How Public Schools Became Ideological Boot Camps
Illustration by The Free Press

How Public Schools Became Ideological Boot Camps

In nearly every public school in the country, children are given curriculum materials that have no official oversight or approval.

A pair of teachers at New Jersey’s Fort Lee High School recently taught students that Hamas is a peaceful “resistance movement” and Israel is committing genocide. Teachers at California’s Berkeley Unified School District are “indoctrinating students with antisemitic tropes and biased, one-sided anti-Israel propaganda disguised as education,” according to a complaint by the Anti-Defamation League. Meanwhile, students recently chanted “from the river to the sea” at college campus “tentifadas—but when pressed could identify neither. 

Why does this keep happening? And how can public schools at once be hotbeds of radicalism and “woke” indoctrination, yet produce students who are so poorly informed about the radical causes they ostensibly espouse?

The answer has a lot to do with one of American education’s dirty little secrets: on any given school day in nearly every public school in the country, curriculum materials are put in front of children that have no official oversight or approval. It’s true that schools might have a state- or district-adopted curriculum, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting taught. Nearly no category of public employee has the degree of autonomy of the average public school teacher—even the least experienced ones. Teachers routinely create or cobble together their own lesson plans on the widely accepted theory that they know better than textbook publishers what books kids will enjoy reading and which topics might spark lively class discussions.

Not your child’s school or teacher? Wanna bet? A 2017 RAND Corporation survey found that 99 percent of elementary teachers and 96 percent of secondary schools use “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. The numbers are virtually the same in math. But putting teachers in charge of creating their own lesson plans or scouring the internet for curriculum materials creates an irresistible opportunity for every imaginable interest group that perceives—not incorrectly—that overworked teachers and a captive young audience equal a rich target for selling products and pushing ideologies.

This ungoverned mess is how the majority of high-profile curriculum controversies happen.

Earlier this year, The Free Press’s Francesca Block broke news that PS 321 in Brooklyn, New York, sent kids home with an “activity book” promoting the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, including “queer affirming,” “transgender affirming,” and “restorative justice.” The book was not authorized for classroom use either by the NYC Department of Education or Brooklyn’s Community School District 15. It appears to have begun its journey into students’ backpacks at the massive “Share My Lesson” website run by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union.

The site claims 2.2 million members—more than half of all U.S. public school teachers—and hosts “more than 420,000 resources” that have been “downloaded more than 16 million times.” Lee & Low Books, the publisher of What We Believe, the BLM activity book, is a Share My Lesson “partner” and includes the book in its “anti-racist reading list for grades 3–5.” Other Share My Lesson partners include Amnesty International, the ADL (the Anti-Defamation League), GLSEN, and the Southern Poverty Law Center—all producing free lesson plans and materials for classroom use. 

The advocacy group Parents Defending Education has documented over a thousand incidents of schools teaching lessons on race, gender, or other hot-button issues that parents deemed inappropriate or upsetting. They are seldom traceable to formally adopted school curriculum. But there are 75 different lesson plans and resources for conducting “privilege walks” and more than 100 lessons and resources on “preferred pronouns” at Teachers Pay Teachers, another lesson sharing megasite.

Prior to legislative efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, there were only three school districts in the country known to have expressly authorized teachers to use the New York Times 1619 Project in lesson plans: Chicago, Buffalo, and Newark, New Jersey. However, the Pulitzer Center, which partnered with the Times to produce 1619 Project classroom materials, claimed to have “connected curricula based on the work of [Nikole] Hannah-Jones and her collaborators to some 4,500 classrooms”—another illustration of the yawning chasm between curriculum that is officially adopted and what actually gets taught.

Teachers putting controversial material in front of children, either naively or to pursue an agenda, isn’t even the worst of it. When they hunt for materials to engage students, teachers shoot low. A 2019 study published by the Fordham Institute rated most of the materials on Share My Lesson and Teachers Pay Teachers as “mediocre” or “probably not worth using.”

A similar report from The New Teacher Project found that students “spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.” Disadvantaged students were the hardest hit. Choose-your-own-adventure lesson planning inevitably results in gaps and repetition when there’s no coherent blueprint for what students should learn, or when those plans are disregarded by schools and teachers. Which river? Which sea? It was never covered. 

All of this should be sobering to parents and policymakers who think “curriculum transparency” is the solution to classroom controversies. Knowing the curriculum or programs a school district has “adopted” is a cracked lens. Absent regulations specifically requiring teachers to post all lesson plans and materials online on a daily basis, including material they create or find on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to say with any certainty what occurs inside the black box of the public school classroom.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of How the Other Half Learns. Follow him on Twitter at @rpondiscio.

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