LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E3: Who Decides What Gets Taught?

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In this episode of Class Disrupted, Diane Tavenner and Michael Horn break down who decides what gets taught and analyze the specific roles of everyone from the different arms of government to teachers, parents, textbook companies — and even committees and colleges.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: So I've got to open with a correction from our last episode, Michael. I said we were underway with the ’20-’21 school year. Wow. I literally went back in time. The therapist's couch is calling with that slip. What do you think it means? And oh, by the way, you didn't even catch my mistakes. So what does that mean?

Michael: It didn't even register, I confess. So what does it mean? Why don't I let the audience tell us by dropping us an email or Tweet, maybe that's too dangerous for our public personas. But I think it ties Diane into why we started the podcast. We've all undergone a lot of disruption and dislocation and maybe out of body experiences where we don't know what time of day it is, let alone what year it is. Class is still very much disrupted as we go into this third pandemic school year, if you will. And you know, I think it is hard for many people to remember that when this all began in March 2020, people thought we'd be closing schools for like two weeks or something, and then we'd be back. And then, you know, obviously ironically enough, the two weeks are really coming into play this year with thousands of students and educators, literally tens of thousands quarantining for two weeks and way back then, as people will recall, we hoped to do just a limited series podcasts to connect the questions that we were hearing from parents all across the country to meaningful opportunities in our opinion that we were seeing for real change, real reinvention of our schools.

And while we are not there yet, there are pockets out there, which I think leave me more optimistic in some ways. And so obviously in this third season, we get to go deeper on many of these topics that we've picked up and, and, you know, really from a place of curiosity and we framed it around the classic set of questions, right? The who, what, where, when, why, how, and last week we dove into the what. In that episode we explored, “What do we teach in the curriculum?” And we're going to do it differently today, Diane.

Diane: We are. One of the things that we committed to and we're asking for at the end of last season was nuance. And so I think today is going to be a fun day on that front, because we're going to jump in today on the “who.” Who gets to decide what kids learn in school? And this came up naturally from our conversation last week around what. And so we're just going to follow that curiosity, as you said, it doesn't take a lot of curiosity right now to know that we are, people are really politically polarized to state the obvious. We've seen this with masks and vaccines, but that polarization is carrying over into many aspects of our lives, including education, maybe education is sort of front and center and embodying a lot of that right now. One of the places we see it showing up is in debates about what kids should be learning.

And that leads to a real struggle around who gets to decide. This leads to some headline grabbing behavior. You know, historically we've seen plenty of protests and book burnings when people really were questioning what was in school libraries, novels and reading passages, kids were being asked to read. We're still seeing that. I saw a story about that over the weekend, but there are also some famous fights over what is taught in science and certainly around human sexuality. And then, well, there's always history too.

But recently we've seen reports of parents demanding that their children be able to film their classes. So parents can monitor what teachers are teaching. And in these particular cases it is to ensure that teachers aren't veering into critical race theory territory. I must say Michael, I don't think that's what you and I envisioned when we were thinking about technology being a meaningful part of school redesign.

Quite frankly, if you're paying attention on the other end of the spectrum, there's a whole bunch of kids who've turned to TikTok to learn what they say, their schools aren't teaching them. That might be starting to verge into the area of how we would imagine technologies sort of disrupting the learning. So that's another conversation. But today we really want to dig in and tease apart the “who gets to decide.” And, and we want to push back past that clickbait headline and really dig into the nuances of who's deciding what kids are taught in school.

