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PA Goals for the 21st Century: #4 Re-enforce the Secular Basis of the Administrative State (Part Two: Education)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
May 24, 2021

belief (n.): “An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.”

knowledge (n.): “Facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

This is the fourth of a series of monthly columns I will write for PA Times on the topic of setting public administration (PA) goals in the 21st century and the second of two parts devoted to re-enforcing the secular basis of the administrative state. (The first part about the role of a secular state in protecting women’s health care rights is here.) I am grateful to PA Times for providing me this opportunity and I hope readers find the goals I suggest worthy of discussion and action.

The curriculum of K to 12 education in the United States continues to be an unacceptable battleground between religiously motivated activists and public school systems across the country. But the overall ecosystem of American K to 12 education also includes private religious schools that essentially are operating without much regulation over their curricula along with that segment of the home schooling movement also strongly connected to religious beliefs. The 21st century is the time when a new secular standard for education needs to be enforced in the United States. The administrative state at all levels needs to support and enforce this standard because, without a strong educational system, the country is looking at an especially pessimistic future. We cannot succeed economically or politically with a poorly educated population. We certainly do not want to be the kind of country in which a few thousand misguided individuals, lacking much knowledge of governance, decide they are going to overturn a presidential election determined through 155 million votes by storming the United States Capitol on a cold day in January.

What the administrative state needs to do to move toward a uniform level of excellence in K to 12 education is to recognize and emphasize that education is about knowledge, not about belief. The state cannot and should never demand that children be inculcated with beliefs. The state should and must demand that children should be provided the opportunity to develop their knowledge to the maximum extent. If there are conflicts between belief and knowledge, that is something for each individual to work out through a lifetime of experience. Discarding or suppressing knowledge as a way of resolving a conflict with belief is unacceptable.

The graphic accompanying this column is an example of the potential difference between belief and knowledge. Depicted in the graphic is the “red shift” of the light spectra coming from galaxies of different distances from the Earth. The red shift increases with the distance of a galaxy from Earth, showing that, as galaxies are more distant, their relative acceleration increases. According to the red shift, which anyone can measure with standard astronomical equipment, more distant galaxies are moving away faster. With some related knowledge, it is immediately possible to calculate that the approximate age of the universe is 13.8 billion years. This clearly stands in contrast to the religious belief often espoused by Evangelical Christians that, per their reading of the bible, the universe is about 7,000 years old. The state should not care whether children in school believe which number is true; the state should care that those children have the knowledge to understand why the red shift patterns result in the calculation of 13.8 billion years. Children can work out any difference between belief and knowledge as they grow up, but they should be able to demonstrate the knowledge to explain the science and use that science in application at least for grade level.

Similarly, the state should not care if students believe the findings of evolutionary biology. The state should require that students can explain those findings very accurately and otherwise engage biological science as appropriate at their grade level.

One solution to pushing K to 12 education to live up to a secular standard is to require that all school-age children take common knowledge assessment exams, offered independently of their schools, at key junctures such as the transitions to 3rd grade, 6th grade and 9th grade and at high school graduation. Students in public, private and home schools all would go to standardized testing sites to take these exams. Independent audits of the results could lead to interventions by governments to repair obvious defects in the schools, including home schools. Any objection by religious activists to the content of these exams would be made moot by the clear reference that the exams test knowledge, not belief, and that at no point is the state asking students to change their beliefs. But the requirement that students demonstrate knowledge in such subjects as mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics and government would be non-negotiable.

I am hoping that some reading this column are getting a bit of a smile about the idea of holding K to 12 students accountable to educational KSAs. That is what the United States needs out of all students: knowledge, skills and abilities. Beliefs in this regard simply are irrelevant.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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