February 3, 2008

A thoroughly bad idea: public schools with opt-out on core curriculum

I suppose I do believe in the existence of some core subject matter. Lakeland, FL, columnist Cary McMullen has proposed an opt-out option for parents who disagree with public schools' teaching evolution. While he sees no conflict between teaching the neo-Darwin model and respecting people's religions, he argues in favor of letting parents remove their children from science classes when evolution is taught, because he thinks that will be politically acceptable while assessments still require that students learn about evolution.

There are some policies and practices that have opt-out provisions related to religious beliefs and conscience, including sex education and uniforms. But none of the opt-out provisions I am aware of get at what a school teaches in what we normally consider core academics. I know what you may be thinking: what about dissections? The arguments of students (and parents) who do not want to participate in live dissections have often focused on what bona fide expectations are. So a decade ago or so, I know some compromises have required students to observe dissections they did not participate in actively, and more recently, students who do not want to dissect frogs have argued that virtual models of anatomy is more accurate and detailed than a dissection of a formaldehyde-soaked animal and set of drawings that result from that. But as far as I'm aware, students and parents opposing participation in dissection have not argued that the content is wrong or unimportant.

And that's the problem with allowing opt-outs on evolution: it allows parents to trump the curriculum and signals that schools are not serious about a subject. Could a student get a waiver from studying complex numbers because she or he cannot conceive of imaginary numbers? Could parents pull their kids out of literature classes because it's "just fiction"? Could white-supremacist parents get opt-outs when U.S. history covers the civil-rights movement?

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Posted in Education policy on February 3, 2008 11:37 AM |