Michael: And I'll add Diane, it's incredibly topical. I got an email literally over the weekend from a teacher who is very well informed, asking me a variation of this very question around who really gets to decide these curricular questions and how can they influence them and how should they write about and to whom should they write about these questions? So very topical, I think, to figure out who really gets to decide, it probably helps to lay out our possible suspects if you will. So I've, I've got a list of folks here that we've generated and it starts with, of course at the very top, if you will, the federal government and, you know, not just the White House, but more specifically the Department of Education. And when people think Department of Education, they often think the political appointees at the Department of Education, not the career bureaucrats, the people like Secretary [Betsy] Devos or Secretary [Miguel] Cardona, or even back into the Obama years where this really started to flare up with Secretary [Arne] Duncan, and then, they think about state government and the boards of education, state superintendents, you have that infrastructure.What role does the governor play in terms of appointing things of that nature? Then that next level that I think a lot of people think about are the school districts themselves, specifically the boards of education superintendents, when you get into charter systems like your own people that are leading those systems. And there's a lot of thought around that.

Diane: Yeah, those are the real usual suspects, right? Those seem like the official government agencies.

Michael: And it's interesting, right? Because they all play into different ones, right? Secretary of Education connects to the president. When you think about the state level it connects them to the governor and of some municipalities, it connects in the mayor. Sometimes it doesn't at all, they're independently elected. So that gets into that next layer: the school principals, the parents, the teachers, the students themselves—these actors that are in the day-to-day of schooling itself, Diane. And then I think there's that last group that maybe we don't talk all that much, but sometimes this is where the conspiracy theories fly. And sometimes there's some truth to them, which is influential committees more often historical in terms of their impact on schooling. So this is everything from the Committee of 10. And for folks who aren't familiar, this is a committee that is now over 100 years ago — when I started out in this field, it was not over a hundred years ago, but now over 100 years ago — a group led by one of the former Harvard presidents and others who thought about the curriculum that should be in high school specifically.There’s the National Commission on Excellence in Education that helped produce the Nation at Risk report in 1983, that led to a lot of rethinking of what our schools are actually doing in terms of outcomes. There's a whole group of folks that came together to bring us Common Core, which obviously got a lot of headlines in political campaigns. And then there's employers who connect into all of this and there's colleges and universities that connect into all of this. There's the textbook companies themselves that have a de facto influence over curriculum in many cases. So there are a lot of groups, Diane.

Diane: That's going to be a long email to get back to that teacher, Michael. Let's see if we can organize it a bit. I'm going to propose that we break this long list of people down into three groups.

The way that I think about it is the first group is, well let's just take some people off the table who do not actually get to decide. Of all those people we just named who does not have power, who is not getting to make a choice here. The second group is who has literally direct decision-making power. Who officially has this power? And then third, you know, this really interesting group, I think the most interesting group to talk about is who doesn't have technical decision-making power, but in reality might have the most power of all. And so I say we leave that one for last and, and start off with who doesn't get that much say.

Michael: I like the categories. Diane, I'm curious who you’ve got in that first group.

Diane: Well, here's who I've put in the first group. School principals. Having been a school principal and spending a lot of time with them, they're in that group. Two: parents and that's probably not going to feel very good, but I honestly think that's pretty real. Three: students, again, not feeling good, but I think that's real. And then four, I'm going to put employers here and I do think there's been a historical shift, but I just don't think in our current age that employers have really any decision-making power about what's being learned in our K-12 system. So that's my list.

Michael: I largely agree with that. I'm trying to look for places to poke just to prod our thinking a little bit more. The place I might press are employers. I think you just alluded to it that maybe some 20, 25 years ago, they had a little bit more power in this, like a coalition of businesses really helped to bring around No Child Left Behind and a lot of the 1990s education governors and some of those movements. And so it's still limited, but it might've gone into that third group. What's interesting is who is missing from your list: teachers. I'm curious to see which bucket they fall into. So we'll get there in a moment, and then the only other thing I would say is parents are an interesting one because I agree with you. The one place where I think parents do exert some control is where they have some element of choice in where their child goes to school. And they can occasionally pick a school. I don't want to say radically different, but if they have private options, they're able to pick, say, a school with a classical curriculum or something like that, as opposed to maybe a more of a state-based mandated one.

Diane: I think this is such an important point Michael, because what you're saying is in order for parents to have really meaningful say in what their kids are learning, they literally have to pick a whole school option.

