Nearly three-quarters of Texas school districts have signed on to a third-party curriculum package that delights administrators but frustrates many teachers.
After May's election reshuffles its school board, Irving ISD may become one of the few to sign off.
For months, Irving's trustees have debated CSCOPE — a suite of teacher planning guides, handouts and unit exams that Irving purchased from its regional service center and rolled out last school year.
District administrators say the package — which costs roughly $260,000 a year — saves administrators time, keeps students on track with state benchmarks and helps teachers plan their school year.
But echoing complaints across the state, a minority of trustees complain the program bogs teachers down in paperwork, fails to prepare students for state tests and turns classroom planning over to a secretive third party.
Norma Gonzales, who is running unopposed for an open seat on the board, says she wants to phase out the program when she takes her seat. By then, CSCOPE's detractors on the board should have a majority to do exactly that.
Shannon Trejo oversaw Irving's transition from in-house curriculum to CSCOPE last school year. The curriculum director acknowledged growing pains — inevitable with major change — but said teachers are coming around to the program.
"We have teachers that don't like CSCOPE for a variety of reasons and we have many teachers that do like CSCOPE, she said. "What we are hearing now most often, with everything going on politically, is: please don't change it."
For any given subject, CSCOPE software tells teachers exactly which units to teach, in which order to teach them and when to move on to the next unit.
CSCOPE's schedule — which Trejo acknowledges is hard for many teachers to keep up with — is synchronized to the equally demanding state standards. It's also designed to provide continuity for thousands of Irving students who switch schools mid year so they don't fall behind or repeat old lessons.
But CSCOPE also comes with prewritten unit exams, which Irving makes its teachers use. And the software can spit out dozens of handouts per unit, which district officials insist are optional despite claims to the contrary.
Dani Van Wig, a regional manager for United Educators Association, said the union has heard stories from about half of Irving's campuses where principals forced teachers to replace their entire lesson structure with CSCOPE material.
"It's so rigid it doesn't allow for a teachable moment," she said.
Trustee Steven Jones said at least 40 teachers in the district have made similar complaints to him.
And for all those efforts, Irving's students fell far behind the state average last year on STAAR, the state's new standardized test that CSCOPE was supposed to prepare them for.
Only after months of backlash has central administration given teachers some control back over their classrooms, Jones said.
Reports of an outcry are greatly exaggerated, said Trejo. Since CSCOPE rolled out, she and other top administrators have met regularly with educators selected from every campus in the district.
"We heard the pacing of the material was rigorous," she said. "A lot of the complaints we heard about had to do with the assessments."
The district has tried to remedy concerns — most recently by giving teachers an extra two or three weeks before they have to give students CSCOPE unit exams. The district recently tweaked the software to list more traditional teaching aids alongside CSCOPE's suggestions.
But Trejo said not once, in multiple meetings with dozens of teachers, did anyone complain of being forced to use CSCOPE material — a common practice according to Jones, Van Wig and at least one longtime elementary school teacher.
The teacher, who asked for anonymity to protect his job, said educators were promised CSCOPE would prepare students for STAAR.
"It simply didn't happen," he said.
Instead, the teacher said, he wasted hours photocopying CSCOPE handouts no better than the material in the textbook — some of it worse. He said if his principal walked by the classroom and saw him using the book, or deviating at all from CSCOPE material, he would be "redirected" back to the new program.
But the teacher's account bore no resemblance to that of Lauren Hilton, an academic specialist who helped train Townley Elementary's staff in CSCOPE.
"Right from the beginning we felt there was a misconception," she said on a conference call with a district spokesman present. "But the district has done a good job trying to clear up any confusion about lessons, making sure teachers know they don't have to use [CSCOPE] exemplar lessons."
Many do voluntarily, she said. Enough that "if we were to change and adopt a new curriculum system, we would go through growing pains all over again."
Charges of socialism
Trustees' complaints about CSCOPE go beyond classroom flexibility. Jones said the program had Marxist origins and appeared designed to "do an end run" around the Texas Board of Education and adopt federal curriculum the state has rejected.
At board meetings, he and trustees Larry Stipes and Gail Conder Wells have claimed that CSCOPE lessons indoctrinate students into Islam and socialism. A state Senate hearing in January heard similar complaints from other districts.
"Nobody knows what's in CSCOPE," Jones said. "It's very secretive."
In an effort to settle the matter, the district is preparing a teacher survey on CSCOPE. But even that has turned political, with Jones, Stipes and Wells complaining staff won't include their questions.
"I don't want to belabor this," Jones said near the end of a long discussion on the survey last week. "It's not my decision. You guys are going to do what you're going to do."
At least, that is, until the election.