A statewide curriculum management tool designed with rural districts in mind has been retooled to be more transparent, but critics still oppose its classroom lessons — and educators, parents and lawmakers still have questions.
"When you look at the people who have developed CSCOPE, and you look at the non-transparency and the way they implemented CSCOPE, it has a lot of the same characteristics of how they tried to implement the Common Core Curriculum," said Alice Linahan, an Argyle parent and activist against an online array of educational tools and lessons designed to guide teachers in teaching state-mandated skills.
CSCOPE, loosely an acronym for Curriculum at the Scope and Sequence, is a web-based system created in 2005 by a coalition of the 20 education service centers in Texas. The system aims to ensure that what children learn in a subject area is consistent from classroom to classroom.
In use at 877 of the state's 1,028 districts — including many in East Texas — and 103 of its 199 charter schools, CSCOPE's lessons and goals are tied to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Those are the assessments used in the public school accountability ratings.
"There's so much, and for new schoolteachers and small districts, it's to see that they are teaching to the TEKS level," said Sheron Darraghcq, director of the center for curriculum services at the Kilgore-based Region VII Education Service Center. "It's just a way to make sure all these resources I have are addressing what the state says we must teach."
Darragh said CSCOPE is particularly useful to small districts that often don't have a curriculum director. Metropolitan districts don't use the online curriculum guide, rural ones do, she said.
CSCOPE flew under the radar until conservative groups were stirred by some of the lessons teachers can use to drive home certain skills.
For instance, a section on the American Revolution includes a lesson in which students discuss the Boston Tea Party from many perspectives.
"Americans don't view it as an act of terrorism, but the king of England probably did," said Thomas Ratliff, the State Board of Education representative for Northeast Texas, offering an example of the variety of perspective offered.
A section on world religions includes a lesson requiring students to know the tenets of Islam, including that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.
"You can't describe the major world religions without describing the major world religions," Ratliff said. "The Islam lesson that they're all worked up about was written in 2007. Why are they just throwing a fit now? Obviously, we're not converting (students) to Islam, because it would have happened."
Embattled, little used
But the lessons in CSCOPE that opponents focus on probably are its least-used component. Teachers are free to design their own or amend lessons to suit a specific class, a teacher in 2A Chapel Hill ISD near Mount Pleasant said.
"I have to teach very specific things, but the method I go about it is up to me," said Tellycq Hall, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade reading and writing. "The message really depends on my kids. ... I have a set of state-mandated TEKS that have to be followed every year. Thankfully, we do have CSCOPE. .... I'm a very, very conservative person, and I don't have a problem with it."
Hall is teaching students to recognize fallacies in writing to her seventh-graders. The CSCOPE guide tells her that students in seventh grade should master a type of fallacy called the testimonial.
Thanks to a feature called vertical integration, CSCOPE also shows Hall what her students should have picked up in sixth grade and will face in eighth grade — and beyond, as lessons on fallacies become more complex.
In her sixth year at the head of the class, Hall still remembers facing the daunting set of state mandates in her first years.
"And I went, 'What?' How am I going to sit down and do this?" she recalled. "It would have been rough (without CSCOPE). I would have been flying by the seat of my pants."
Helpful to teachers
She's not alone, Chapel Hill Curriculum Director Pam Norwood said.
"Our first-year teachers have indicated they really appreciate it," she said. "The state tells us what to teach — that's non-negotiable. But nobody tells us how to teach. The lessons have been the lightning rod for CSCOPE, and that's probably the least effective and least-used portion of CSCOPE."
The outcry from Linahan and other parents at a Senate Public Education Committee meeting last month prompted committee chairman Sen. Dan Patrick to task the coalition of service centers to work on its transparency.
"I'm glad the CSCOPE board realizes that immediate and long term changes must be made to address the serious issues raised by our committee, parents and teachers," Patrick, R-Houston, wrote in response to CSCOPE's commitment to openness including conducting its board meetings in public. "The future of this program will depend on CSCOPE keeping the commitments they have made and gaining the trust of the legislature, teachers and parents."
Ratliff also said he is fine with open government adjustments the CSCOPE board has made. He's less than enthusiastic about a bill that would order the State Board of Education to vet curriculum produced by the Education Service Centers like it does textbooks.
"I am adamantly opposed to any regulation out of Austin, Texas, dictating local content," Ratliff said of House Bill 760, by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. "I said (to Toth), small districts use it. And that wasn't a concern for him. ... The key thing to recognize about CSCOPE is that, for most of the small school districts that can't afford a curriculum director, this saves their resources. ... Teachers, especially first-year teachers, need some sort of a road map to get from Day One to test day."
Responding to mandates
Texas is one of five states that have rejected the national Common Core Curriculum standards, opting for state standards set by lawmakers in Austin.
Linahan said she suspects CSCOPE is a way liberal educators are sneaking the national standards in the back door.
"We said, no, as a state," she said. "Then this CSCOPE comes in. ... Parents, when they started finding out what's in some of the lessons — that was where the challenge came in."
CSCOPE spokesman Mason Moses said the curriculum was developed as part of the education service centers' response to a legislative mandate they find their own way to make money as state budgets became tighter.
Fees and annual lease agreements have netted the 20-region coalition of service centers $17,000, Moses said.
"Total revenue with all 20 ESCs combined, since 2005, are $52,410,000," Moses said. "And the expenses total $52,393,000. ... Every dollar that is collected from the sale of CSCOPE gets reinvested into making the system better and helping poorer districts."
As part of the response to Patrick's request this month, Moses said the CSCOPE board will participate in a joint review of CSCOPE with the State Board of Education.
"They're going to look at the lessons, starting with social studies, and identify areas where we want to make sure we are being very thoughtful about what content we are providing for teachers," Moses said. "We want to make sure we reflect the values in their community and meet the needs of the state."
Darragh noted that lessons in CSCOPE are tools a teacher can opt not to use.
"Everything goes back to local control," she said. "We have all sorts of options, and it is what best fits the needs of that district."