Michael: They have to opt out.

Diane: And that's a giant decision as we know. And so that's one of the reasons I put them in this bucket. The other reason people believe that parents have say over what their kids learn is because they elect their local school officials. But I think when we get through this entire list, we're going to see pretty quickly that that diffused theoretical power is not very real. And then finally really the only other power that parents and students have is just to sort of, again, opt out, whether it be on an individual book, like my child's not going to read that book. Or kids decide every day, all day, what they're gonna do or not do. Unfortunately, this is not productive power.

Michael: Yeah, I totally agree. I think something interesting, you just raised before we jump to the next category, which is that parents and not just parents, but voters more generally in a democracy, at some level they have some de facto level of power, but it is so diffused through the different layers of government. And frankly, when a school board election occurs there are 20 other issues, one of which you probably care about more. And so, you know, like it gets dissipated by the time we think about curriculum. So it's interesting, like at some level, yes, they absolutely have authority. And if you cross the line like Critical Race Theory has for some parents, you certainly hear about it a lot, right?

Not with any level of nuance, but you certainly hear about it. So it's not that they don't exert any control, but I think you're right, like in terms of a practical day-to-day what is taught they have pretty little control. The other interesting thing on that line is I bet a lot of people would say, well, a school principal surely has a lot of control. Like they're the instructional leader, yet that's not generally the case. I mean, I think it might be at the margins again, they might pick a school-wide social-emotional learning curriculum, for example, that is going to be the theme of what a school explores across the classes, as we talked about last week, that might not be the best way to incorporate those skills into learning, but that's about it.

Diane: And I would add to that what we're going to see in the next two buckets is how the principals really get squeezed from all different directions. And it really does dramatically drop any sort of decision-making power that they have on this front. And that's why I put them in this bucket. Again, having been one and probably one that had a lot more influence, at least more than in a traditional system where I felt like I had no control whatsoever as a principal and then in a charter system where I had significantly more and it's still very minimal given all the other players. The last thing I would just offer as evidence, I think on the parent and student front Michael is, as you know, over the last couple of years, we've just done a lot of work across the country engaging with families and parents about what they want and what they need.Andover and over and over again, parents are telling us, and quite frankly, employers and parents are very aligned on this, students as well, are the things that they want from school are what we call the habits of success. They want their kids to learn things that are meaningful and that will enable them to engage in meaningful work and good employment. And they're not feeling like that's what they're getting at school. And so there is a real gap between what is being taught and what parents, students, and employers are saying they want.

Michael: That's interesting. Would you say that they maybe have more of a veto on the hot button issues, but less of an ability to put something in the curriculum or frankly touch 90 percent of what's being taught and learned?

Diane: I think that's exactly right. I think they might be able to stop a single book or a particular text or something like that. But in terms of, like you said, constructively advising and adding to, and/or transforming, I don't think we see much of that at all.

Michael: All right. Well then let's segue into your second bucket around who has direct decision-making power.

Diane: All right. The two big folks in this bucket are state governments and school boards. And, you know, right off the top, people might be wondering what? The federal government isn’t in there! And I did debate about that one, so we can talk about that. But in my view, the two agencies that really have the most control here are, are primarily the state government they're really setting the policies that govern schools in a state and have significant control. And then local school boards have control over, within those boundaries, the curriculum. They're adopting specific local standards, things like that. So those are the two that I've got there. What do you think about that?

Michael: I think they both make a lot of sense. I mean, particularly the state government apparatus, if you will, the school, you know, the state board of education, the superintendent or whatever the structure is in each state has a slightly different structure. Some states have a dual structure of an appointed and elected. There's all sorts of different variations on what that looks like. But essentially I think that's right. The state government is really where the standards get set and the standards drive the curriculum. In terms of direct decision-making power, that makes sense. There's a bunch of things that are not enumerated and that's where the school boards probably come in, but I would put them as secondary to the state government. The superintendent obviously state, you know, not just the state superintendent, but the local superintendent probably fits a little bit into that school board conversation at the local level. But again, I think it's really, this is really a state driven thing at the end of the day.

