Tuesday, June 12, 2007

There's no place like home

Under the spell of homeschooling

Parents should provide their children with the best education possible. Not everyone can afford fancy private schooling, of course, so what's the alternative to just hoping for the best in the local public schools? It could involve joining the increasingly popular homeschooling movement and teaching your kids yourself. Would you be up for it? Is it really a good idea?

Richard Sousa of the Hoover Institution has written a peculiar essay on the virtues of homeschooling. Let's cite his concluding one-sentence paragraph and then consider the degree to which he succeeds in making his case:
Homeschooling may not be for everyone, but there are certainly indicators that it works well for most and extremely well for some.
After the peroration, would it surprise you to learn that the rest of Sousa's opinion piece is devoted to explaining how unusual and extraordinary homeschooling students and families are? He must have a very curious notion of “works well for most.”

Sousa points out some survey data indicating that most homeschooling families have intact marriages with college-educated adults. The circumstances under which homeschooling flourishes are not exactly the norm. Let Sousa make his own case:
The families of homeschooled children are clearly different from those of traditional schoolchildren. Some 97 percent of homeschooled children live in married couple households; the comparable number for public school students is 72 percent. Nearly 88 percent of homeschooled parents continued their own education beyond high school; less than 50 percent of the general population has attended college.
Okay, homeschooling families are something less than typical. Sousa, however, is keen to promote the practice. He rounds up the usual suspects when it comes to educational bragging rights: spelling bees.
Let's hear it for the home team—they have done it again. Last month, 13-year old Evan O'Dorney of Danville won the National Spelling Bee; Evan is homeschooled. Of those who made it to the finals in Washington, 12.5 percent were homeschooled; of the top seven finishers, three were homeschooled. Last year, 13.5 percent of those making it to Washington for the Spelling Bee finals were homeschooled.
Good for Evan. I congratulate him. However, what does good spelling have to do with the attainment of high educational standards? Spelling is more of a memory gimmick than anything else in so unphonetic a language as English.

This is not sour grapes. I'm a very good speller myself, so naturally I tend to regard spelling skills as a mark of virtue. Good spelling can also be fostered by a wide-ranging reading program (which is how I honed my own talents), so it's not entirely detached from education. Competitive spellers, however, may be no more than kids with good memories who drill over and over on word roots and variant spellings. In that sense, competitive spelling has devolved into more of a sport than a mark of educational achievement. Spelling and education aren't independent, but the correlation is rather lower than Sousa leads us to believe.

His other big example is geography, a sadly neglected school subject in our day (which is one reason why Jay Leno gets such mileage out of ignorant college grads during his Jaywalking segments). Does geography knowledge make a better case for homeschooling than spelling skills? I don't think so. It's more memorization. Winning a geography bee is a neat stunt, but I'd be more impressed by someone who could synthesize geographical knowledge into a well-written (and well-spelled) essay on regional import-export markets. That beats dredging up a memorized fact that Luanda is the capital of Angola, whose major exports are petroleum and diamonds.

Sousa's apparent purpose is writing his essay is to promote further growth in homeschooling and to demand that truancy laws and public officials not be permitted to kill the golden goose with their interference. I wonder how far he thinks homeschooling should expand, given the evidence that successful homeschooling requires conditions not easily met. I also marvel at his cavalier approach to some of the data. Sousa estimates that homeschooling has grown by 20% per year from 1978 to 2003. That is a staggering growth rate and not a number one should toss about casually. Given an estimated 1.1 million homeschooled children in 2003, the 20% annual growth rate results in nearly 105 billion homeschoolers in 2028. We may safely assume this growth rate cannot be sustained.

Interestingly enough, Sousa undercuts his own argument by suggesting that the baseline numbers (12,500 students in 1978) were too low. If the initial population was actually larger, then the growth rate required to reach 1.1 million in 2003 is correspondingly smaller. Sousa tries to have his cake and eat it, too, when he gripes about undercounting at the start but cites anyway the supposed 20% annual growth rate.

Perhaps if he had been homeschooled, Sousa would be better at math.


Kate said...

oddly, when you look at all the statistics the numbers don't add up. Some 77% of homeschool kids are homeschooled for reasons related to religious fundimentalism, and christian fundamentalists have LOWER rates of college education than others. I have to wonder, with all these conflicting pieces of information, where all these numbers come from.

As for all this, it seems just another part of the fundamentalist agenda to undercut public education.

Zeno said...

In his original article, Sousa cites data from the National Center for Education Statistics for his contention about the supposed 20% annual rate of growth from 1978 to 2003. He mentions Caroline Hoxby of the Koret Task Force before launching into his discussion of homeschooling family demographics, but it's not clear that she is the source.

Sousa had nothing whatsoever to say about Christian fundamentalists who homeschool to "protect" their children from Darwin and other modern evils. Since he is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, we can expect him to be perfectly comfortable with right-wing motivations.

Deep Thought said...

Homeschool students do outperform public school students even when controlled for parents' education, homelife status, etc. They outperform on both standardized tests and college performance in general, with a high percentage attending some level of college. I have links to the relevant data on a series on my own blog, if you want to see the numbers.