Principled argument seldom if ever coexists with monetary concerns; the most easily acquired skill in the world is to turn preference into principle; statistics are the third and most damning variety of lie. At the intersection of these truisms lies the national debate over home schooling.
According to the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) in Washington, about one percent of school-age children nationally are home-schooled, a total of nearly 500,000. The number is probably much greater, as states differ in the reporting requirements for home schooling parents, and some children are home schooled for only a few years. Unofficial estimates suggest as many as two million students are now educated at home, and two million students lost to the public school system represents a considerable threat to the education industry. Therein lies the now familiar ground of contention.
Proponents of home schooling rehearse familiar and, when left unexamined, impressive points. A 1999 survey revealed that home-schooled students outperformed their peers in both public and Catholic/private schools. In the early grades, home-schooled students typically outperformed their peers by one full grade. The median test scores for every test at every grade level fell between the 70th and 80th percentiles. Home-schooled students averaged in the 65th percentile on the ACT, and scored 67 points above the average SAT. These results confirmed a 1994 study that indicated that home-school students consistently scored better in standardized tests than their public school peers. The 1999 study was the first to suggest that home-schooled students might be superior to Catholic/private school students as well. Moreover, home-schooling has been on the increase in other countries, including Canada, the UK, and Belgium. Preliminary data from studies of home-schooled students in these countries indicates similar positive outcomes.
The good news does not stop there. Home-schooled students fare well in college: a 1997 study done by Georgia Southern College reported that in every significant way, emotionally, socially, and academically, home-schooled students were as or more prepared for college then graduates of the public school system. A 1996 survey offered anecdotal evidence from admission officers from a wide range of state and private institutions; the praise of home-schooled students at the respective institutions was conspicuous. A 1997 study tracking the college achievements of home-school, privately school, and public school graduates demonstrated the superior performance of the home-school students. Out of 63 total indicators, home-schooled students proved superior in 42. A Wall Street Journal survey indicated that home-schooled students enjoyed higher-than-average grades at two selected universities.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the brutal year 69, when 4 emperors claimed the throne and civil strife threatened to overwhelm the state, that the secret of the Roman Empire had been revealed: an emperor could be made outside of Rome. The results of the surveys might suggest a paraphrase: a great student can be made outside of the school system.
Caveats abound, however. Home-schooled students may outperform their peers at every level, but on the standardized college entry exams, the difference is not overwhelming. Home-schooled students usually begin with several advantages: nearly one-quarter of all home-schooled students have one parent who holds teacher certification; home-schooled student come overwhelmingly (98%) from two-parent families, and over three-quarters have mothers who do not work outside the home; home-schooled students watch far less television than traditionally schooled students. In short, home-schooled students enjoy the enormous advantages of traditional families, generally consistent and sometimes formidable discipline, and parents who a priori demonstrate great interest in their children’s education.
A more valid study on the success of home-schooled students needs to be undertaken, one in which the academic performance of home-schooled students are compared to public and private school students who enjoy similar advantages, before home schooling can be proclaimed an unequivocal success. Thus far, no such study exists.
Reasons for Home Schooling
A 1999 NCES survey discovered a wide range of reasons that parents chose home-schooling: the often dangerous environment in public and, increasingly, private schools; rampant drug problems in the schools; serious concerns about sexual education and sexual morality; and a belief that schools may be unable to deal with the special needs of particular children. However, the two main reasons for home schooling were the belief that the parents could do a better job of educating the child, and the religious beliefs of the parents. Indeed, evidence suggests that conservative Christians are by far the largest single group of home-schoolers.
Interviews with and analyses of local home-schooling parents revealed the same concerns and motivations. Most identified themselves as conservative Catholics or Christians; one or both parents had teaching degrees or strong educational backgrounds; all expressed little confidence in the public school system, and one couple home schooled despite the fact that the husband was himself a private school principal.
Although the 1999 NCES survey indicated that about 20 percent of public school systems offer some level of support to home-schooling parents, the practice of home schooling is controversial. The national Parent-Teacher’s Association opposes home schooling, as does the Association of Elementary School Principals. The National Education Association has proposed strict guidelines for home schooling and is on record as opposing any program that diverts resources from the public schools. A 1999 pronouncement from the NEA also claimed that home-schooling failed to provide students a comprehensive educational experience.
The rising number of home-schooled students and, perhaps more importantly, home-schooling parents active in politics and holding local and state office are problematic for the NEA and other public school supporters. The dissatisfaction evidenced by such parents with the public schools represents a growing threat to school funding.
Parents of home schooled students estimate that they spend 2000 dollars per year for books and other resources, yet receive no tax relief. Given that a large number of home-schooling parents identify themselves as Christian and conservative, pressure is likely to mount on Republicans from one of their principal constituencies to offer just such a remedy. As public school supporters resist any diminution of tax support, a serious battle over the issue looms, one that may shape the educational platforms of both parties at this year’s national conventions.
No serious evidence exists to indicate that home-schooled students lose anything by not socializing with their public and private school peers. But that is not the entire story.
In Analects 9.4, we learn that Confucius wished to settle among the Nine Barbarian Tribes of the East. His students, alarmed at the Master’s decision, asked how he could endure the uncouthness of the barbarians. His answer cuts to a real and often overlooked aspect of the debate over home schooling. He said, “when a gentleman has settled among them, what uncouthness can there be?”
Home schooling thus far has not cost the public schools a dime. What it has cost may be far more valuable than money. The vast majority of home-schooled students come from two-parent households in which discipline is strongly encouraged, television watching discouraged, one parent stays at home, one or both parents has educational credentials and an abiding commitment to education, and church attendance is regular. The overriding assumption of home-schooling parents is that the vices of the public schools will negatively impact their children. The opposite may be true; those students may impart the positive virtues learned at home to the public sphere. In essence, good people do so in every interaction, every day, at all times. Civility and decency rely on a “critical mass” of people committed to the very virtues extolled by home-schooling parents; by depriving public and even private schools of their children, such parents may ultimately harm the public interest.