Diane: I think that is right, Michael. And what's interesting. We can take the Common Core as like a little mini-case study here of what we've been talking about. I don't want to oversimplify here, but in essence, a whole bunch of state superintendents, like almost all of them and a variety of other people worked for several years to really come to agreement on kind of universal standards. And they did that because the states have so much power over this and they really get to decide. So they have to collaborate. I think at least one of their intentions was quite good, which is a student in California should be learning a lot of the same things as in Mississippi. So Mississippi or Alabama or Florida, so that kids can move across the country. And there aren't dramatically different standards and expectations and equity. And all of that, what happens though is when all the states then go and adopt the common core and they get pushback from some of the groups we just talked about upfront that collaboration starts to crumble. And then you start seeing states going in all their own directions, which now has us not having any commonality because the states really have the power.

Michael: I think that's right. And that's where I think states have that direct decision-making power. And that's also what I had in mind with parents having a little bit of that veto, if you will. I think they have less veto than some people think that they do because a lot of states, they just rebranded the standards and said, we're no longer doing Common Core. And maybe there's 10 Percent variation so forth from what it was before. But there's a bit of a veto there. It's certainly not direct. I think it puts them in that category that we put above, but the state government is unquestionably where this is happening. For people who follow this, the Chief of the Council of State School officers is the body that really was coordinating a lot of this activity. And a lot of this was a multi-year effort before it even became a flash point in the federal conversation and the nationwide conversation, which I suspect is where we'll go in a moment.

Diane: So what's interesting is you have a relatively small number of bodies that have really direct decision-making power, which I think makes this next category the most interesting one of all, because while it’s a very small number there's a lot of stakeholders in this next group. And I think they end up really having a significant influence over what happens. And so here's who I've put into the category of, they don't have technical decision-making power, but in reality, they might have the most power and I put them in order. So I certainly believe the feds are here and we can come back to them. But I think the accountability and testing system is really where they exert their real power. They have found a way to really put significant pressure on states, colleges and universities. And I think this is a longstanding, influential power given the history of the role of higher ed and the interaction with K-12 and what K-12 is doing and then there’s textbook companies. I think these folks have extraordinary power and we can get into why.

Michael: And we talked about it on our second episode, if I'm not mistaken, of Class Disrupted.

Diane: Yup, And then there’s influential committees, and you gave us a few right at the top and we started talking about them, but they are fascinating to me from a historical perspective, how certainly not all committees, but there's a few that have really stuck and had real power and then teachers, and I'd like to wrap with teachers because I think they fit in here, Michael, in this category.

Michael: Yeah, so I like this group. The feds are the one that I think I had the biggest question mark. When I hear this, you have them at the top. And I guess the way I think about it is where they've had power is what I think you were alluding to through the accountability system, privileging English Language Arts and math in particular above almost everything else, right? Like, you know, even the whole debate 10, 15 years ago around teacher evaluation systems and bonuses. And they were all pegged to these two very narrow subjects, narrowly thought of, and that's where I think the feds have sort of calcified some of the system, but I don't know that on a day-to-day basis, I'm not sure that they have that much of an impact on the actual standards in use.

I'd love to hear your pushback. Is Common Core where Secretary Duncan, actually to go back to that time during the Obama years, by putting so much money in the testing and adoption of Common Core standards really led to the revolt of a lot of states and parents against Common Core, who frankly didn't really know what was in it, but they didn't like it because the federal government was somehow touching it more directly. As a result, it didn't shuttle it as we talked about earlier, but it did alter the contours of it significantly. And so to me it shows the federal government, I think has far less power than most people popularly assume. And so I don't know that I would put them in the first bucket. But they almost feel like a unique case to me among all these others. I'm curious your take.

