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Audit suggests that Utah ponder a statewide standard for choosing what schools teach

Photo of an empty classroom

A new audit from Utah’s Office of the Legislative Auditor General recommends state legislators consider whether there should be a more uniform process for how school districts select their curriculum. The audit was presented to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Oct. 17.

Part of the audit examined how “potentially questionable content” is entering the classroom. One example cited was a high school English class that was “heavily focused on racism, cultural erasure, and marginalized minorities, among other topics.”

The report concluded that the state’s core standards, which are developed by the Utah State Board of Education, are not responsible for “potentially questionable content” or content that parents might find concerning. It also noted the core standards don’t prevent “potentially questionable content” from being taught.

“We found that the state standards are broad and can be interpreted in various ways,” the report reads.

The report said that part of the reason “potentially questionable content” makes its way into instructional materials is because school districts and charter schools decide how the curriculum is selected, who does the selecting and who oversees that process.

These processes differ widely between school districts, according to the report, which allows a “range of content to be taught.” Some take a top down approach to decide what is taught and what materials are used. In other districts, teachers and teacher teams make the decisions.

“While we found some potentially questionable content in courses we reviewed, of greater concern is the lack of formalized processes to support neutral, effective instruction,” the report reads.

The auditors provided 11 recommendations, including whether the state should set more uniform parameters for how districts choose curriculum. Another recommendation would require local school boards to “provide guidance on how to approach emerging social issues and other topics that teachers are hesitant to address.”

Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Syndee Dickson told the legislative committee that the purpose of Utah’s core standards is to communicate what students should be learning in each subject at each grade level. The state standards, she pointed out, are not meant to prescriptively say what exactly will and won’t be taught in Utah schools.

“At the end of the day, we have to trust our teachers and give them the tools and support they need to carry out their work,” Dickson said

Republican Senate President Stuart Adams said local control is important in Utah, but added the state needs to make sure it is being done right, especially with education.

“Because there’s probably nothing more sensitive to at least a parent’s life than their kids,” Adams said.

Melissa Hamilton, elementary director of teaching and learning at the Murray City School District, does think that the state needs to set up more parameters and guidelines for school districts. However, figuring out the nuances of those guidelines should be left to the individual districts.

“At the end of the day, educators are the experts in curriculum and development,” she said.

For example, Hamilton thinks it would be fine if the state said that when a district chooses a curriculum, they have to have a selection committee that includes all relevant stakeholders. She thinks state leaders would be going too far if they dictated exactly how many parents and school employees were on that committee.

In a statement to KUER, the Utah Education Association said, “We believe that the role of the State Board of Education is to set standards and the role of local boards of education is to set curriculum. There will always be some variation because locally elected boards respond to their constituents.”

At the end of the audit presentation, the committee moved to refer the report to the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee and also the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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