Senate Hearing Will Target Curriculum System

When CSCOPE attracted a scathing mention on Glenn Beck's radio show in late November, it may have been a mixed blessing for educators concerned about the curriculum delivery system used by 70 percent of Texas school districts.

It gave their cause momentum and a national audience — but for reasons entirely different from their own. 

CSCOPE opponents tend to fall into two sometimes overlapping camps: the conservative activists inflamed by the perceived anti-Americanism promoted by its lessons and the educators who feel hamstrung by the requirements of some districts that they adhere strictly to its structure. 

On Thursday, both will all air their complaints on the system developed by a coalition of state-funded education service centers before lawmakers at a Senate Education Committee hearing led by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, which comes on the heels of a State Board of Education meeting on the same topic in November. 

But despite the attention it has generated, discontent with the system that many schools have used since 2006 is far from widespread, said Brad Lancaster, the superintendent of Austin's Lake Travis Independent School District. His district has used the system for four years after it received positive reviews from teachers during a pilot program.

"This is an electronic storage cabinet that houses legally required curriculum in Texas and allows districts to add to that and then sequence that content," he said. "It's written by Texas teachers, it's for Texas teachers, it's Texas content."

Holly Eaton, an attorney with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said that her organization has heard complaints from its members about CSCOPE. Most of their concerns, she said, tend to be with the prescriptive manner in which districts have implemented the system locally that can govern every aspect of teaching “down to scripted lesson plans” — something that the system itself does not require.

“Some of our members say they think it's beneficial, particularly to new or struggling teachers,” she said. “But if it's applied one-size-fits-all across the board, and you have veteran teachers who have been successful and they are forced to abandon that and adhere to a formulaic approach, that causes teachers to chafe at that.”

The objections that circulate through the right-wing blogosphere — on sites like txcscopereview.com and redhotconservative.com, which are run by a mother-and-daughter team and often refer to CSCOPE as the "progressive pro-Islamic curriculum" — focus on sample lessons. One example that recently made the rounds was a world history question that asked sixth-grade students to draw a flag for a socialist nation using symbolism after showing images of flags from the U.S., Soviet Union, United Kingdom and China.

"They skew American history," said Ginger Russell, who runs redhotconservative.com. "They could take Santa Claus and turn him into an environmental wacko."

Along with her mother, Janice VanCleave, a retired teacher who sells her own science instructional materials, Russell is CSCOPE's most vocal critic. Her website highlighted the lesson that earned radio host Beck's ire, in which students were asked to consider whether the Boston Tea Party was a terrorist act from the viewpoint of the British. She has also posted entries there that connect the curriculum to the Agenda 21 conspiracy that contends that the United Nations is attempting to take over the United States.

(After Beck's show was broadcast, CSCOPE issued an official response that said the Tea Party example was an out-of-date, optional lesson aligned with the state's previous social studies standards that intended to "show students how the same act can be viewed differently, depending on one's perspective.")

Freshman state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has filed what he called the “CSCOPE Transparency Act” giving the State Board of Education purview over the system, in response to the overwhelming concern he said he heard from parents and educators in his district about the curriculum during his campaign.

CSCOPE's creators designed it to match Texas curriculum standards, which are already set by the state board. But Toth said that the board needed further oversight because in his view, its lessons strayed too far from the state's standards.

"This is common core curriculum coming out of Washington," he said.

He said he offered his measure to address worries that CSCOPE stifled the creativity of teachers. And as a Christian, he said, he struggled with how it highlighted the similarities of Wicca and Christianity. He also questioned the reference to the founding fathers’ involvement in the Tea Party as a terrorist act.

Lancaster said he had not heard any complaints of that nature in his school district, which has about 6,500 students. He said that CSCOPE is used as an organizational tool to help teach the state’s legally required curriculum while allowing educators to maintain control of their own lessons — and remained "mystified" at assertions that its content might undermine school children’s patriotism.

"It's like saying Microsoft Word is un-American," he said.

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