Diane: I think that's interesting. And here's what I think you just said that really fascinates me, which is, I think they have less power than people assume. I truly believe the vast majority of people in the country think that the federal government decides what kids learn in school. And we both know that is not technically accurate. I do think that for the relatively small percentage of dollars that the federal government invests in education and for a government that really does believe in the state's rights and that says, this should be a statewide decision. I think they've gotten very creative and really found a way to exert a lot of control over what's actually happening in schools on a day-to-day basis. And what I can tell you is that as much as state standards influence how teachers are thinking and what we're doing in schools every day, the accountability in the assessment system, which is at a federal level and then used by the state level becomes a factor in our day-to-day work in schools. And so to your point, the key things it does is really narrow the curriculum to math, reading, language arts, and a little bit of science here and there in particular grade levels. And there's all this engineering that goes around that assessment which is driving so much, so many of the behaviors and then states took this system and they use it for all sorts of things. And so it really becomes this infrastructure that in my view, really limits our ability to rethink and redesign because everything comes back to this accountability.

Michael: Yeah, it's interesting. And that actually might be a good segue into the others in this category because to me colleges and universities, similarly, like they're not in the day-to-day standards, but I think even more so than the federal government, they have laid the infrastructure by which the Committee of 10, we talked about them earlier, essentially imposed what are the subjects that we teach particularly in high school and what are the ways we divide them up? And we talked about this last time where I sort of said, maybe we have like the broad headlines, right. But the mix of them and the atomization of them, or the modularity we've created, that's where I think we go wrong and we've gone wrong because high school, and then middle school, as a result of that, has largely mirrored the college and university departmental structure that was in place.

And, you know, the reason we have biology, chemistry, physics, and that order traces to the Committee of 10, and it comes out of that departmental structure of the university level. And I will say a big reason that I've gotten involved so much in higher education over the last five, seven years has been because the more I played in the K-12 world, and the more frustrated I got was because my belief became ultimately K-12 was more of a dependent system on the higher ed system, rather than an interdependent one. Meaning if we wanted to make K-12 better, you actually have to improve college and make it focus on the things that are meaningful and matter for people's future lives. And I don't think the college and university system does that for most individuals today.

Diane: I couldn't agree more. And my day-to-day experience is certainly in high school and middle schools, but I think it ends up going all the way back into elementary schools. The expectations and standards set by colleges and universities about what is needed in order to be accepted into them, drives what is taught, who it's taught to and everything that is happening in high schools and middle schools. And what's interesting about this is the, you know, the majority of kids are not necessarily even going into these selective schools. I would say it's the selective schools that are really driving us quite frankly. So we're talking maybe 50, maybe a hundred, if you're being generous, schools are really driving this for all K-12 systems in the country for a very relatively small percentage of students, which I think is blocking us from being creative and thoughtful about all the other options that could be possible.

And we have some real fears about those things because we don't want to just track kids into pathways and lanes that they don't want to be in. And that aren't good for them, but it really is limiting. I think they have a huge influence and what's fascinating to me is this has been going on for a hundred years. It literally is the same. I mean, the Committee of 10 was a hundred years ago and it's still so profound in what we're doing right now. And the same arguments have been happening for a hundred years.

Michael: Yeah, I totally agree. And the only thing I'll add is that those 100 schools, if you will, or whatever the number is, they don't just exert that power over the K-12 system. They exert that power over all the higher ed system too, which is why it's so calcified, you know, most of the higher ed system, because their faculty members are trained in research and they want to get tenure and promotion and ideally teach and be able to research with the budgets that you get at those selective schools. They need to mirror that structure so that they're recognizable in that system, which calcifies everything and has this ripple effect. So I think that's right. And maybe that flows us into the textbook companies next, which from my perspective, I think they're absolutely in this category. You know, we had Larry Berger on Class Disrupted in the first year. And he talked about how a textbook get adopted. And one of the points he made is that a lot of those textbooks aren't all that meaningfully different from those 50 years ago. And so in a de facto way when we changed the standards or we asked for different things there's a little shuffling of a few pages here and an addition of a few things here, a CD-ROM is added and a website, but the fundamental spine, if you will, the fundamental architecture infrastructure of the text, hasn't actually evolved all that much, very rarely do they rip stuff out and rethink it from scratch?

