Curriculum

Texas Lesson-Plan Brawl Resonates Beyond State Border

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 20, 2013 6 min read
Texas state Sen. Dan Patrick speaks out against state-developed lesson plans during a policy debate before the state board of education in August. He successfully sought an audit of the state's 20 education service centers over contracting concerns.

A political brawl over state-developed lesson plans used by hundreds of Texas school districts mirrors the state’s long-standing battles over textbook content, in some ways paralleling the national debate over new content standards.

First implemented in 2006, the state’s curriculum-management system—formerly known as CSCOPE and now dubbed the TEKS Resource System—originally provided lesson plans as well as guidelines for meeting the states’ standards, and tests to accompany the lessons that are separate from state accountability exams.

The TEKS system no longer provides the lesson plans, although it offers help with content standards. The lessons themselves are now in the public domain, and continue to draw fire from political activists who say they undermine parental oversight of schools, and push anti-American, anti-Christian content. Some critics also say the material has provided backdoor access for the Common Core State Standards, which opponents criticize as an intrusion on local control over curriculum and content.

But Mason Moses, a spokesman for the state’s 20 education service centers (which provide a variety of services to districts and charter schools, including help meeting state standards), stressed that most districts viewed the lessons as a resource, not a mandate.

“As the standards changed, we would update the lessons to reflect those changes,” he said of the centers, which stopped offering the lesson plans to districts in May under a deal reached with state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican who leads his chamber’s education committee and has consistently targeted the lessons for criticism.

A Flexible Resource

The plans and other content were developed beginning about a decade ago by the service centers. They have proven particularly beneficial for the state’s hundreds of relatively small and medium-sized districts that don’t have their own curriculum staff to develop curricula and lesson plans on their own, supporters say.

As of last count, roughly 875 school districts, charter schools, and private schools had gained access to the lesson plans, including 70 percent of Texas’ roughly 1,100 districts. Until the service centers stopped offering them, the lesson plans, along with the standards guidance and tests, were licensed to districts for $7 per student in each district. The lesson plans are now available freely, a fact which has further angered their opponents; districts can still get the guidance and testing support from the centers for $5 per student.

At a Sept. 13 meeting of a state board of education ad hoc committee tasked with reviewing CSCOPE social studies lessons, Abby Rogers, a teacher in the 3,700-student Paris school district, said that while the amount of time lesson plans indicate tasks would take could prove inaccurate, she enjoyed the primary sources and test questions.

“It isn’t perfect, but it is something that we’ve been able to use and manipulate at a local level,” she said of the lessons.

Concerns About Material

Conservative concerns about the lesson plans coincide with criticism in Texas and elsewhere of the common core, which has come under attack recently for some of its recommended reading materials. And for years, the question of how textbooks in Texas deal with topics like evolution and the environment have been the subject of major disputes at the state board of education, leading to deep divisions among board members.

Former teacher Janice VanCleave, who lives in Riesel, Texas, first began criticizing the CSCOPE-developed lesson plans in late 2011. She said she is outraged, for example, by lessons that ask students to consider whether the Boston Tea Party was an act of terrorism without offering historical context. (A lesson plan describing the event involves asking students if they think the incident was viewed as a terrorist attack “in the eyes of the British.”) She also said the lesson plans spend an inordinate amount of time on Muslim culture, when in her view no religion should be taught in schools at all on principle. The lessons also have also been criticized for linking to sources discussing early Christians in Rome as cultists.

“They want children to question the moral and social standards of their parents,” Ms. VanCleave said.

At the Sept. 13 committee meeting, state board member Marty Rowley pointed to the removal of links to external, controversial sources for lesson plans as proof that the system was properly responding to complaints from community members.

But conservative criticisms of the lessons go beyond their content. Ms. VanCleave believes that the service centers have acted illegally by using state funds intended for standards alignment to push lesson materials instead; that lessons have not been appropriately evaluated; and that true local control as exercised by parents and communities has been “subverted” by superintendents and school boards who instead bow to regional and state K-12 bureaucrats.

“Nobody is overseeing what they’re doing,” Ms. VanCleave said of the state service centers.

She also said she considers the CSCOPE system in general to have been a precursor to the common core in Texas, given her view that both want to develop “social intelligence” and what she deems subversive views at the expense of American traditions.

Mr. Moses categorically denied that any of the lessons were anti-American or inappropriate in the ways Ms. VanCleave alleged, and also said that CSCOPE was in no way a stealth method of introducing the common core to classrooms. He also said that, contrary to claims that the service centers are misusing state funds, the lesson plans were entirely financed by licensing fees.

In announcing his request to State Auditor John Keel that the centers be audited, Sen. Patrick (who declined to comment for this story) said in a July 18 statement that their problems went beyond the lesson plans to include issues with contracts and bidding. At the request of the senator, as well as one from Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, Mr. Keel’s office is conducting an audit of the centers.

The Sept. 13 committee hearing was part of a state review process of the curriculum-management system. But the findings will only be provided to districts as a resource and won’t require any state action about the lessons. Any lawmaker who might wish to outlaw the lessons through legislation will likely have to wait until 2015, the next regular session of the Texas legislature.

“Parents need to continue to make their voices heard at the local school district level that they want CSCOPE [lessons] out of their schools,” Mr. Patrick said in the statement.

Teacher Views

The Texas Association of School Administrators has taken no official position on the lessons. Reece Blincoe, the superintendent of the 3,600-student Brownwood district, said that teachers who like the lessons tend to be younger and more comfortable with newer classroom technology.

“Seventy-five percent of our teachers love them, and 25 percent of our teachers hate them. What’s funny about that is that there’s not a lot of gray,” he said.

A spokesman for the 68,000-member Texas State Teachers Association, Clay Robison, said many teachers have found the material useful.

“They should have the flexibility to find the extra help if they need it without the political intrusion from people who see a conspiracy behind every tree,” Mr. Robison said.

The present course, however, may place decisions about the lesson plans back into the hands of the same local officials that some activists say they distrust.

“Teachers are scared to speak out,” Ginger Russell, Ms. VanCleave’s daughter and a tea party activist, told officials at the Sept. 13 hearing. “Who knows what’s still in there?”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as Texas Lesson-Plan Brawl Resonates Beyond State Border

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