10 October 2014
Homeschooling—Inferior to Public Education?
In America today, there is an intense, on-going debate concerning the advantages of public education compared to a homeschool education. Many have a common belief that public schools provide exceptional learning benefits as well as an environment where students can fully develop their social skills. Homeschooling, however, is often belittled for maintaining poor academic standards and prohibiting children from interacting with their peers. But, are these accusations valid? Is public education more preferable than homeschooling? A detailed analysis of facts will show that the American public education system is quickly declining due to its poor academic performance and negative environment, whereas homeschooling is proving itself to be of higher quality and a more positive educational structure for children.
Contrary to accepted beliefs, the public education system has not succeeded in achieving high scholastic outcomes. One example of this fact can be seen in the results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. Every few years, this exam is given by the federal Department of Education to fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders (Barr). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website, the NAEP exam assigns three general grading levels: the Basic level (only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade), the Proficient level, and the Advanced level (superior performance) (“The Nation’s Report Card”). The exam’s results show that only one-third of American students display proficiency in science and technology, while three percent of students were listed as advanced. In addition, the exam also demonstrated that students’ knowledge declines the older they become, as exhibited by the fact that only twenty-one percent of twelfth grade students were considered to be proficient (Barr).
Another piece of evidence is the lackluster and declining SAT scores. For the high school class of 2012, the average reading score on the SAT was 496, which was down thirty-four points since 1972 (Layton and Brown). On the writing portion, the average score was 488, down nine points since it was first placed on the exam in 2006, and math scores were stagnant in comparison with 2011 scores (Layton and Brown). According to the College Board—the organization that administers the SAT—57% of test takers “did not score high enough to indicate likely success in college” (Layton and Brown). It should be kept in mind that in April 1995 the College Board recalibrated its scoring of the SAT (Winerip). A 430 on the verbal section suddenly became a 510 under the new scoring method. Bradley J. Quin, College Board’s senior project director at the time, said, “When the current scoring system was established in 1941, 500 was the average score for each test, the math and verbal. Those scores have been declining for nearly four decades. The average verbal score today  is 424; the average math score, 478” (Winerip). The decline in America’s educational system is also evident when comparing the academic skills of Americans with those from other countries. In a study done in 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Russell), the United States ranked 21 out of 23 countries in math and 17 out of 19 in problem solving (Beard).
Although such statistics appear surprising initially, in truth they are not if one understands the material students are taught in public schools. David Barton, the founder and president of the organization Wallbuilders, discusses in the summer 2005 issue of the Wallbuilder Report how a new philosophy of education has permeated American academia in basic subjects such as math, grammar, and reading. Examining the detrimental effects it has had, Barton tells how in Massachusetts the top priority of math teachers was not to teach math. Rather, it was to “teach ‘respect for human differences’ and ‘live out the system-wide core value of respect for human differences’” (4). This philosophy can be seen in a new eight-hundred page math textbook which did not begin asking a math question until page 107 (Barton 4). Barton states that the prior pages dealt with topics such as Maya Angelou poetry, competitive chili cook-offs, and the Dogon tribe of West Africa (4). This textbook resulted in the drastic decline of students’ math scores, such as in Palo Alto, California, where public school math students dropped from the 86th percentile to the 56th percentile (Barton, 6). Barton also describes how in the area of grammar, the National Council of English Teachers abandoned the method of training students in grammar and fundamental skills such as diagramming sentences, saying that such topics would only make students uninterested in writing (6). The results show that only one-fourth of students can write at a proficient level (Barton 6).
Moreover, the quality of American education has drastically declined from former decades. Barton, in a DVD series entitled The American Heritage Series, discusses how the quality of education was much higher at younger ages during the founding and early years of the nation. Citing from Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book of the English Language (published in 1782), Barton gives examples of words first-graders of that time had to learn and which most college students today do not know. Another example he gives is a mathematics textbook from 1877 in which elementary grade students had to regularly solve complex, multistep mathematical word problems mentally without paper and pencil.
Besides the “vast dumbing-down” of the American public school curriculum (“Public Schools Define”), the agenda of the public schools today is to teach values contrary to traditional biblical values as well as to rewrite American history. Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of Eagle Forum, discusses in an article entitled “Public Schools Define American Culture,” that the turning point in the public schools occurred in the 1960s with the “vast influence” of humanist John Dewey and his Columbia Teachers College acolytes, “who argued against objective truth, authoritative notions of good and evil, religion and tradition.” Schlafly also comments how the public schools embraced the Kinsey-trained sexperts to “change the sexual mores of our society from favoring sex-in-marriage to diversity. Concepts of right and wrong were banished, and children were taught about varieties of sex without reference to what is moral, good, or even legal” (“Public Schools Define”).