Diane: This is why I put parents up in the top bucket because let's just go back to the Common Core for a moment between textbooks not changing and being aligned to Common Core, even after people wanted to abandon it. And between that and the assessments that exist for this national accountability system, which are aligned to Common Core. People may think that they got rid of Common Core. They did not get rid of Common Core. It just sort of pushed it into the shadows. And so let me be clear. I actually believe in the Common Core standards. I'm not advocating for them to go away, but I just think the decision-making structure in this example makes really apparent who has the real power.

Michael: Yeah, no, I agree. So I, I think we've touched on influential committees. I don't know if there's anything else that you'd say there, but teachers are the last one where I think what you have in mind is like they shut the door and they teach what they teach. And we don't always know. And sometimes they give significant effort to a particular standard or unit or part of the curriculum because it's their passion. And sometimes they don't and sort of on their own accord, if you will, there's not a lot of transparency in many cases around that. I'm guessing that's what you had in mind, but I'm curious.

Diane: You're absolutely on right track there, Michael. I think this is important to talk about because some of these headlines I referenced at the top of the episode and some of what's going on is deeply disturbing for sure. And, I think the day-to-day experience of the vast majority of teachers in this country is that they have extraordinary discretion over what is taught to their students every single day in their classroom. In very few cases do you have teachers who are really bound by particular, whether it be curriculum or standards or things like that. And part of the reason is to your point, there is this, you know, sort of common notion that a teacher goes in their room and shuts the door and now it's a black box. No one really sees into it. It's one of the things we've talked extensively about. This is where good technology used well actually help to illuminate what is happening in classrooms.

It would enable us to build curriculum and build learning experiences that could be iterated upon and collaboratively built so that our kids could be having much more powerful experiences. And I say that with all due respect for teachers. Having been one for a long time, it's impossible, I don't care how good you are, to create day-to-day amazing learning experiences by yourself. And even if you can do that to then connect them to the year before and the year after and the whole learning trajectory. And so this really does need to be a collaborative experience. And I think the only way we get there is really redesigning and leveraging technology. But the one of the things we have to get over is this is a place where teachers really hold onto their autonomy and they don't want to go here because they do like that control that they have in their classroom. It is one of the blockers that we have.

Michael: Yeah. And it's why I'm a huge proponent of more co-teaching and collaborative teaching models for a lot of the reasons you said, because I think it could take away some of that emotional reaction and open us up to some of the awesome collaborations that you just alluded to, which maybe we can get into in a future episode of this. Cause I'd love to go deeper on it, but I think let's wrap here and just, you know as we conclude, as we always do, what's something you're watching or reading right now, Diane.

Diane: I think you might like these two, Michael. My husband and I have been looking for positive, optimistic, uplifting things because it gets a little bit hard each day. And so we bumped into a couple of musicals that are now available on television. That's the thing people are doing. And so we've watched In the Heights and Come From Away.

Michael: Yeah. It’s incredible.

Diane: The productions were so joyful and, and so much fun and really important and powerful messages.

Michael: Yeah, deeply meaningful. I've got a whimsical one, more whimsical than yours, which is, my wife and I used to, when we were first dating and I was traveling all over, they used to have episodes of Chuck, which if people remember is this NBC show about a guy who had gotten thrown out of Stanford and gotten like a computer put in his brain and was in the CIA and a huge dork, but like on these thrilling missions, basically half comedy, half like sort of spy thriller, half very whimsical and ridiculous. We've been rewatching all of the episodes and we're totally addicted every evening. And I think it's the same thing. Like we just want a release at the end of the day right now. And this is one that hearkens back to a different era on multiple levels for us. So, we'll leave that there. People can conclude whatever they want out of that.

But until then, thank you for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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