Conservative leaders raised the specter last year of insidious messages seeping into Texas classrooms through a little-known yet widely-used collection of lessons called CSCOPE.
The CSCOPE controversy had gathered momentum among activists, parents and radio host Glenn Beck, all of whom maintained that hundreds of smaller Texas school districts had embraced a curriculum fraught with liberal bias and hostile to America, capitalism and Christianity.
“There is a war going on right now in this country for the heart and soul of who we are and who we will be. … There is a fear that that war has now gone down into the trenches of the classroom,” state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, told the American-Statesman last summer. “Is that the aim of CSCOPE? That’s still under investigation.”
Six months later, there is an answer to that question. It was met with a collective “meh.”
The activists who sparked the controversy have moved on to something bigger: a national set of curriculum standards called the Common Core. The candidates long ago had scored — or lost — their political points.
And the critics’ claims didn’t hold up under scrutiny.
More than 140 volunteers — parents, educators, business people and others appointed by members of the State Board of Education — combed through 431 social studies lessons from all grades in search of bias and errors. Their findings were posted online at cscopereviews.com in late January.
Fewer than 10 of the panelists found evidence of pervasive liberal bias; the other 130 or so did not.
“They used public schools and kids as pawns in their political games and now they have moved on to something else,” said State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, who opposed Patrick during a debate over CSCOPE in August.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had pushed for a public vetting of the lessons last summer as he jockeyed for the support of conservative activists with the three other Republicans vying for his job: Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
All of the candidates had railed against CSCOPE, but Patrick and Dewhurst used their offices to gain the most political traction on the issue.
“If this curriculum is going to be employed, and … it teaches values that are contrary to what we believe, I’m going to step all over their face on this. We’re going to stop this,” Dewhurst said at the time during a podcast.
Dewhurst also held a Capitol news conference with a group of Llano residents suing their school district to prevent the use of the lessons. A judge tossed the lawsuit several days later.
Now, his spokesman has nothing to say on the findings of the review.
Patrick commented about the reviews only after the American-Statesman asked for his take about a week after the Texas Education Agency sent out a news release on the issue.
He maintains the reviews have shown that his alarm was justified. The lessons were sloppy, inaccurate and lacked rigor, Patrick said. The concerns about liberal bias, which brought the issue to the forefront, were only part of his broader objection, Patrick added.
“I think it’s clear that CSCOPE needs to be out of our schools,” Patrick said.
Developed by state-funded Education Service Centers, CSCOPE offered school districts an array of curriculum tools, including the lesson plans, that were aligned with recently revised state academic standards.
Large and midsize districts had the capacity to create their own curriculum after the State Board of Education rewrote the standards for English, math, science and social studies in recent years. But hundreds of mostly small school districts, including about a dozen in Central Texas, instead relied on CSCOPE as a cost-effective way to ensure that the new state standards were being taught.
Opponents of CSCOPE stoked the controversy over a smattering of lessons they found offensive. The public review was aimed at settling the concerns of parents and others that the issues might be more widespread.
The vast majority of reviewers deemed that the lessons had covered state standards in a “comprehensive and generally unbiased fashion,” said State Board of Education member Marty Rowley, the Amarillo Republican who spearheaded the process.
“There is hopefully an assurance that this product has been looked at by a cross-section of the community and these are the results,” Rowley said.
Panelists were tasked with finding “bad things” but couldn’t, said State Board of Education member Pat Hardy, R-Weatherford.
The politicians and activists who fanned the controversy, however, are “not going to want to give it up because they would have to admit they were wrong,” said Hardy, who is running for re-election and has been beating back CSCOPE attacks in her campaign for the March 4 primary.
Reviewers identified factual mistakes here and there, questioned the rigor of some lessons, worried others covered too much to provide the necessary depth and nuance, and criticized some of the teaching strategies.
And some found isolated instances of bias, such as one lesson that repeatedly used of the phrase “separation of church and state” in a high school government lesson. The reviewer said it “smacks of an agenda.”
But most did not see a systematic attempt to indoctrinate children with messages critical of America, capitalism and Christianity.
“Some critics, whether from ignorance or political motivation, have demanded too much. CSCOPE is merely a series of sequential lesson plans (a teacher guide) for given subjects and are not the sum total of the educational product delivered by the classroom teacher,” wrote Royal Smith, an appointee who led the review panel for high school world history lessons. “CSCOPE may be found useful even though the teacher finds it necessary to make corrections or to edit the lesson plan.”
Some reviewers, however, concluded that the lessons were problematic.
“Yes, the CSCOPE lesson plan that categorized Boston Tea Party patriots as terrorists, and Islamic 9/11 terrorists as freedom fighters, have quietly disappeared from the CSCOPE arsenal,” wrote Bill Ames, a Dallas resident who has long been active in Texas textbook and standards fights. “But those lessons have been replaced by more subtle and clever ways to indoctrinate Texas’ students.”
Ames contends the lessons lack academic facts and rely on biased materials, a “perfect recipe for an education establishment committed to indoctrinating Texas’ students with its socialist ideology.”
Ken McCraw, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools, represents hundreds of such districts and said the controversy has proved costly for some districts that chose to develop replacements for the CSCOPE lessons.
The Irving school district spent $1.3 million to design a replacement curriculum compared to the $190,000 it spent annually on CSCOPE, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“What a shame to let a group come in without facts and stir the pot and turn people against a curriculum that was valid,” McCraw said. “It’s not about truth, it’s not about facts. It’s all about making a political point.”