Another article by Phyllis Schalfly entitled “What’s Happened to Public School Curriculum?” tells about the current teaching of American history. This article states that the “most widely used textbook in U.S. public schools” is the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a history textbook used as required reading in many high schools and colleges. Schlafly describes the ideology of this textbook: “This textbook by Howard Zinn is a very leftwing version of U.S. history, full of multicultural, feminist, and class-war propaganda. It is based on the thesis that America is not a republic but an empire controlled by a few white men. Its heroes are anti-establishment protestors” (“What’s Happened?”).
In addition to poor academic levels, the public education system does not encourage positive social development in students. Instead, the interaction at public schools can often be dangerous. In an article entitled “Fast Facts” from NCES, statistics show that from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, thirty-one student, staff, and nonstudent school-associated violent deaths occurred in elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States (“Fast Facts”). In the 2009-2010 school year, eighty-five percent of public schools experienced one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes, giving a full sum of an estimated 1.9 million crimes (“Fast Facts”). Furthermore, there is also the problem of drug availability on school property, which in 2011 was reported by twenty-six percent of students (“Fast Facts”).
To solve these dilemmas of the public schools, there must be a counter-balance and competing educational system that will allow parents to have greater freedom to determine how and in what environment their children will be taught. One solution is homeschooling. Research and statistics show that homeschooled students have much higher academic achievements than do publicly schooled students. President of National Home Education Research, Dr. Brian D. Ray, was asked by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 2007 to “conduct a nationwide study of homeschooling in America” (Homeschool Progress Report 2). This study consisted of examining 11,739 participants from fifty states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The data obtained revealed that homeschoolers scored 34-39 percentile points higher than normal on standardized achievement tests (Homeschool Progress Report 2, 3). For subjects such as language, math, and social studies, the homeschool national average was the 84th percentile, and in reading it was the 89th percentile (Homeschool Progress Report 3). Dr. Ray states that for publicly-schooled students, the average is the 50th percentile (“Research Facts”). HSLDA also states that statistics show homeschooled students can perform one grade higher than students instructed in a traditional school environment, and that by eighth grade the average homeschooled student performs four grade levels above the national average (CBN News). Homeschoolers consistently perform above the national average on college admissions tests as well (Klicka). In both 2002 and 2003, the national average for homeschoolers on the ACT was 22.5 versus the national average of 20.8 (Klicka). Likewise in 2002, homeschoolers scored 72 points higher on the SAT than the national average and 81 points higher in 2001 (Klicka).
Besides the quality of education obtained, homeschooled students also participate in a number of positive extra-curricular activities. An article from Focus on the Family points out that today many homeschooled children are involved in athletic teams, academic competition, band, and other such activities. There is also the freedom to learn by way of experience and real-life interaction such as travel, field trips, and internships (“Home Schools”).
Because there are many benefits to homeschooling, it is becoming an increasingly popular option for many parents. Dr. Brian Ray says there are about 2.2 million homeschooled students in the nation and that it is “now bordering on ‘mainstream’ in the United States” (“Research Facts”). One way to encourage its growth is by supporting school vouchers. Parents would be given greater freedom to place their child in the school of their choice (private, Christian or Catholic, synagogue, or a homeschool curriculum) by being able to pay with a portion of funds that would normally go to the public schools.
However, some oppose homeschooling as a remedy to America’s declining public education system. Those in favor of public education claim that homeschooled students lack socialization with their peers, or that homeschool curricula lack structure. They also oppose the use of vouchers for homeschooling. Actually, many advocates for public education would not allow for any form of school choice. Focus on the Family states in “Causes for Concern (School Choice)” that local school officials have often tried to oppose any efforts for school choice by arguing that this freedom “will destroy the public school system and limit good schooling options to only a privileged few.”
Defenders of the current system also argue that all resources and efforts should be placed into the public schools because they are attended by ninety percent of students (Blumenfield). Vouchers would obviously reduce the public school education budget by redirecting funds. Another objection raised is that some homeschooling parents might exploit the voucher system, not properly using the funds for their child’s education. Interestingly, there are some homeschool advocates who also disagree with implementing a voucher system. HSLDA opposes vouchers, believing that because they are not simply free loans from the government, the government will thus regulate parental freedoms (“Vouchers”). Sam Blumenfield writes in “Homeschool and Vouchers” that a large shift of the public funds into private schools would make them part of the public sector. There are convincing points in many of these counter-arguments and some have legitimate reasoning. But, let us examine each one carefully.
First, the argument for homeschoolers’ lack of socialization has already been shown to be weak given the number of activities in which homeschooled students are involved (“Home Schools”). In addition, Dr. Ray comments how research on adults who had been homeschooled shows that they partake more in social avenues than do the general population. They participate in local community service more often, vote and attend public meetings more often, and attend and succeed at college at a rate equal or higher than that of the general population (“Research Facts”). I know this to be true on a personal level. My older brother, who was the first student to be homeschooled in Madison, Connecticut, in 1983, is married and a computer analyst helping to keep the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines running. My older sister, who was homeschooled for her entire twelve years, has her MBA from Albertus Magnus College and works in accounting. I was homeschooled and am concert master for a multi-generational string ensemble orchestra.
