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What did auditors find when they looked at what’s being taught in Utah public schools?

Audit finds instances of ‘questionable materials’ in schools but vast majority of teachers stay within acceptable guidelines

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A classroom at West High School in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

A classroom at West High School in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Utah legislative auditors’ deep dive into public school curriculum and teacher training revealed some instances of “potentially questionable content.”

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Utah legislative auditors’ deep dive into public school curriculum and teacher training revealed some cases of “potentially questionable content.”

A recently released audit lists six examples including a 12th grade photography class that required students to search the internet for a list of photographers’ names.

“The list exposed students to sensitive materials, including nudity, among those images on which they were required to report,” according to the audit conducted by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

One middle school English assignment had writing prompts “that included weighing in on contraceptives for teenagers, a subject disallowed within Utah Code,” according to the audit.

Auditors sampled 44 courses in five school districts offered in junior high and high schools, including content teachers posted online, to determine whether they contained questionable materials. The majority of the classes were offered in the 2021-2022 school year.

One unnamed school district’s voluntary teacher training said that Utah “has an unrecognized, violent history with the original inhabitants of this land.

“By having a statewide holiday to honor the pioneers who came to this land, Utah has normalized the settlers’ privilege ... (and) this normalization not only perpetuates indigenous erasure, it is a celebration of white supremacy,” the audit states.

Other examples of “potentially questionable content” focused on issues of white privilege, racism, settler colonialism, slavery, genocide and land theft.

Audit Supervisor Matthias Boone said an overarching concern was “the lack of structures in place that could have helped to mitigate this or vetted the material ahead of time.”

Audit Manager Leah Blevins said each of the items reported in the audit “are important instances that we were able to verify. But the vast majority of teachers are trying to do their best and teach within the acceptable guidelines.”

The auditors interviewed many teachers who said, “I am afraid. I don’t know what I can and can’t say so I just don’t say anything,” Blevins said.

Blevins said the point of lifting up areas of concern is to “support those teachers so they know what they can say and that the curriculum and the district processes are there to support the teachers and help them stay informed.”

The auditors surveyed 10,000 teachers, interviewed 150 parents and teachers and reviewed more than 500 concerns lodged with the Utah State Board of Education’s hotline. The hotline is maintained by the board’s internal audit department and is a means for stakeholders to request audits or report concerns.

The state school board’s written response to the audit said the state education officials continue to work with schools and school districts and teacher education programs to strengthen expectations and processes for teaching balanced, unbiased and neutral content.

“At the same time, the findings of a recent Utah Civic Learning Collaborative listening tour, reaffirm the challenges our teachers are facing. Many social studies, civics and English language arts teachers are expressing the default to less engaging classroom pedagogy and relevant topics due to self-censorship and fear of saying something that may or may not be construed as biased,” said the letter signed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson and Mark Huntsman, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education.

“This may have a negative effect on the teaching of civic engagement and dialogue when we need it most,” the letter states.

The audit notes that school districts use different selection models for curriculum.

“Some districts have a very strong top-down approach where the district or district staff create or adopt the curriculum and push that down to teachers. We found other districts that allow the teacher or teacher team level to develop the curriculum at their level,” Boone said. There are also models that are a hybrid of the two approaches.

School districts have varying levels of content review. Some principals get involved in the review of content while others do not, Boone said. Teachers tend to review their content most intently before they teach it.

The audit also found that districts focus on teaching different standards. Boone said school districts “select essential standards that they believe are best needed for their students and at that time, and so naturally as a result of that, you may get differences in what they’re teaching within the same subject, the same grade from school to school.”

The audit’s key conclusions were:

  • Material selected to be taught in the classroom represents one of the greatest risks of student exposure to potentially questionable content.
  • Utah law is unclear as to at what level decisions about how to address emerging social issues should be made.
  • There is little guidance in state code, state school board rule, or district or charter school policy on training teachers regarding educator neutrality.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said it is critical that the public education system is proactive and addresses stakeholders concerns so that the Legislature isn’t forced to react when parents and others perceive they’re not being heard on the local level.

“Even though we love local control, we want local control to be the thing, it’s really important that we get it right because there’s probably nothing more sensitive to at least a parent’s life and their kids,” Adams said.

The audit recommends that the Utah Legislature consider requiring district and charter school boards to train educators annually on updated policies related to neutrality and emerging social issues.