School Choice: Not Just for Conservatives Anymore?

Have you seen the yellow scarves around?

Image Source: Huffington Post

Image Source: Huffington Post

They are the symbol of National School Choice Week, going on right now.

In a one-minute off-the-cuff interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, scarf-clad Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker claimed that the issue of school choice had outgrown ideology.  Support for school choice, Walker insisted, now “transcends party lines, it transcends ideological beliefs. . . .”

Walker himself is not exactly the poster child for post-culture-war dialogue.  His anti-union policies led to an unsuccessful recall attempt in Wisconsin.  In early 2011, Walker’s moves to curb collective-bargaining prerogatives led to a virtual caricature of the culture wars descending on the Capitol in Madison.

The history of “school choice” has been an ideological mishmash.  On one hand, one of the earliest and most influential proponents of vouchers has been free-market guru Milton Friedman.  As I argued in an article in Teachers College Record, Friedman saw vouchers as the single biggest reform to fix American education.  The quest for more school choice has been enthusiastically embraced by leading conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation.

Many liberals have offered across-the-board denunciations of vouchers and “school choice.”  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for instance, calls vouchers a thinly disguised propaganda program to divert tax dollars to religious schools.

However, some progressive leaders have supported vouchers and charter schools as a way to deliver better education to students who felt trapped in bad public schools.  Recently, however, outspoken voucher supporter Howard Fuller insisted that voucher programs must set clear limits.  If the programs did not specifically target low-income students, Fuller argued, they became just a shill for rich people.

Some education scholars have argued that the rhetoric of school choice has mainly served to redefine American democracy.  Instead of promoting equitable education choices, these authors contend, “school choice” tends to assume that free-market solutions are the only solutions, the best possible educational goals.

So is Governor Walker’s claim just a conservative pipe dream?  Has the goal of “school choice” overcome all ideological resistance?  Or will we see yet another split, between “progressive” supporters of school choice and “conservative” supporters, with “progressive” choice focusing on greater equity, and “conservative” choice emphasizing the God of the Free Market?

Creationists Excel in Science

What’s wrong with teaching creationism?  Some folks say creationism will block America’s students from learning science.  I oppose the teaching of creationism as science in public schools, but this argument does not hold up.  As uncomfortable as it might be for non-creationists like me, we need to abandon the false argument that creationism is incompatible with learning science.

We see it now and again.  For instance, in a recent editorial in Church & State, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State insisted that creationism “leaves youngsters woefully unprepared for the demanding science courses many of them will encounter in college.”

Similarly, in his recent Youtube video against creationism, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” insisted that creationism would cripple science education.  “I say to the [creationist] grownups,” Nye announced,

“if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

This is a powerful argument.  We must teach science well and thoroughly, otherwise young people will not be able to understand the world.  Young people robbed of scientific education will not be able to contribute to society.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to promote more comprehensive evolution education, this argument does not hold up when we examine it closely.  Turns out creationist students can do just fine with science.  We need to grapple with this inconvenient truth.  It seems that—somehow—creationists do fine with science.

Consider a few examples.

From the recent headlines, US Representative Paul Broun received a lot of criticism for his comments that evolution, along with embryology and the Big Bang, were “lies from the pit of hell.”  Many of Broun’s critics insisted that Broun was utterly ignorant of science.  Now, I don’t agree with Broun’s ideas about evolution or astrophysics.  But we non-creationists have to acknowledge that Broun, an MD with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, is not really utterly ignorant of science.  He certainly understands it differently, but it is a false refuge to conclude that he is simply ignorant.  He has been educated in science.  It appears he somehow chooses creationism in spite of this education.

Or take one of the most famous creationists of the twentieth century, Henry Morris.  In spite of Bill Nye’s lament that creationism will block the flow of “engineers that can build stuff,” Morris held a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota.  At the same time, Morris led the way for a new sort of creationism with his books and institutional leadership.

There are other leading creationists with scientific credentials.  Kurt Wise, for instance, earned his PhD in geology at Harvard.

But we non-creationists could take some solace from the notion that exceptions are always possible.  We could tell ourselves that a few outliers do not prove that creationism is somehow compatible with scientific education.  Like the folks at Project Steve, we could take comfort from the fact that overwhelming numbers of scientists DO embrace evolution.

However, those who have looked closely at the broader picture suggest that creationists often do just fine with mainstream science education.

Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for instance, found in their large-sample survey of high-school biology teachers that many self-professed creationists had completed lots of college-level science classes.  Of the teachers who professed a belief in young-earth creationism, 32% had completed a full-semester course in evolutionary science.  More than one in ten (13%) held a graduate degree in science.  Almost half (49%) had earned forty or more college credits in biology.

These creationists managed to do fine in what Americans United called “the demanding science courses” in college.  The creationist teachers, to evolutionists’ chagrin, must be acknowledged to be among Bill Nye’s “scientifically literate voters.”

Clearly, something else is going on here.  For those of us outside the circle of creationist thinking, it is difficult to understand how creationists can combine the utterly unscientific notions of a young earth with such widespread success in the highest levels of academic science.  How do they do it?

David Long’s ethnography provides at least one clue.  Long studied creationist students enrolled in a secular biology program at a large public university.  The results suggest some disturbing lessons for those of us who want a more thorough evolutionary education.  As one of his informants described, doing well in college science classes was a snap.  “I take those really big classes,” this student informed Long,

“because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes.  I mean, I got like a hundred on every test.  You have to be an idiot pretty much not to.  If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes.”

Long’s ethnographic study can’t tell us how common this experience is among creationist students.  But it suggests a far more complicated educational reality than the black-and-white schemes suggest by Bill Nye and Americans United.  In a nutshell, creationists do fine in college science classes.  They do fine in science-related careers such as engineering, teaching, and medicine.

If we really want to improve evolution education in the United States, we need to wrestle with this perplexing fact: Creationists excel in science.