March-April 2007 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
The Economy, Public Schools, and Homeschooling
Why should homeschoolers spend time thinking about what's happening to public schools? After all, didn't a lot of us choose homeschooling so we wouldn't have to deal with public schools? True enough. But it's helpful for us to be aware of what's happening because most people, including many homeschoolers, assume that we are doing something roughly equivalent to what the public schools are doing. Or, if we aren't, we ought to be. In addition, some homeschoolers plan to have their children enter or re-enter public schools while others participate part-time in public schools.
This column will focus on three aspects of current issues surrounding public schools. First, how are changes in the US economy likely to affect schools? Second, have schools improved as a result of reforms of the last few decades? Third, how can we homeschoolers use recent developments to our advantage and minimize the chances we will be negatively affected by what's happening to public schools?
The Effect of Changes in the Economy on Public Schools
Changes in the US economy are affecting the jobs that will be available when today's students enter the workforce. Some of the changes come from the development of a global economy. As a result of NAFTA and other free trade agreements, US corporations can more easily take advantage of cheaper labor available in developing countries, including China and India, rather than hiring US workers. At first unskilled and low skilled jobs were most strongly affected, but increasingly overseas professionals such as engineers and computer specialists are being hired for work that is done through computers and the Internet. In addition, more mid-level jobs are being automated, further reducing the number of jobs. Such changes raise concerns about what jobs will be available in the future.
Among the responses to these changes is a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), which describes itself as "a not-for-profit organization created to develop proposals for building the world class education and training system that the United States must have if it is to continue to be a world class economy." Released late last year, the report is titled Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The report's recommendations will not be adopted immediately, but the NCEE hopes at least some states will adopt some of them. The report will also influence the thinking and actions of policy makers, especially since it covers wide-ranging proposals for people of all ages and some of the commissioners are prominent figures. The Executive Summary is available at www.skillscommission.org.
The report examines the current global economy and claims that if US workers are to maintain their standard of living, they need to be better educated. Fixing the current educational system will not meet the challenge. Instead, a new system is needed.
Among the report's recommendations are the following:
• Fund education through the states instead of through local districts. Increase total funding so additional money can be given to schools with disadvantaged students without cutting funding for other schools.
• Give individual public schools greater power and authority by making them contract schools run by teachers and others.
• Develop state board examinations that would allow tenth graders who pass them to go on to college or technical school.
• Provide preschool for all three and four year olds and educational opportunities for adults who do not have high school diplomas.
• Increase salaries for teachers in an effort in attract more highly qualified teachers.
• Develop curriculums that place less emphasis on rote memorization of facts and more on "creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one's work and drive it through to a successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on."
Whether states will adopt these recommendations remains to be seen. But they will undoubtedly have some influence on the thinking of public policy makers in education as have the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, America 2000, and Goals 2000.
Are Public Schools Improving?
Emphasis has been put on education reform in recent years. America 2000 became Goals 2000 and then was followed by No Child Left Behind. These efforts and others have led to changes in public education. According to statistics published in the January-February, 2007 issue of The Atlantic, the following has occurred:
• The total spending per pupil in public elementary and secondary high schools (expressed in constant 2004-2005 dollars to eliminate inflation as a factor) has nearly doubled from under $5,000 in 1970 to $8,000 in 1990, and nearly $10,000 in 2003.
• The number of teachers has increased from just over 2 million in 1970 to over 3 million in 2003. This has led to smaller classes and a decrease in the teacher-student ratio from about 22 to 1 in 1970 to 16 to 1 in 2003.
• The number of public-school teachers with at least a master's degree has increased from 28% in 1971 to 57% in 2001.
Thus significant gains have been made in three of the major areas frequently pointed to by people seeking to improve the public schools: US taxpayers are spending more for public schools, class size has been reduced, and teachers have more advanced degrees. And yet when one looks at the effect these changes have had by examining students' test scores, there has been no significant change in the scores of 9 year olds, 13 year olds, or 17 year olds in either reading or math from the early 1970s to the early 2000s. (Note: Many homeschoolers would certainly contend that test scores are not a good way to measure learning and would have strong arguments to support their case. However, this is the way that public school officials have chosen to assess learning in public schools.)
As The Atlantic concludes: "Immune to conventional remedies: Despite serious efforts to improve the performance of U.S. students, it has been flat since the 1970s." (See The Atlantic, January/February 2007, page 97.)
