Will the COVID-19 crisis lead to more homeschooling in Oregon? If it does, for many children (and parents) that will be a mistake.
David Henderson, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, thinks the forced shift of public school children to ineffective and impractical online schooling will lead many parents to opt for homeschooling. “What if, as I predict, home-schooling works, on average, better than the public schools before the pandemic?” Henderson asks. “Once the pandemic ends, many parents will want to continue with home-schooling.”
There’s no question that the idea of homeschooling can be seductive. After all, it can offer flexibility, more curriculum choice, religious freedom, self-paced learning, and protection from threatening ideas. And it can be appealing to parents who want to have a larger role to play in conveying important values to their children.
It’s not clear, however, that homeschooling is the right choice for a wide swath of children or that it adequately prepares young people to succeed and participate in our complex economy.
In addition, the fragmentation of our educational system may undermine the need for all members of our society to see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of our democracy. Where too many people are isolated from their peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to others.
The most recent analysis from the U.S. Department of Education/National Center for Education Statistics reported the number of homeschooled students increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1,690,000 in 2016. The percentage of students who were homeschooled increased from 1.7 percent to 3.3 percent over the same time period.
According to the Oregon Department of Education, almost every school district in Oregon has seen an increase in homeschooling in recent years, with more than 22,000 students registered as homeschoolers in 2018. There’s general agreement, however, that the number of actual homeschoolers is higher because not all homeschooling parents register their child with the state.
Parents of students between the ages of 6-18 are supposed to notify their local Education Service District (ESD) of their intent to home school within 10 days of beginning to home school, but compliance is not comprehensive.
A homeschooler is expected to take standardized testing by August 15 of the summer following the completion of 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grades, as long as the child has been homeschooled since at least February 15 of the year preceding testing (18 months before the test deadline).
The required tests include grade-level math (concepts, application, skills), reading (comprehension), and language (writing, spelling/grammar, punctuation, etc.)
Given the above information, you might be tempted to say that public oversight of homeschoolers is obviously comparable to that of public schools because the state knows how all homeschooled students are performing. You’d be wrong.
First, homeschooled students are not required to take common standardized tests that measure academic progress. They can opt out, and many of them do.
Second, homeschoolers’ tests are scored on a percentile, so the score a child gets represents how many people taking the same test got a lower score. In other words, the scores don’t represent how well the child knows the material, only how well the child performs relative to every other homeschooler taking the test. Even then, If a child scores at the 15th percentile or above, then the ESD simply files the report and there’s no follow-up.
Third, homeschoolers don’t have to report their scores to anybody unless their education service district (ESD) asks for them. But the state cares so little about how these children are doing that ESDs almost never request test scores, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Not that it would make much difference if ESDs did request the scores.
That’s because homeschoolers would only need to report their composite percentile score. This is an almost useless single percentile representing a child’s performance on all three subjects together. It’s almost as though the state doesn’t really want to know how homeschoolers are doing.
What is clear, then, is that nobody in the Oregon Department of Education really knows whether parents who are homeschooling their children are providing them with an equal or superior alternative to district schools.
I get it that homeschooling can reflect a lack of confidence in traditional educational institutions. However, despite the almost messianic belief in homeschooling held by many supporters, there are major flaws in this alternative. If one result of the pandemic is widespread abandonment of Oregon’s brick-and-mortar public schools for homeschooling, the damage inflicted on some children could be severe.
All Oregonians, particularly the legislature and governor, should care because education is not just a private good. Studied indifference or washing our hands of the consequences of educational malpractice can have serious consequences for the community at large.
As Chester Finn Jr., Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, “Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should…”