Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties with the blog, many redefinED readers were unable to read this post when it was originally published Friday. Thanks to those of you who notified us. Thanks to all for your patience.
It’s old news that many religious schools teach creationism and intelligent design – and that some of those schools accept students with vouchers and tax credit scholarships. But the recent New York Times piece on tax credit scholarships gave school choice critics fresh excuse to pick up and hurl. Teachers union president Randi Weingarten immediately tweeted, “Public money being funneled to creationist, anti-science religious schools.” A few days later, a left-of-center think tank in North Carolina, out to stop a legislative proposal for tax credit scholarships in that state, described the Times story as concluding that “redirected public money” is being used to “spread fundamentalist religious theology like creationism.”
I’m in the science tribe. The evolution-is-fact tribe. But I don’t share their outrage. During my own evolution on school choice, I’ve had to grapple with the fact that many private schools are at odds with what the vast majority of scientists consider good science.
I’ve come to this conclusion: Even if we disagree about creationism, we shouldn’t be so blinded that we forget all the other lessons these children receive in all the other classes they take, in all the years they attend school. We should not overlook whether these children are learning to read and write and succeed in life. I’m hoping that people who do value scientific literacy would be more likely to look at the issue with a sober analytical eye. I’m hoping they might even be willing to place scientific learning in a broader societal context, where many public school students are suffering in part because they lack the foundational learning skills that also handicap them in the arena of science.
The fact is, not many traditional public school students are doing well right now in science. It pains me to say this, because I had amazing biology, chemistry and physics teachers in my public high school. What I learned from them has benefited me personally and professionally. But the facts are informative. In 2009, 21 percent of high school seniors scored at proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. Break those numbers down into subgroups, and depressing morphs into apocalyptic. Only 8 percent of low-income and Hispanic students reached that bar. Only 4 percent of black students did.
In Florida, the state I know best, only 27 percent of low-income students scored at grade level or above on the state’s high school science test in 2011. To be fair, that’s up from 19 percent in 2006 – and many talented people worked hard to move the needle even that much. But it’s nowhere near high enough or fast enough.
One reason the numbers are so sluggish is because there’s a long-running, critical shortage of highly qualified science teachers. And one reason this shortage persists is because school districts and teachers unions flat out refuse to offer differential pay in a meaningful way. I’m convinced they won’t change unless a lot more external pressure is imposed on the system, and more school choice will bring that pressure.
Obviously, there’s also a strong correlation between increased scientific literacy and improved literacy and numeracy. The better students can read and do math, the greater the likelihood they’ll go on to master the basic science that so many of us think is important for a healthy, informed citizenry. Again, traditional public schools are struggling here when it comes to low-income kids.
In 2011 – after more than a decade of heavy accountability reforms – 27 percent of low-income kids in Florida scored at grade level or above on the 10th grade reading test. I don’t think it’s bashing public schools to suggest they could use some help – and that private schools can be part of the solution. The most recent analysis of tax credit scholarship students in Florida shows they are making modestly larger gains in reading and math than their counterparts in public school, and these gains appear to be getting stronger over time.
That’s encouraging. So is the fact that many private schools – including religious schools – do have strong science programs. Schools like Bishop Moore Catholic High in Orlando, which has a state-of-the-art physics classroom worthy of being profiled by the Orlando Sentinel last fall. This school year, it enrolled 26 tax-credit students. We haven’t begun to tap the potential programs and partnerships that these schools can pull off, not just in science, but in all kinds of academic realms.
There is a more fundamental point here that may be uncomfortable for those who haven’t taken a long, hard look at school choice. Like it or not, parents have the right to raise their kids with whatever beliefs they want, and schooling is an extension of parenting. The only way to ensure all parents have a more equal access to educational options is to allow public funding, in some form, to follow the child. Some will choose schools where their children are taught that God created the Earth in days. Some will choose schools where kids ponder the Cambrian explosion.
At the end of the day, the goal behind expanding school choice is that more kids will be learning, period. That benefits all of us, including those of us who put increased science literacy high on their wish list.