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Reformers Should Take a Look at Home Schools

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Education reformers rushing to create new forms of schooling may be overlooking a treasure trove of experience and data that could bolster their efforts to improve education.

With the reform movement entering its second decade and still encountering misunderstanding and criticism, school reformers cannot afford to overlook nontraditional allies and pools of information about education practices that work. One untapped source of such information is parents who choose to educate their children at home.

In home schooling, parents are deeply involved in their children's education, instruction is personalized, schooling is de-bureaucratized, and technology is a central part of the learning experience. These features are among those that education reformers are advocating for public schools as a whole.

In addition, some research indicates that, although the populations may not be exactly comparable, home-schooled students do better on achievement tests than their public school counterparts. Riverside Publishing Co., for example, a processor of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, analyzed test scores of 16,311 home-schooled students from 50 states. Its November 1994 report found that students schooled at home scored at the 77th percentile, while public school students logged in around the 50th percentile.

Paradoxically, most of the reform initiatives have not yet shown they can consistently improve student achievement or restore parental confidence in public education. While such reformers as James P. Comer, Theodore R. Sizer, and Robert Slavin have demonstrated that schools following their principles can achieve significant learning gains, their challenge is reaching a level where most students, not just a few, can benefit from their ideas.

Gaps in test performance may be fueling the interest of parents in home schooling because the number of families choosing to march to the beat of their own drum is rising sharply. Estimates of students now being educated at home range from 500,000 to 2 million, or between 1 percent and 4 percent of the entire American student population. The Home School Legal Defense Association, a membership organization of home-school families, claims at least 25 percent growth in each of the past 10 years.

Support for home schools is growing in legal circles as well. In 1994, Maine home schoolers defeated legislative attempts to subject home schools to monthly visits by public school officials. In 1994 and 1993, respectively, bills that would have required home-school teachers to be state certified were defeated in South Dakota and Kansas. Similar laws that had been in effect in Iowa, North Dakota, and Michigan were overturned.

As the home-school population grows and gains credence, it also is becoming more divergent in nature. While some parents simply believe they can do a better job of educating their children than public or private schools, many decide to keep their children at home for a range of other reasons: concern about declining academic standards in public schools, the desire for more control over a child's moral upbringing, religious customs that conflict with conventional school practices, worries about discipline and violence in public schools, unusual family circumstances such as heavy travel by parents, and special student needs that warrant individualized instruction.

With its high achievement rates, degree of family involvement, and dramatic growth, home schooling is a stark omission from the long list of efforts for which education-improvement advocates loudly cheered during the past decade. Reformers have championed curriculum frameworks, common cores of learning, site-based decisionmaking, total quality management, charter schools, voluntary standards, merit pay, and national certification of teachers. But they have ignored home schooling.

Drawing from the home-schooling pool of knowledge will not be easy, of course. There is little trust or respect on either side. When home schooling is mentioned in establishment circles, people tend to get jumpy. On the other side, attempted forays into the home-school community are met with a cry of "leave us alone."

But if the oftentimes emotion-laden issues associated with home schooling can be pushed aside, and the home-school community agrees to collaborate with reformers struggling to fix public education, we may have much to learn. The issue for public education is not whether, as some opponents claim, home-schooled children have an unfair advantage because they receive such prime pedagogical fare as one-to-one instruction. Rather, it is whether and how such an advantage can be gained for all children. By studying home schools, reformers perhaps could find something in how children engage in out-of-school learning experiences that could work inside the education system as well.

The home-school phenomenon provides an opportunity for reformers to strength-en their case for greater parental involvement and the use of diverse schooling approaches matched with individual learning styles. Deft handling of the sensitive privacy and locus-of-control issues, and the skillful crafting of research designs, might provide reformers with useful insights into how to increase parental involvement and provide better individualized instruction.

The complex conflicts between the let-us-do-it-our-way home schoolers and the conventional education establishment are not likely to abate. What is likely to diminish, however, is the degree to which public schools and home schools remain different, as more conventional schools, thanks to the efforts of reformers, become "let us do it our way" schools.

With education rapidly being reshaped by technological advances and efforts to foster diverse and personalized approaches to schooling, schools of the future may look more like home schools look today. For the good of America's children, maybe it is time for us to understand what is happening in home schools and acknowledge that movement's momentum.

Mark Weston is the state-services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. This essay reflects his thinking and does not represent official positions of the ECS, a national, nonprofit organization that works with state policymakers and educators to improve education at all levels.

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