Don't blame vouchers for poor science instruction

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  • .@MQ_McShane explains why vouchers will allow parents a way out if they don't like a school's curriculum.@MQ_McShane says don't blame vouchers for poor science instructionCreationism is taught in some schools; if you don't like that, vouchers can be a way out

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Re: “Science has a spot in voucher debates” (My View, April 16).

I share Brandon Haught’s desire for sound science education in Florida. I, too, am troubled that schools teach creationism, a nonscientific, ahistorical account of the origins of our world and our species.

Where Haught and I differ, though, is in our interpretation of the role school vouchers play in promoting such teaching.

Let me start with some facts.

Gallup polling consistently finds about 45 percent of the population of the United States believing in creationism. Note, this cannot possibly be attributed to the pernicious effects of vouchers, or private schools writ large, as approximately one half of 1 percent of students participate in voucher programs and at no point in the last 50 years have more than 12 percent or so of students attended private schools.

It appears that large numbers of students are graduating from public schools as creationists.

How could something like this happen?

Well, in a 2011 issue of Science magazine, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer surveyed a nationally representative sample of public high-school biology teachers and found that only 28 percent of them consistently implement National Research Council standards for the teaching of evolution.

Thirteen percent of biology teachers explicitly teach creationism or intelligent design. Sixty percent hedge by neither strongly advocating for evolution or creationism.

In fact, public schools do not have a particularly good track record in teaching most scientific topics.

On the most recent administration of the National Assessment for Education Progress, only 28 percent of Florida students scored proficient or better on the science portion of the exam. This occurs even though the state has enumerated science standards and tests students regularly on them. Clearly, those administrative tools are not enough to ensure fidelity to sound science pedagogy.

But on the specific issue of creationism, the explanation is relatively straightforward. Public schools teach creationism because they are, at their core, political institutions. They are governed by elected officials. If a majority of the voting public in a particular jurisdiction believes in creationism, they will advocate for creationism to be taught in the public schools.\

In 2008, Louisiana passed the Science Education Act, which allowed public-school teachers to supplement science instruction with texts critical of evolution. In 2012, Tennessee passed a similar law. From 2005 to 2007, Kansas science standards promoted intelligent design and “teaching the controversy” about evolution and creationism. If you have time, watch the documentary “The Revisionaries,” which chronicles the Texas State Board of Education’s efforts to include creationism in public schools.

This is the cold reality of living in a big, diverse, pluralistic society — sometimes folks believe stuff that we think is dumb, and sometimes those folks win elections.

So what do you do if you are a person who lives in an area where the preponderance of the voting population believes in creationism? If you’re wealthier, you can move to the attendance zone of a school that teaches evolution or pay for your child to attend a private school that offers the correct interpretation of scientific history. If you’re poor, you’re out of luck. You will be legally compelled to send your child to a public school that teaches something you know is wrong.

That is, unless your state has a voucher program.

Then, you can use that voucher to attend a school that doesn’t promote creationism. Sure, schools that promote creationism will still exist, and will be supported by tax dollars, and that is unfortunate. But no one will be legally compelled to attend them, unlike now. All things considered, that is a step in the right direction.

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