Should tax credit scholarship schools be tested on Florida’s science standards? AEI’s Michael McShane doesn’t contribute to the debate in his Democrat op-ed

When I and other members of the committee drafting Florida’s new science standards in 2007-2008 were discussing cosmology and evolution education, we didn’t hope to change students’ beliefs about their Creator or even about the literal validity of their sacred scriptures.  As far as I know, none of us expected that a classroom teacher – no matter how well-trained or charismatic – would (or even should) break down the beliefs instilled in a child by their parents and clergy.

What we hoped for instead, and what we continue to hope for, is that all students in schools supported by the state (even those supported through tax expenditures) will know what the scientific community has concluded through the collection of experimental data about the origin of the universe and the development of life on Earth.

Over the years, science teachers have told me about their implicit pact with students whose religious beliefs conflict with our scientific conclusions, which are that our universe has developed through an expansion that began about 15 billion years ago and that life has evolved through natural processes from simple forms to more complex forms like us.  The pact is this:  that teachers will treat students’ religious beliefs with respect and reverence, and that students will learn and understand these scientific conclusions and their implications for the world and universe we inhabit now.

And this why Michael McShane’s op-ed in Wednesday’s Tallahassee Democrat just didn’t address the prompt, which was to debate whether tax credit scholarship schools should be required to test their students in science.  McShane argues that we cannot change the religious beliefs that almost half of students hold that the universe is 6,000 years old, and that therefore we should declare cosmology and evolution education a failure and certainly not burden tax credit scholarship schools with it.

But changing religious beliefs was never the goal of the science standards committee, at least not the goal of the committee member writing this (for an account of my personal concerns while working on the standards project, take a look at this article from America magazine).  One can imagine a science classroom in a rural Florida community in which every student is convinced that the Genesis account of the origin of the universe and the development of life is literally true.  But if every student in that rural classroom has an understanding of the standards in cosmology and evolution, as well as the standards I wrote on forces, motion and energy, and others in Earth and life sciences, then we would declare our program of standards and testing a success even if every child in the room would tell a surveyor from Pew or the Associated Press that the universe is 6,000 years old.

And that is why tax credit scholarship schools should test in science in addition to the testing in math and English language arts they are already required to perform by state law:  to make sure the students in these state-supported schools understand the scientific consensus, not to make sure they believe it.

Saying that the standards and assessment program is a failure because all the children in our hypothetical rural classroom would still say the universe is 6,000 years old is at best a misunderstanding of the intent of Florida’s science standards and assessment program, and at worst a self-serving misdirection of the dialogue on accountability for tax credit scholarship schools.

The only valid policy argument against requiring science testing of tax credit scholarship schools is this:  that many or most of these schools find the very mention of the 15 billion year old universe and the development of life through natural processes so abhorrent that they would drop out of the tax credit scholarship program if science testing were required; and that these schools that find conventional science so abhorrent are so important to the learning of the students they serve in higher priority subjects – basic math and English language arts – that we should sacrifice the science education of these students to provide them with this effective but basic education.

That’s the debate we should be having:  Is teaching science worth the trouble?  If not, as the tax credit scholarship advocates say, then fine – let’s get the requirement that science is tested deleted from the reauthorization of the federal law that presently requires testing in math, English language arts and science so that Florida can drop science testing for good from all its schools.  Such a move has actually been proposed in Congress, by the way.

But if making sure that all students understand what scientists do and what the scientific community has concluded from observations is important, then all state-supported schools (including those supported by tax expenditures) should teach and test it.  That’s what we mean by standards, and that’s what my colleagues and I working on Florida’s science standards were told we were working on in 2007-2008.

The argument that McShane makes, which was characterized by a colleague of mine as “some biology teachers are idiots, therefore we should pay to send kids to church schoolsis not a serious attempt to address the important policy issue.  That a policy person from the American Enterprise Institute would use such a tactic is disappointing, indeed.  And the endorsement of that low-quality argument by the state’s tax credit scholarship community is just depressing.     

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