Vouchers − Darwin= ??

By 08/31/2012

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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.

Comment on this article
  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Dr. Finn,

    The centerpiece of your argument is the idea that public education is already infused with as much “craziness” as the idea that the earth is only 10,000 years old and that humans hung around with dinosaurs. Thus you reason, the voucher-supported dissemination of the latter ideas is not different in kind from what is already going on in public schools, and thus, creates no net harm, just different harms.

    I respectfully but vigorously beg to differ.

    Regarding what you see as academic follies, you say the following:

    “idiotic ed-school-fostered instructional ideas all contribute to such foolishness. Consider, for example:

    Invented spelling.
    “Whole language” reading.”
    “Expanding environments” in social studies.
    “Fuzzy math.” “
    [and your explanations mischaracterize and demean each of these four[

    You continue …

    “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.”

    I don’t remember what I once knew about the ebonics issue, but despite your caricatures of some of these other issues, there is quite strong research support for the ideas you mock here, much stronger than for the idea that humans shared the earth with dinosaurs ☺

    *Invented Spelling. In most areas of human development, kids perform in a funny/inaccurate/immature way before they perform in a mature and accurate way. Kids talk funny before they talk in a more adult way; kids walk funny before they walk like adults; young kids’ thinking is full of amusing illogic; and kids draw and spell funny en route to drawing and spelling in more mature and accurate ways. This is just how development unfolds. In spelling, kids often only include key consonants of a word at first, then gradually add the vowels, and then any silent letters, and gradually progress towards correct spellings just as they gradually progress towards walking as we do. Correcting children too much squashes kids’ motivation, and wise education always makes sure to keep healthy motivation alive while simultaneously making progress on knowledge and skills. When teachers are encouraging kids to use their invented spelling, they’re just saying “give it you’re best try, and engage your brain in figuring out this spelling thing.” This accepting attitude towards children’s normal stages of spelling development is associated with perfectly fine and comparable long-term spelling outcomes. Furthermore, we also know from experimental developmental psych research that too much modeling dampens kids’ initiative and creativity, and I seem to recall that conservatives are rather fond of initiative.

    *Bilingual education. Despite many people’s political problems with bilingual education, and despite the complexity of creating good studies in this field (also true in special education), the bulk of the research I’ve been able to find concludes that bilingual education is as good or better than immersion/English only: Specifically,

    – Native-language instruction does not retard the acquisition of English.
    – Well-developed skills in the native language are associated with high levels of academic achievement.
    – Bilingualism is a valuable skill, for individuals and for the country.

    *Whole language. The National Reading Panel (NRP) report broadly and erroneously spread the idea that systematic, intensive, and de-contextualized instruction is the “scientific” way to teach reading. There were several fatal flaws with the NRP report, including a summary report (what most people read) which was written by a PR firm and which differed from the actual panel findings in important ways, conflation of the independent and dependent variables, and the assumption by the panel that faster gains on reading subskills translates into better long-term reading.
    $6 billion later, we found that faithful implementation of what NRP identified as scientifically-based reading instruction improved reading comprehension zero, but created widespread collateral damage for children and the curriculum. Once we delete the whole word studies the NRP misclassified as whole language, whole language yields the same levels of reading comprehension in the long run as does traditional subskill instruction, but also tends to yield better writing and attitudes towards reading, and tends to allow for a more complete curriculum—instead of crowding out recess, science, and social studies. In short, whole language appears to broadly superior to traditional reading instruction in the long run. (See Gerald Coles, “Reading, The Naked Truth,” for a study by study analysis.

    “Expanding environments” in social studies. If you’re used to high school content, it’s easy to make fun of elementary school-level content, but especially for young children, real-world connections to the subject are very important. Having taught social studies curriculum courses, what’s interesting to note is that a vast number of the most significant core concepts in the social studies disciplines could be studied through units and projects that start out with “My friend the postman.” Older children are more capable of abstract thinking about social studies subjects beyond their experience, and this helps explain the expanding environments approach. While a strictly “expanding environments” approach is too limiting, you’re totally misleading readers to suggest that students don’t wind up learning about the equator or the Civil War through this approach.

    “Fuzzy Math.” This is a pejorative term for an approach that you disagree with (so-called “constructivist” mathematics), but the pattern of research findings is eerily similar to that found with whole language vs. intensive phonics. That is, traditional instruction yields faster short-term gains on computation, but in the long term, the advantage in real-world mathematics problem-solving and attitudes towards mathematics goes to the constructivist approach. Contrary to your caricature of the approach, constructivists are very much interested in long-term effectiveness regarding getting the correct answers, but are simultaneously interested in deep understanding, real-world applications, and sustaining kids’ motivation to learn mathematics. Having adopted more ambitious goals than traditional math instruction adopts, the constructivist approach goes about math learning differently, and is more effective at reaching those goals. Meanwhile, traditional math instruction is a disaster—turning off vast swaths of the student body to this wonderful subject. As with reading, the bias of math tests towards low-level subskills and not real-world competence typically misleads policymakers and pundits.

    Humans tend to be fooled by narrow and short-term effects and overlook broader and longer-term effects, and it is in these broad and long-term effects in which the superiority appears of the methods you critiqued.

    What you called idiotic here actually turns out to be more effective for the child and for America.

    There’s a common sense explanation that make intensive phonics instruction sound like the obvious choice, and there’s a common sense explanation that makes whole language sound like the obvious choice. We do research to understand which version of common sense (if either) is true, and in what ways, and under what conditions.

    Maybe it’s fun to paint university professors like me as pursuing crazy ideas, but we’re working hard to find out what really is most broadly effective in the long run, and the answers we find will always conflict with one or another version of common sense.

    Humans didn’t co-exist with dinosaurs, volcanoes don’t erupt because the gods are angry, women aren’t too emotional to be trusted with a vote, red meat isn’t so good for you after all, systematic intensive phonics is broadly inferior in the long run, and vouchers probably cause more harm than good.

    If Education Next is about cutting edge ideas for education, it’s imperative to not be fooled by narrow, short-term research or primarily ideological agendas.

  • jeffreymiller says:

    Nice try, Chester. The key issue you started with has to do with public tax dollars going to support religion. End of story.

    You seem to allow for that unconstitutional behavior with stories of other absurd practices in public schools and how the standards and outcomes will dictate better curricula. Later, you suggest that parental control could help. Problem is, it’s the public/parents who many times desired different practices in schools and letting Louisiana off the legal hook makes your essay fail.

    One reason why our students don’t do as well as they could in school devolves from the ability for anyone of any persuasion to have a hand in the public education system. The more we allow crap like creationism in our schools (even private ones), the more we open the door for opinion and myth to overrule science and disciplined knowledge and encourage a corresponding disregard for formal learning.

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