The challenge here is the definition of "everything."

Too little, and there isn't any real information for parents and taxpayers. If schools just post textbook lists, that doesn't tell you what is actually in the book or which parts the teacher actually uses. Too much, and you push teachers into a Dilbertized universe where they have trouble getting their actual work done because they're so busy creating reports about their work. Too much also buries parents and taxpayers under a mountain of paperwork that takes forever to sort through. 

There are practical limits as well. If the law demands that I post in August the exact text of the worksheet I'll be using in May, well, I simply can't do it. I could never have posted a year's worth of lesson plans at the beginning of the year, and any teacher who does is either lying to you or is not a particularly awesome teacher. Nor do most teachers' lesson plans look like something other folks can read, but are often in shorthand and language that makes sense mostly to them; a lesson plan posting requirement will also come with a lesson plan rewriting-into-plain-English requirement (except for passive aggressive teachers who simply post plans that civilians won't understand).

It makes far more sense to post materials week by week, as the year develops. Many schools already do some version of this with Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Blackboard or Google Classrooms, internet platforms that are used by teachers to communicate with students, but which can be easily opened up to parent access as well. That rollout of material will be far more accurate than an entire early report, and as a bonus, rolling it out in real time means that parents wouldn't need to devote an entire week just to reading through it all. As a bonus for this approach, a lot of teachers just spent some pandemic pause time becoming more proficient at using these kinds of platforms. If school districts wanted to open these platforms up to read-only access for taxpayers, they could do so.

The system will be effective and information-heavy to the degree that it doesn't require a buttload of extra work. Not a month goes by in which teachers are not required to add some new duty prompting them to reply (aloud or silently) "And when am I supposed to do that? What other thing should I stop doing to make time for it." I point this out not to say "Wah, poor teachers" but because the teaching day is a zero sum game that was maxed out decades ago, and if you want something done well, you have to provide people the time to do it. Given the choice between grading papers, prepping lessons, or preparing a report that most parents and taxpayers are never going to look at, teachers are unlikely to drop everything and devote time to getting their lesson plans posted.

There's always talking

There is also an option of actually talking--to teachers, to students, to administrators. E-mail, phones. It can be done.

There will be hard parts

There are people out there who are trying to make political hay out of the threat of Evil Teacher Indoctrinators, and we have already seen multiple tales of them finding indoctrination where none exists. Their intent in demanding teacher scope and sequence and lesson plans and text are clear--they are going searching for indoctrination, and they are going to find it. They will be far louder than the people who dip into the stuff and find it, well, mostly boring. 

There are also people who just don't trust public schools, and no amount of transparency will change that. 

Schools need to be transparent anyway. I worked for some administrators during my career whose reaction to every possible problem was to try to hide from it and build walls. That trick is not only wrong, but it never, ever works.

Will school districts be called upon to justify the presence of some materials in their curriculum? Maybe--but they should be able to do that. Even if the accusers stop listening after they make their accusation, there's a wider audience than that small mob. 

Do it anyway.

School districts need to adopt workable transparency both because it's the right thing to do and because it's the only way to deal with the current manufactured panic. 

There is a cycle of distrust, particularly in high schools, in districts where teachers rarely hear from parents except when they want to complain about something and parents rarely hear from teachers except when their child is in trouble. It's a hard cycle to break, and an easy cycle to exploit. Regular communication helps. Transparency helps. 

The goal of some of these folks is to break things, to make the gears grind to a halt, to keep public schools from working, and in some states and communities, I don't know if anything will stem the tide in the short term. But as long as these folks can point at the school walls and claim that something mysterious and sinister is going on in there, they have an advantage.

Public schools absolutely have to be defended right now, vigorously and vocally. Opponents are doing a good job of shouting down and intimidating other voices. Defenders and school district leaders have to stand up, and it's hard to use secrecy and opacity as tools for defense. 

So open the doors, tear down the walls, and let parents and taxpayers see just how work-a-day, unexciting, and ordinary the inside of a school is. Give them a good look at the sneaky indoctrination of participial phrases and the periodic table. Let them see the ordinary awesome process of student learning. And if some must squawk, let all the public see the diversity and sexy sea horses that they are squawking about. 

In the meantime, may legislatures please not pass one-size-fits-all laws that create busywork for schools without providing real information for parents and taxpayers who actually want it. 


  1. I already DO do it anyway. I have a class website that I update daily with the class notes and assignments. It's publicly accessible (though references to assignments mention Google Classroom, which requires being logged in) so I'm careful to avoid using any confidential or even potentially confidential information. It's great because it's primarily a resource for students, but it also helps parents, and to be honest? It helps ME! What day did I first go over static and dynamic characters? Uhhh... open up the class website and ctrl-F!

    However, I definitely take issue with "unexciting" and "ordinary" for my classes. :P

  2. NH just passed one of those "divisive content" bills... Here's an op ed I wrote for our local paper on how this will play out... and no amount of "transparency" will help...