PragerU video questioning human-caused climate change shown to Houston ISD students

The school district said in a statement it is no longer using content created by PragerU, a controversial nonprofit that promotes conservative viewpoints. Its content has not been approved by the Texas Education Agency or State Board of Education.

Mike Miles Cameras
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Houston ISD superintendent Mike Miles speaks to reporters.

Houston ISD says it will no longer use video content produced by PragerU, a California-based nonprofit that promotes conservative viewpoints, after a video that questioned the legitimacy of human-caused climate change was shown to students last week.

A community member sent Houston Public Media a slideshow from an "Art of Thinking" class for fifth graders that last Friday included a PragerU video titled "How To Think Objectively." There are multiple sketches in the 7-minue clip that suggest human-caused climate change could be a myth – such as one character saying there were changes to the Earth's climate before industrialization, and another poking fun at the idea that the "world will end in 12 years because of global warming."

Another image from the video shows the statement, "Melting ice will soon swallow beaches," before the narrator suggests such a message could be conflicted by the continued sales of beachfront property.

Scientist-led climate assessments commissioned both by the United States government and the United Nations have found that human activity and industry is contributing to climate change and that it is worsening and already having far-reaching impacts across the country and the globe.

"The content in the PragerU video was presented as an example of information students will encounter in the world," Leila Walsh, Houston ISD's chief communications officer, said in a Tuesday evening statement. "The lesson was designed to help students think critically about the accuracy and subjectivity of information. After speaking with the curriculum team, they have decided to no longer use PragerU video content."

"Art of Thinking" classes are new to HISD this year as part of state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles' New Education System, which is being implemented at a total of 85 campuses representing all grade levels. Walsh did not say in her emailed statement how many students at how many schools saw the aforementioned video.

PragerU, which is not a school, was founded in 2009 by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager. It bills itself online as the "world's leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media." It has come under fire for creating biased, factually questionable material that, among other things, has claimed that enslaved people benefitted from slavery.

In August, State Board of Education member Julie Pickren appeared in a PragerU video called "Welcome to Texas," in which PragerU officials said their content had been approved in Texas and would be rolling out in the state's educational curriculum. But the Texas Education Agency (TEA) said in a statement Wednesday that PragerU has not been approved as a curriculum vendor by either the TEA or State Board of Education and its content is "not included on any supplementary curriculum lists."

At the same time, PragerU content is not necessarily restricted in Texas public schools.

"Individual school systems are able to select their own instructional materials and develop their own curriculum," the TEA said. "However, any local curriculum must cover 100% of the (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and superintendents are required to submit yearly attestations to the agency indicating as much."

Walsh said HISD students "learn critical thinking skills such as how to assess the reliability of information, recognize hidden bias, and be discerning users of information and facts. These are essential skills students need to process the large volume of information that people now receive through daily conversations, social media, and other digital channels."

Duncan Klussmann, an assistant clinical professor in the University of Houston's College of Education and the former school board president for Spring Branch ISD, said HISD should be more transparent about whether it intended the PragerU video to be an example of trustworthy or untrustworthy content. He also said the district, which is the largest in the state and recently was taken over the TEA because of board mismanagement and academic performance issues, should be more forthcoming about who exactly is creating its curriculum.

As part of Miles' New Education System model, teachers receive premade lesson plans. There have been other problems with those lesson plans, such as a sexually charged reading passage being initially included in a reading comprehension lesson for eighth-graders, who did not end up being exposed to the questionable material, according to HISD.

"If HISD is saying they were using this (PragerU) content to help students discern what is good information and what is bad information on the internet, and they were using this as an example of bad information, then I could understand that," Klussmann said. "Everything I have looked at from PragerU and the standards that the State Board of Education puts in, I don't see them meeting those standards for the state's adoption of instructional materials."