Texas authorities are beginning a sweeping review this week of the state's dominant public school curriculum under pressure from critics who charge that it indoctrinates the children of Texas with communist, pro-terrorist propaganda from behind a shield of secrecy.
The State Board of Education will hold the first of a series of public meetings to organize the review in Dallas on Friday, three days after the state attorney general's office told NBC News that it has been looking into "potential improprieties" that raise "significant legal concerns about the program's operations."
It didn't specify those concerns, but legislative hearings have questioned the program's nonprofit status and the locking of some materials behind passwords accessible only to teachers and other "authorized users."
The designers of the curriculum — which is used in 875 of the state's 1,028 districts — say the program is closely aligned with standards mandated by the State Board of Education and is based on educational principles proven over decades. Critics, they say, are taking isolated parts of lessons out of context, equating simply teaching a controversial issue with endorsing it.
Even so, the parent organization of the program, called CSCOPE, has agreed to several demands by opponents, including opening its board meetings to the public, allowing teachers to post curriculum materials online, dropping its nonprofit status and creating a new website so parents can learn about the lessons from home.
CSCOPE — it's not an abbreviation for anything — is a Web-only repository of 1,600 lesson plans, study materials and other curriculum components. It's supposed to help teachers make sure pupils are taught what they need to know for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test.
"We live in a very mobile society," said Anne Poplin, chairwoman of the board of the Texas Education Service Center Curriculum Collaborative, or TESCCC, which administers CSCOPE.
CSCOPE means children who move from one school or district to another can be confident they'll pick up where they left off in their old classrooms, she told NBC News.
But since it began in the 2006-07 school year, CSCOPE has been a target for activists and conservative websites. Pressure has grown in recent months as critics have published details of its lesson plans.
Glenn Beck's TheBlaze has run at least five "exposés" this year with headlines like "CSCOPE: Exposing the Nation's Most Controversial Public School Curriculum System," while Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller last month ran a story listing "egregious examples of the curriculum's inadequacies and absurdities."
'Design a flag for a new socialist nation'
Critics fall into two camps.
The first is teachers who say the curriculum is flawed in general and that their districts require them to rigidly follow the program, even though CSCOPE says it's meant to be revised and "refocused" to serve local needs.
As part of a transparency agreement it worked out last month with Dan Patrick, the Republican chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, TESCCC said it would remind districts that lessons are simply resources for teachers, not meant to be taught verbatim.
The second group is larger and more vocal: parents, activists and lawmakers who say CSCOPE is a Trojan horse sneaking liberal ideals of socialism and cultural relativism into the classroom.
Several examples have circulated around Texas in the past few months. One asks pupils to design a flag for a new socialist nation, using "symbolism to represent aspects of socialism/communism." Texas Conservative News called that an "attempt at secretly indoctrinating Texas children."
Another unit depicts a hiker walking up a staircase of money. "Free enterprise (capitalism)" is the bottom step; "Communism" is at the top. Ginger Russell of the widely read blog Red Hot Conservative wrote that the graphic was "all about portraying communism in a positive light."
Perhaps the most controversial lesson asks pupils to discuss this news report (PDF):
A local militia, believed to be a terrorist organization, attacked the property of private citizens today at our nation's busiest port. Although no one was injured in the attack, a large quantity of merchandise, considered to be valuable to its owners and loathsome to the perpetrators, was destroyed. The terrorists, dressed in disguise and apparently intoxicated, were able to escape into the night with the help of local citizens who harbor these fugitives and conceal their identities from the authorities.
Not until later, during a discussion period, do teachers reveal that the report describes the Boston Tea Party.
"Like our Founding Fathers at Concord, that was pretty much the opening shot that started this," Patrick said.
Critical thinking and perspective
Poplin said lessons like those under scrutiny are meant to challenge students to critically examine the world from others' perspectives — not to adopt the beliefs the lessons describe. With the Boston Tea Party unit — which has since been removed as "outdated" — the point was to teach sophisticated thinking and the existence of multiple viewpoints, she said.
"It might have been an act of terrorism in King George's mind, but it wasn't an act of terrorism in the minds of Americans," she said. "The lesson wasn't teaching the Boston Tea Party. The lesson was teaching perspective."
Mason Moses, a spokesman for 20 regional public school agencies that created TESCCC, said: "Down here in Texas, we're pretty patriotic. There is absolutely no way we would ever teach" that the Boston Tea Party was an act of terrorism.
That may be true, Patrick said, but "what all of this underscores is how our education system is changing rapidly because of technology."
"In the old days, which weren't all that long ago, textbooks were reviewed by boards of education," he said, but "today, as we move to this online learning, there are no checks and balances."
Keeping 'strategic decisions' private
And that is a big part of the problem, critics say — CSCOPE has been secret, making it hard to get a clear picture of what it's really teaching. Before the transparency agreement, parents could see materials, but only by visiting their children's school; anyone else was barred unless they were cleared as an "authorized user."
Poplin said CSCOPE was tailored for teachers, which means it includes performance assessments, tests and answers, which shouldn't get into students' hands. As part of the agreement with Patrick, TESCCC is removing that information and hopes to have the instructional material online by the middle of April, she said.
More clarity could emerge from administrators' decision to relinquish nonprofit status.
As recently as December, TESCCC asserted that some of its records should be exempt from disclosure under state open records laws, both because it's an independent nonprofit entity and because it competes with for-profit curriculum companies.
In addition to proprietary business information like bidding data from vendors, the materials TESCCC wanted to keep private included "how strategic decisions are made with respect to the development of the CSCOPE product" itself.
Poplin said TESCCC has begun discussions to dissolve the nonprofit corporation, and she said she was eager to hear from the State Board of Education. Because the state school board has no formal connection to CSCOPE, however, the coming review is non-binding.
Patrick has an answer for that: His committee is holding a hearing next week on legislation that would give the school board oversight of CSCOPE.
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