Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the February 1997 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?
No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every reformer might reply, “Been there, done that.” Teacher compensation has soared in recent decades at the same time every indicator of student performance has plummeted.
Other answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the- blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or show only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement.
When parents take a personal interest in the education of their children, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children—a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as knowledge is accumulated and put to good use. Time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down.
American parents were once responsible for educating their children. Until the late nineteenth century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans. In most Southern states before the Civil War, it was illegal under state laws for blacks to be educated, but many people (both black and white) provided education in secret defiance, producing a remarkably high literacy rate among oppressed blacks.
In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of the experts in the compulsory public school system. According to a 1996 report from Temple University in Pennsylvania, nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents don’t care whether they earn good grades and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they are doing in school.
If anything has changed since 1996, it’s more likely to be in the wrong direction. The bitter fruit of a century of Americans “educated” to believe that education is a government job is now being harvested. And literacy and graduation rates in government schools in inner cities like Detroit are now so bad one can’t help but wonder if they’d be better if education were simply made illegal.
Amid the sorry state of American education today are heroes who are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers—parents who sacrifice time and income to teach their children themselves. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.
Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone and no one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools—many private and some government (“public”)—that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. But the fact is that homeschooling is working—and working surprisingly well—for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.
That fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize.
“The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007,” reports USA Today—“up 74% from when the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003.” USA Today says that “the percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007.” Those are still small numbers compared to government school enrollment, but they are up from a mere 15,000 in the early 1980s.
Parents who home school do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe government schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy feel-good or politically correct dogma. Many home school parents complain about the pervasiveness in government schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice.
Home school parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers—including parents in the home—acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschoolers produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: By a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of home school parents.
Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that come from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.
A 1990 report by the National Home Education Research Institute showed that homeschooled children score in the 80th percentile or higher, meaning that they scored better than 80 percent of other students in math, reading, science, language, and social studies. Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. Homeschooled children make headlines regularly as winners of spelling bees and for other impressive academic achievements.
And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Have you ever heard anyone say, after a riot or a drug bust or a rowdy post-game altercation, “Oh, there go the homeschoolers again!”?
Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else.
Writing in the July 1996 issue of Reason magazine, Britton Manasco argues that the growth of CD-ROMs, Internet services, and computerized educational networks is likely to make homeschooling even more attractive to parents. For a tiny fraction of what a printed version might cost, one software publisher is offering a classic books program that incorporates more than 3,500 unabridged literary works, complete with hundreds of video clips and illustrations. A support group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, provides inexpensive on-line help, resources, and evaluations for thousands of homeschool children worldwide. Another organization links first-rate instructors and homeschool students from all over the country via computer in a college preparatory program that includes a core curriculum for about $250 per course.
In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool heroes in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.