Home Schoolers are the Real Education Reformers

In an article titled Homeschooling Alone- Why corporate reformers are ignoring the real revolution in education, Greg Beato writes:

Despite homeschooling’s increasing popularity—a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that approximately 1.1 million students are now being homeschooled in the United States—neither corporate altruists nor philanthropic foundations have shown much interest in it.

Instead, would-be reformers continue to give generously to a public school system they routinely condemn as inefficient, dysfunctional, and hopelessly obsolete. To fix such a system, they say, it will take fresh thinking, radical change, a completely new approach. So instead of dumping billions each year into the public school system, as the federal government does, today’s private-sector benefactors forge an entirely different path, dumping only hundreds of millions each year into the public school system. They promote charter schools (which boast a nationwide enrollment of around 500,000). They champion school vouchers (which are currently used by fewer than 20,000 students nationwide).

Back in 1983 a federal report titled A Nation at Risk looked at American public education and stated “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Was this one of the salvos in the war?

Beato says:

While corporate reformers often talk as if every public school failure can be blamed on the inevitable inefficiencies of public-sector monopolists, the truth is that private forces have been helping to shape America’s public education system since its inception. In the 19th century, for example, wealthy philanthropists popularized the idea that tormenting children with fractions and vowels required specialized training and certification; the teaching colleges they helped create ushered in the era of the professional instructor. In more recent years, as education historian David Tyack has pointed out, it wasn’t just fuzzy-minded progressives who sabotaged our schools with holistic curricula like metal shop and driver’s ed. For those innovations, we also have the National Association of Manufacturers, car dealers, and insurance companies to thank.

Since that 1983 report, local, state, and federal governments have poured funds into the public school system, and corporations have made donations amounting to about one billion dollars. There really hasn’t been much improvement.

According to the American Society for Training and Development, a workplace-learning trade group based in Alexandria, Virginia, a survey of Fortune 500 companies found that teaching employees “basic skills” accounted for 17 percent of their training costs in 2002. Similarly, in a 2001 survey conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers, 32 percent of the companies responding reported that their workers had poor reading and writing skills; 26.2 percent said their workers’ math skills were inadequate. By 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts, America will face a shortage of 12 million qualified workers in the job market’s fastest-growing sectors.

One reason why these efforts are not more successful might be that they really aren’t seeking systemic change, just more of the same thing:

To participate in IBM’s Reinventing Education program, schools must agree to work overtime, “extending the length of the school day and school year.” Charter schools, another favorite of education reformers, can be havens of Holtism, but they also often display a penchant for uniforms and discipline codes. In today’s enlightened corporations, casual Fridays and flex-time rule, but yesterday’s workplace lives on in the schools of tomorrow.

But if something already isn’t working, why would you want more of it?

Corporate reformers, says Beato, essentially just want to homogenize education. Homeschoolers tend to be more successful than their public educated counterparts, and one reason just might be that “Homeschooling… is essentially an attempt to diversify education.”

Beato thinks that education reformers and philanthropists should consider funding homeschoolers:

But in today’s education landscape, where even the most generous donors can’t hope to sustain a system that burns through $500 billion a year, philanthropists ultimately function as venture capitalists: They support good ideas with seed money and hope the best ones eventually find a market. Extending this metaphor, imagine if, in the mid-’90s, high tech’s flushest angels decided to snub Internet trailblazers like eBay and Amazon and put all their money into the proposition that Montgomery Ward would pioneer online commerce. Essentially, this is the strategy of today’s corporate philanthropists when it comes to education reform.

What makes such lack of interest especially baffling is that, theoretically at least, homeschooling seems tailor-made to the values and needs of business. It’s a private, union-free institution in which the government plays only a minor role. It’s an endlessly customizable approach to education that offers an alternative to the one-size-fits-all limitations of public school. It produces self-directed individuals who have learned how to acquire new skills without constant supervision or coercion.

The downside? It may be a little harder to mass-market Doritos, Nikes, and other articles of trade in a Southern Baptist’s living room than it is in a public school. But in an era when the phrase school choice has become the mantra of so many education reformers and philanthropists, homeschooling, a choice that millions of parents and children have already enthusiastically embraced, remains the most unleveraged asset in the education universe.

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