These statistics highlight some of the challenges facing public schools today. If some of the most widely recognized and promoted conventional reforms are not fixing the schools, what will it take? Is the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce correct in saying the system needs to be changed? If so, how could that be accomplished, especially given the strength of the interests that are benefiting from the current system, including teachers unions, professional associations of schools, textbook publishers, and others? Could it be that the families who are homeschooling, at least in part, because they think that conventional public schools aren't working and can't be fixed, are right after all?
Of course, such statistics are not surprising to many homeschoolers who realize and demonstrate that what does make a difference in children's educations is the role played by families.
What Can We Do?
What do reports such as these mean for homeschoolers? First, they remind us of the importance of the work we are doing as homeschoolers. Second, we can use reports such as these to support homeschooling, counter critics, and prevent regulation of homeschooling by the public schools. Third, we can be alert for future changes in the public school system that would not be helpful to homeschoolers and work to minimize the damage they cause.
First: We can increase our appreciation for homeschooling. Contemplating the problems facing the public schools reminds us that homeschooling is one way for today's children to get the education they need and to prepare for an uncertain future. How many homeschoolers do you know who are strong on "creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one's work and drive it through to a successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on," as called for by the report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. Of course, there's no easy or practical way to replace the public schools with homeschools in the foreseeable future, but it is interesting to note that many homeschools are doing what the New Commission is calling for. By homeschooling ourselves and by working to maintain homeschooling freedoms, we are making an opportunity available to families that simply is not available through the public schools. It is important that we keep that door open for our children and grandchildren and for other children.
Second: We can cite these reports to gain support for homeschooling and respond to critics. Among the points we can make are the following.
• The report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce reminds the general public of what they already know: public schools do not have the answers and are not doing an effective job of educating many young people. We can use both the report of the New Commission and the statistics from The Atlantic to strengthen our objections to having homeschools regulated, inspected, or controlled by public school officials. Homeschools should not be required to meet public school standards or become like public schools. Homeschoolers should not be required to take standardized tests that would supposedly measure their learning and that would force homeschoolers to adopt the attitudes and values of the public schools so they would be prepared for the tests.
• The report's call for a new system validates the idea that society needs alternatives like homeschooling. Therefore, homeschools should be permitted and even encouraged as an alternative that might work better, that public schools might learn from.
• Allowing teens to go to college after completing tenth grade points to some of the advantages of homeschooling. Colleges often offer smaller classes, opportunities to pursue special interests, less time in the classroom (usually 12-15 hours per week), less than half of the classroom hours required of students in conventional high schools. This recommendation supports a statement that homeschoolers have long made: that older teens (and younger children as well) need alternatives to conventional public schools.
Third: We can be alert for future public school programs that could cause problems for homeschoolers and work to minimize these problems.
Consider, for example, the of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce's recommendation to "Provide high-quality, universal early childhood education." It seems wrong-headed and contradictory to say both that the public school system is so bad that it needs to be replaced but that even younger, more vulnerable children should spend more time in that system. As homeschoolers we are very aware of the importance of children having time at home and in the real world. There are many, many reasons to oppose universal preschool.
The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce's recommendation that qualified tenth graders be allowed to move on to college or technical school has some merit in that it provides teens with alternatives to staying in public high school. However, it is important to note that this recommendation is based on the ideas that learning can be measured by standardized tests and that public schools should increase their reliance on such tests. Although some homeschoolers find tests they have carefully selected themselves helpful for various reasons, most homeschoolers oppose state-mandated standardized for homeschoolers. The more public schools rely on standardized tests, the greater the risk they pose to homeschoolers. Homeschoolers can minimize this threat through actions such as these:
• We can be well informed on the problems with state-mandated standardized tests and prepared to present them when necessary.
• We can be alert for situations in which public school officials might claim that we need to have our children tested in addition to the usual testing requirements (if any) that our state has for homeschoolers and refuse any additional tests that are not clearly required by statute.
The broader curriculum suggested by of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce that emphasized creativity, innovation, etc. has a certain appeal. However, there are also risks in having the state broaden what it claims as its area of responsibility for children and teens. It opens the door for the state to impose even more attitudes and values than it does already.
Recent reports indicate that public schools are not improving despite increases in taxpayers' money spent per pupil, smaller class sizes, and increased education for teachers. Another report suggests that a new system of public education is needed. As homeschoolers, we can use such reports to strengthen our independence of the public schools and be alert for possible problems they may raise such as universal preschool and increased use of standardized testing.
© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman