The Nation's Pulse

The Case for (a Different Kind of) Education

Public schools are failing, private schools too expensive -- why not try something else?

By 10.17.13

Education, like the economy, has become the nation’s Achilles’ heel. When it comes to education, we’re like that kid sitting behind the cool kids at lunch, or the girl whose homecoming dress is just a smidge long: We want it so badly yet it’s farther away than ever. A new global report (pdf) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development confirms the worst. According to the numbers, Americans, ages 16-65, rank well below citizens of average countries worldwide in just about every skill.

In terms of literacy, 78% tested at a 2 (out of 5). While less than 1% of adults worldwide tested at Level 5, “Japan (21.4%) and Finland (20.0%) have the largest proportion of adults scoring at [Level 4] and the largest proportion of adults scoring at this level or higher.” Americans do worse in math proficiency. Around 30% of adults in the U.S. managed to score at a Level 3 (out of 5) or higher. Once again Japan and Finland, along with Sweden and the Netherlands, scored above 50%. 

Assuming these groups received the bulk of their formal education via public schools as most Americans do, the numbers are disheartening — staggering even — though unsurprising. As other nations have advanced, our public school education has remained stagnant. A 2011 Harvard study showed American students rank 32nd in math proficiency against the 65 nations that participated in the study. Of course, one can enroll one’s child in a public school’s advance placement programs but many of these don’t hold up to what a private school teaches without recourse to such programs. When our son become school-aged, one look at numbers like these and we were hesitant to enroll him in a public school. Another look at the cost of private school — three children for 12 years at a private school would average some $8,000 per child, per year — and we had to look no further: Thank God for  home schooling.

In every subject, from math and science to reading and social studies, homeschooled kids out-perform public school kids by 30 percentage points or more.  Studies confirm they’re resilient and focused, doing well regardless of household income or whether or not their parents were certified teachers or a large sum of money was spent on their education. (All this, even though public schools spend on average 93% more than a private school does per child, or at least $10,000 per year, per child. Parents who homeschool spend around $600 per year, per child.)

What about the stigma of homeschooling? The lack of socialization, the utter nerdiness, the long-denim-wearing-skirted-ness of it all? One study showed that in terms of communication, maturity, socialization and daily living, homeschooled students still out-perform public school kids. I’ve never worn a long denim skirt in my life, but that said: kids tend to reflect their parents. Public and private schools have their share of unsocialized or quirky kids yet they aren’t labelled socially awkward. Unsocialized compared to whom? A classroom of 30 seven year-olds? In most areas of the country, there are numerous groups, co-ops, and activities for homeschoolers; it’s more difficult to organize our schedule than force my children to play well with their peers.

Even if homeschooling seems like the best option — especially when it comes to academic rigor — how feasible is it? That is the real question. Many parents cannot or do not homeschool because both need to work, they are single parents, they don’t feel competent, or they simply want a break from parenting for eight hours a day or so.  All of these reasons are valid, important, and understandable. Homeschooling does not work for every family or at every stage of life for every family. It’s difficult and requires sacrifice. Who knows, in two years, I might throw up my hands and giggle every morning when I see that yellow bus stop at the end of our street.

But for many families homeschooling — like so many aspects of life — is as feasible as you make it. I educate my children a few days a week using a curriculum; they receive instruction from other adults, in a classroom setting among their peers, other days — the proverbial best of both worlds. With a three-to-one ratio, I can teach each child according to their strengths at a pace that works for all of us, cutting out wasted time. This especially works for my oldest, a boy, who’d rather learn math via Legos or science via a combination of the library and exploring the forest in our back yard.

The lesson? Do what works for your family. But if your child is enrolled in a system that’s clearly failing our kids — and our country — it might be time to make some real changes to that system, or consider other available options.

Photo: Creative Commons

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.