Vouchers − Darwin= ??

Eek. Vouchers + creationism = liberal horror, teacher-union field-day, and at least a small risk to the school-choice movement. Politically and strategically, it would be so much simpler if those “voucher schools” would just behave themselves!

But how upset should one really be about the AP report from Louisiana that some of the private schools participating in the Pelican State’s new voucher program “teach creationism and reject evolution”?

State Superintendent of Education John White offered the correct policy response: All voucher students must participate in the state assessments, which include science. “If students are failing the test, we’re going to intervene, and the test measures [their understanding of] evolution.” In other words, the schools can do what they like but if their voucher-bearing students don’t learn enough to pass the state tests, the state will do something about it—ultimately (under Louisiana regulations) eliminating those schools from eligibility to participate in the program.

That ought to be the policy response to everything that district and charter schools do too: “You’re free to operate your school as you see fit (within the bounds of health-and-safety rules) but you’re also accountable for your students’ results, which we—the state—will check on via our standards and assessments.”

I recognize that it’s an imperfect system, since a kid can get some questions wrong but still pass the test—and what if the questions he answers incorrectly include all that touch on evolution? But that can happen even in a hyper-regulatory regimen where the state tries to prescribe curriculum and pedagogy in detail. I’m reminded of the old Sy Fliegel quip: “Define ‘taught’ as used in the following sentence: ‘I taught her to swim but every time she gets into the water she sinks to the bottom of the pool.’”

I’m not limiting this discussion to science either. Results-based accountability applies to every subject that the state deems important enough to have standards and assessments for.

If we can wrap our minds around this core proposition—that accountability is about outcomes, not inputs, practices, curriculum, staffing arrangements, budgets, uses of time, etc.—and the related proposition that families have the right to choose the schools they think best for their daughters and sons, we can save ourselves an awful lot of grief, not to mention many regulations and much bureaucracy. We would then actually allow schools to be different from each other in a dozen ways—and encourage those running the schools to decide just how they’ll differ.

Yes, I’m dismayed and saddened that some schools teach creationism (or what’s known as “intelligent design,” a sort of creationism-lite). It’s not correct science and it won’t do those youngsters any good in later life. But it’s not just private schools that occasionally do this. The Louisiana legislature in 2008 gave teachers in that state’s public schools the legal right to raise questions about evolution—and a dozen or more states have K-12 science standards that pussyfoot around the topic.

The plain fact is that a lot of Americans take the Bible literally and therefore have doubts about scientific explanations of the origins of the universe and of the people who inhabit this planet. Those Americans have their full share of political, cultural, and moral influence and they’re as serious as anyone about the education of their children. It’s no surprise that many states—and more than a few educators—are wary of mandating that those scientific explanations be taught in school as if they were, ahem, gospel.

Such avoidance will get harder in states that eventually adopt the Next Generation” (a.k.a., national) Science Standards now under development by Achieve—assuming, of course, that suitable assessments come along that are well-aligned with those standards. Although Fordham reviewers found plenty to fret about in the standards’ first draft, its handling of Darwin and evolution is scientifically accurate and intellectually appropriate. (They were somewhat less thrilled with the draft’s treatment of today’s other touchy science issue, “climate change.”)

Let’s recognize, too, that science isn’t the only subject that elicits curricular controversy, nor the only one that lends itself to what I regard as academic folly in public and private schools alike. Political correctness, cultural pluralism and idiotic ed-school-fostered instructional ideas all contribute to such foolishness. Consider, for example:

  • Invented spelling. Particularly in the earliest grades, any number of teachers encourage their pupils to spell words however they wish.
  • “Whole language” reading. This is surely the most widespread of our K-12 curricular follies, vastly more damaging to the kids’ and the nation’s futures than teachers raising doubts about evolution.
  • Bilingual education. What better way to bar the door to success in America than to trap immigrant youngsters with only the language of their homeland and fail to ensure that they become fluent in English?
  • Ebonics and such. These language-arts absurdities haven’t had tons of attention lately but they still rear their heads from time to time. Just days ago, the Detroit School Board hired an interim superintendent of schools who promised, inter alia, “The re-institution of Ebonics-anecdotal instruction in the English and Social Studies curricula and the re-emphasis of Afro-centered instruction in those curricula.”
  • “Expanding environments” in social studies. Don’t tell kids about the Civil War or the Equator; introduce them to “my friend the postman.”
  • “Fuzzy math.” It doesn’t matter whether you get the right answer so long as you tackle the problem in an interesting way.

One could easily go on. The point, of course, is that curricular craziness, often in defiance of scientific truth as well as common sense, is by no means confined to the science classroom or to private schools. In fact, most of the time it’s paid for with public dollars.

School choice doesn’t solve these problems. It does, however, let kids with wise parents avoid them. And it lets other kinds of parents tailor their children’s education as they think best, even when that includes elements that I find unproven at best, outrageous at worst.

Because K-12 education is also a public good, though, the state has an obligation to enforce minimum standards of learning for its young people, at least in those curricular realms that it deems essential to an adequately educated society. The most obvious and even-handed way to do this is through statewide academic standards and assessments in core subjects. These apply to public schools. They should—and in Louisiana do—apply to “voucher pupils” in private schools. And (thanks to compulsory-attendance laws and school-licensing criteria) they could apply to private schools, home schools, and more, though I acknowledge that state officials need to be judicious in how they approach this.

Whether such officials can navigate these curricular and political cross-currents remains to be seen. But let’s do, please, be clear about this: It’s as big an issue for public education as it is for private education and it really has almost nothing to do with vouchers!

-Chester E. Finn

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Insitute’s Flypaper blog.

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