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Sunday, March 06, 2022

On Simplicity, Transparency, and Educational Trust in Topeka

[A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Wichita Eagle here.]

There are several different ways to talk about the "Parent's Bill of Rights and Academic Transparency Act" being debated in the Kansas legislature. One obvious way is to look at the role of ALEC and conservative and Republican-leaning groups and activists in flooding state legislatures across the country with bills challenging what their advocates see as the unpatriotic curriculum often taught in public schools (usually associated with the "Critical Race Theory" bogeyman), employing the same claims which helped elect Greg Youngkin to the governorship in Virginia. But that perspective, though obviously correct, focuses only on the ideological and partisan actors at work in the promotion of this legislation. However polarized American voters have become, I also suspect that bills like this can ultimately only enjoy whatever popular success they do because they also appeal in part to a frustration and confusion, and certain kind of a longing for simplicity and trust, which is all but universal--because it seems to so often compromised-- in our modern lives. So as politically naive as it may be, I want to set aside the dark money accusations for the moment, and focus on that appeal.

That the ordinary lives lived by you and I and anyone else who may read this in the United States today--as in almost every other industrialized and post-industrialized economy--are regularly shaped by all sorts of complicated corporate, governmental, and bureaucratic systems is hardly a new insight (paging Rousseau, Weber, Berry, or my own pretentious writings about "simplicity" from the early days of this blog, more than a decade and a half ago). Almost no one like this, and almost everyone complains about it, but relatively few people--maybe entirely home-schooling parents, maybe off-the-grid Amish farmers, etc.--are both willing or able to reject the many goods (in terms of time, convenience, and specialized services, many of which are life-saving, but may others of which are, I'd like to believe most people would admit, merely distracting fun) which these complex, usually out-sourced systems provide. In the midst of this complexity and tension, how to hold onto the ideal of ordinary citizens being able to access the information to truly governing themselves? For some, like this bill's authors--or, probably more accurately, the audience for whom the ideologically disposed authors of this bill intended it--the answer is “transparency.”

That “transparency” is a key component of modern democracy is undeniable. If the decision-making of those whom we elect stays invisible, it invites corruption and poisons our civic health. But like “democracy” itself, the concept of “transparency” can sometimes become a totem, a term used to advance a cause rather than a standard to assess what is actually taking place. And that is, unfortunately, what I think has happened with this proposed educational reform. When a couple of Kansas legislators recently defended the bill, they only passingly mentioned the “unhealthy ideas” and “harmful ideologies” which they believed could find their way into the public schools. Instead, they focused upon how parents “have a right to know what their children are being taught,” claiming that the bill simply aims to guarantee “easy access to curricular materials that already should be available today,” and concluded by writing that there are no enemies in transparency. And on a certain level, they’re completely correct. 

Who, after all, likes to be kept in the dark, however unintentionally, by the specialized bureaucracies were are obliged to negotiate? When these two Republican legislators--both of whom, for whatever it's worth, are mothers and former educators themselves--point out that for “busy parents” the process of finding out just what exactly is happening in their children’s classrooms may be “unclear, unfamiliar, and tedious,” I would imagine that anyone who has ever had to negotiate the complex systems around us (think about trying to find a human being to talk to when calling to file an insurance claim or fix a problem your wireless plan) can relate.

But all the same, I wonder about their perspective on their former careers. The great majority of public school teachers I have known regularly bend over backwards to involve parents in their curriculum, and to help them through the process of understanding that curriculum, with frequent parent-teacher conferences, open houses, book fairs, and so much more. The history of our four daughters moving through Kansas's public schools haven't been conflict-free by any means (I can remember one rather tense meeting when we and several other parents confronted the principal of Wilbur Middle School over a division action a teacher had taken), but overwhelmingly, when have sacrificed sufficient time so to become fully familiar with and thus committed to the specialized work being done by the neighborhood schools our daughters have attended, the results have been pretty wonderful, and as close to collective, slowly built, long-term educational experience with pursuing the public good as I've ever known.

Weigh that reality--which I am sure I am not alone in having experienced--against what is actually in the proposed bill. It woulds require school districts to set up “transparency portals” to give parents online access to “each test, questionnaire, survey, or examination,” as well as explanations of the rationale behind each assignment and accounts of how any of the data collected from any of those assignments will be used in the evaluating the student, plus links to all the library materials used in any of the aforementioned assignments, and much more. In light of all that, it’s not unreasonable that many here in Kansas see bills like this as using the cry of “transparency” to express, instead, a simple distrust in educators themselves.

The bill won’t pass right now, thanks to strong Democratic opposition and dissents from some Republicans concerned about the intrusive governmental mandates it involves. But whether it dies, or sneaks through as part of an appropriations bill, or comes back again next year, the problem inherent to employing a valuable concept like transparency to justify creating more work and reporting for teachers whom parents should be talking to regularly anyway will remain. 

Outside of a complete embrace of home schooling, the classic small-r republican ideal of parents and teachers working together in local schools for the “the common good of the child”—as these legislators put it—will probably always face at least a little difficulty, since their roles and responsibilities of parents and teachers are different. Public schooling in America has always involved a balance between providing a private service to parents--providing their children with the skills and knowledge that will presumably benefit them in their adult lives--and a public good to society at large--introducing to minors civic concepts and a degree of cultural literacy which is judged to be appropriate to the responsibilities of adult democratic citizenship. That balancing act, in practice, will likely disappoint and frustrate as often as it succeeds; that’s what life in a complex, specialized society unavoidably brings us. Technological transparency may smooth over some of these frustrations, but considering its costs, maybe resisting the temptation to demand that the internet to be used to survey everything happening in one's children's classrooms at all times, and instead making the time to respectfully talk and listen, thereby showing trust in each others’ areas of concern and expertise, would surely be the better path.

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