Second, the lack of structure in homeschooling is no longer a problem because of the number of homeschool curricula available. Initially, homeschool parents had to construct their own lesson plans and materials, but, although this approach is still used, there are currently many excellent homeschool organizations that provide curriculum, teacher instruction, parent and student support, and cooperative learning programs. These organizations include Alpha Omega Publishers, K12, A Beka Academy, and Bob Jones Home School (“Home Schools”), and there are many more. Moreover, voluntary annual portfolio reviews with the local school board can help identify if the educational level of the homeschooler is sub-par.
Third, rather than limiting education to only a few students, the voucher system would increase school choice, thereby strengthening schools and improving the quality of education by increasing competition (“Talking Points: School Choice”). The quality of public school education would rise out of necessity, as well. John D. Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas in San Antonio, studied a ten-year endowment-funded program which provided scholarships to children in the “low-performing Edgewood (Texas) School District.” With the vouchers the children attended private, religious, or public schools of their choice (“Talking Points”). Merrifield and other researchers found “an approximately 17 percentage-point increase in Edgewood’s public school graduation rates that he could attribute to the voucher program” (“Talking Points”). Merrifield states in his report that these improvements appeared to be a response to increased competition, saying that students “‘benefit from having a choice in the school they attend, even if they remain in public schools’” (“Talking Points”). With increasing competition in the field of education, all students benefit.
If the implementation of vouchers to promote school choice improves educational results, is it a valid argument to focus money only on public education? Research would say no. The United States Census Bureau’s “2012 Census of Governments: Finance-Survey of School System Finances” states that in the fiscal year of 2012, public elementary-secondary school systems spent $10,608 per student. The full amount spent in this year was $524.0 billion. Andrew J. Coulson, the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, in his testimony to the Committee on Education & the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives, compares the increase of federal spending for public education with improvements in math, science, and reading from 1970 to 2011. Coulson analyzes how during this period, federal spending has risen exponentially while scores in the three subjects have remained unchanged (Coulson). The amount of money spent by the federal government for the graduating class of 2009 was $151,000 per student, three times as much spent for the class of 1970, adjusting for inflation (Coulson), yet without improvement. In contrast, homeschooling costs much less. Dr. Brian Ray shows in his Homeschool Progress Report that the median amount spent per child for each year was $400-599 (5), and, from his report’s data discussed earlier, it is proven that homeschooled students exhibit much higher academic scores.
In answer to whether vouchers will make homeschooling subject to federal and state intervention, a well-thought out voucher system would allow for parents to opt out if they believed their educational freedom was being violated. Even without a voucher system, there is always the possibility of state intervention in homeschooling (“Connecticut”). But a voucher system would at least allow more parents the financial ability to homeschool or send their children to private school, breaking the public school education monopoly. This financial relief would also give more lower-income families the ability to homeschool their children. In a well-run voucher system, money is not given directly to the parents but rather private schools or homeschool curricula and supply companies would be paid directly by the municipality. This would provide a double check that money is used properly. In many ways, the system would mimic the federal grant system campus and online universities now use.
The advances in technology and the internet over the past few decades make homeschooling a viable option for more families. Today’s economic environment often requires both parents to have some form of paid work. It is true that because of different circumstances not every family will be able to homeschool, which is why the vouchers are important for giving parents the option to send their child to any school of their choice, such as a private Christian school. However, technology allows homeschooling to be feasible even for a growing number of two-parent working families. Because of computers and the internet, more parents can now work from home where they can monitor their children’s progress. In addition, the new advances free these parents from much of the actual teaching burden. Different homeschool organizations such as A Beka Academy provide videos or live stream internet access to classes taught by expert teachers. Students in effect become part of the class. In the future, it is anticipated that the students will be able to interact with the video teacher over the internet. Some programs, such as K12 allow the student now to have interactive internet chats.
From the evidence and different arguments presented, it is clear that homeschooling is a part of an effective solution to the current problem of America’s public schools. The simplest way to promote this important educational option is to inform others personally about the advantages of homeschooling, extoling the benefits of different homeschool curricula, and dispelling any myths and misconceptions. We can also actively participate in and support homeschool advocacy groups, such as HSLDA. It is also critical to promote educational vouchers to increase school choice. The best way to accomplish this is to lobby for voucher legislation. This dialogue would also help bring the topic of educational freedom to prominence and allow for a larger number of people who might have never thought about this issue before to now consider it. Although the intended results of these steps would take place gradually, if done properly, these active measures can aid in making homeschooling a normal and logical competing alternative in the field of American education.
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© 2014 Francis-David A. Scalzo. All rights reserved.