A Friday lesson intended to teach students at dozens of Houston ISD schools how to think objectively included a video that mocked the idea of human-caused climate change from PragerU, a Florida nonprofit criticized for pushing biased, conservative viewpoints.

Meant to help students discern fact from opinion, the seven-minute clip encouraged viewers to “do your own research,” citing examples that push back on the idea that humans have caused climate change.

PragerU, the video’s creator, describes itself as “the world’s leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.” It has published content on the supposed dangers of gender-affirming care and how slavery may have benefitted Black people. Despite the name, it is not a university.

The video was included in PowerPoint slides created by HISD for a course called the “Art of Thinking,” a feature of Superintendent Mike Miles’ new program for 85 schools. The lesson plans, obtained by the Houston Landing, means the video likely reached students at the 73 overhauled elementary and middle schools.

HISD will discontinue the use of PragerU content going forward, Chief Communication Officer Leila Walsh said Tuesday in response to questions from the Landing. The district had included the video with the intent of helping students assess the reliability of information and recognize hidden biases, using examples they may encounter in the real world, she said.

“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,” Walsh wrote in an email.

Parents from Pugh and Wainwright elementary schools confirmed their fifth-graders had been shown the PragerU video in class on Friday. Three teachers also supplied the district-created lesson plans to the Landing. The parents said they were disturbed by the content, but said it was the first time they were aware of a video from the conservative nonprofit appearing in a lesson. 

“In a way, they’re already subliminally telling our kids to totally dismiss the whole global warming thing,” said Jessica Campos, whose daughter attends Pugh.

The video includes many short skits meant to help students understand objective thinking, several of which take aim at climate change. One example points out that temperature fluctuations occurred prior to industrialization, and another implies climate change believers think the world will end in 12 years.

“Some of it was legit and some of it seemed weird or out of place and it was all rather fixated on beating down the idea of climate change,” said Texas State Climatologist and Texas A&M Professor John Nielsen-Gammon, who reviewed the video at the request of the Landing. He said humans definitely are causing changes to the earth’s climate and the world definitely will not end in 12 years.

University of Texas at Austin College of Education Professor David DeMatthews added that, to him, it was a red flag that HISD would include any content from PragerU in a lesson.

“A lot of the material that (PragerU) provides is highly controversial, highly biased and is not really aligned with historical, or even, at times, scientific consensus around particular issues,” DeMatthews said.

Founded in 2009 by Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host, PragerU is not an accredited university and its videos have come under fire for downplaying the atrocities of American slavery and likening environmentalists to Nazis. From 2018 to 2022, the nonprofit received roughly $200 million in contributions, largely from wealthy right-wing donors, according to an analysis of tax records published by the Guardian.

PragerU did not respond to requests for comment.

The nonprofit made headlines in August when it made a misleading announcement, alongside a Houston-area State Board of Education member, that its materials would be adopted across Texas. However, the resources have not been approved by the Texas Education Agency or State Board of Education, TEA spokesperson Jake Kobersky wrote in an email.

That does not mean HISD’s use of the group’s video contradicted state guidance. Districts have broad discretion to shape their curriculum and there is no list of prohibited materials or vendors, with one exception for a debunked style of early reading materials, Kobersky said.

Though the TEA does not track whether PragerU is being used in Texas classrooms, HISD’s case was the first anecdotal account the agency said it had heard of a district using the group’s content in lessons.

Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at asher@houstonlanding.org.

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...