Online ‘learning experience’ replacing schoolbooks

By John Griffing

The “online learning experience” is replacing textbooks in school districts all over Texas, and officials say it’s just keeping with the times.

But the program, called CSCOPE, described as a “curriculum management system,” has caused heated debate among education experts and parents.

The discussion broadened just days ago to include the Texas State Board of Education, the SBOE, which met last weekend to hear concerns.

The debate carries national significance due to Texas’ reputation as a bellwether of educational trends, particularly in the areas of textbook selection and curriculum content.

CSCOPE advocates say that the volume of information to which students now have access outside the classroom necessitates the move away from textbooks.

“If they’re sitting in a classroom with a textbook, that’s not the world anymore,” said Anne Poplin, Education Service Center Region 9 executive director.

“We’re moving to Bring Your Own Devices. It’s a disadvantage (for children) not to have access to their devices. It’s not a textbook-driven environment. If it is, they’re behind,” Poplin said.

But critics point out that CSCOPE advocates do not address the advantage to students who cannot afford electronic devices.

CSCOPE also is not approved by the SBOE, nor is it subjected to the same rigorous standards of review as are textbooks, and parents and teachers are given no voice in the switchover, critics said.

This is because CSCOPE is a private venture and operates under the umbrella of the Texas Education Service Center Curriculum Collaborative (TESCCC). The incorporation documents of TESCCC state its independence from the SBOE or Texas Education Agency (TEA). TESCCC is reportedly not funded by any state or federal agency. TESCCC and CSCOPE are private, proprietary entities.

Efforts have been made to remedy the confusion.

The Texas Attorney General’s office ruled on April 4 that CSCOPE is a governmental body and falls within the scope of Gov. Code 552.003(1)(A)(xii) concerning public disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA).

In theory, this means that CSCOPE is subject to some degree of accountability and transparency. And yet, Section 552.104 (Gov. Code) carries an exception if following the PIA would give competitors an advantage in the development of similar products. CSCOPE has evaded any disclosure via this loophole.

Furthermore, SB 6, which the Texas Legislature passed in the 82nd Legislative Session, took the textbook adoption process over digitized instructional materials out of the hands of the elected members of the SBOE and gave local school administrators the authority to purchase digitized instructional materials (e.g., CSCOPE) at state expense that have not passed through the adoption process. Whereas faulty textbook providers can be fined, CSCOPE can publish almost any content and receive no reprimand.

In Texas, parents have rights to the teaching materials used in classrooms. According to Texas Education Code, Sec. 26.006, a parent has the right to:

  1. Review all teaching materials, instructional materials and other teaching aids used in the classroom of the parent’s child.
  2. Review each test administered to the parent’s child after the test is administered.
  3. Request that the school district or open-enrollment charter school allow the student to take home any instructional materials used by the student. Subject to the availability of the instructional materials, the district or school shall honor the request. A student who takes home instructional materials must return the instructional materials to school at the beginning of the next school day if requested to do so by the student’s teacher. In this subsection, “instructional material” has the meaning assigned by Section 31.002.

CSCOPE appears to be avoiding this parental scrutiny because Sec. 26.006 does not address situations in which “instructional materials” are the domain of a private company or nonprofit. Because of copyright and licensing formalities, parents are not given access to CSCOPE’s actual curriculum content.

The CSCOPE website has a “parent portal,” but it is highly abstract and does not permit access to the actual lessons disseminated in classrooms. This is purportedly because of a loophole in Texas Public Information Act (PIA) requirements.

Additionally, the site is run like iTunes, and only “authorized users” can access content. Any circulation of site content is forbidden; in other words, students cannot bring home lessons for parental viewing.

Many content problems have been noted by CSCOPE’s critics, including an anti-Christian, pro-Islamic bias and significant scientific, mathematical and historical errors. Opponents argue that this is why outside review of CSCOPE content is so restrictive.

Texas State Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican, has weighed in on the issue of textbooks versus CSCOPE.

As Riddle put it: “I did pretty well with textbooks. Benjamin Franklin did pretty well with textbooks. Are they going to say reading books is not effective? Should we all stop reading our Bibles?

“Call me old-fashioned, but there is something about the feel, smell, holding a book; there is a lot to be said for holding a hard copy,” she said.

She considers CSCOPE a “one-size-fits-all learning approach.” She expressed concern that the SBOE cannot review CSCOPE in the same way as textbooks.

Riddle is not wholly against the use of supplemental Internet materials. As she explained, “Online learning has a place, but the problem is, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.”

In addition to the lack of curriculum accountability, Riddle believes that doing away with textbooks will “dehumanize” learning in Texas.

“Dehumanizing our society has become very detrimental. We don’t need to go back to the fifties. But there are things we need to look back at that worked, e.g. local control – not states, not CSCOPE – return power to communities.”

Riddle condemned what she thinks are “fads,” and she believes CSCOPE falls into that category. She said “blackboards, textbooks, pop quizzes, your grade is your grade” are “what works.”

In the eyes of Riddle, CSCOPE is the symptom of a much larger social problem.

“We are outsourcing the rearing, education, parenting, and discipline of our children; stick the kid in front of the TV or give them an iPad. This takes away from teacher-student interaction, and removes the Socratic method from classrooms.”

The Socratic method is the delivery of knowledge via questioning and one-on-one interaction with educators.

Riddle summed up her chief problem with CSCOPE.

“If the goal is to create sheeple, then this works and is right on target. If the goal is [to] create, critical, problem-solving participating citizens, then [CSCOPE] fails miserably.”

Officials for CSCOPE, which currently is used by approximately 70 percent of Texas schools, could not be reached for comment.

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