What are the outcomes from the many choices in schooling?

Like many states around the country, our state is in the throes of debating how best to educate our children. Here, the school voucher question takes top billing. Parents and their children want what seems to them the best learning situation. Public schools, private schools, charter schools, religious schools, homeschools – choice is the key. But which one?

We hear just about daily that the United States is no longer “Great.” Americans have lost jobs because of outsourcing or technology, or because industries no longer rely on traditional coal, oil or natural gas. We also are hearing that the United States is falling behind in research and development, areas that made us really great after the Second World War. One of the obvious reasons for the decline of R&D is lack funding, but another is the quality of our education.

We hear this complaint as well from businesses. Employers can’t find enough trained workers to fill job openings. We hear that college enrollment is down among young men. Why? In the last dozen plus years, there’s been a huge shift in public attitude toward education. I taught for 20 years in both public and private secondary schools, and I saw it happen. I certainly don’t advocate that all young people aspire to go to a four-year liberal arts college. That’s just one kind of education. As important are technical schools that teach skills for the new industries that are opening up. But everyone in whatever field needs a substantial education, and one that involves critical thinking to make sense of the complexity of this world. And how about a foreign language?

The concern about choice in education is that we have no way of knowing whether our children are receiving what they need to be productive and happy in this world until they’re out in it, and then it’s too late. I know that homeschooling has developed enormously, and it’s no longer a single parent attempting to teach all subjects, grades one through 12. I know that students interact in learning settings with their peers on many kinds of projects, but who are the people doing the fundamental nuts and bolts skills teaching?

Teaching is a profession. You don’t just step in and teach algebra and civics and writing and everything else. Whatever path students choose to take, they need experienced teachers and well-rounded curricula in order to create productive and rewarding lives. To try to understand the outcomes of homeschooling and other alternative education, I turned to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Now, within the broad range of educational possibilities this is a narrow focus, and there’s not yet much reliable research available. In its 2014 article “Homeschool Outcomes” the CRHE claims there are only two research studies that have been done so far on homeschooling. The first was done in 2003 by Dr. Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. The second is the Cardus Education Survey that was conducted by the Canadian Christian think tank Cardus from 2007 to 2012. The Cardus report that focused on the United States was published in 2011.

According to the CHRE, Dr. Ray’s study was insufficiently corrected for background factors like parental income, education and marital status, which undercut his findings on homeschoolers’ success and satisfaction after graduation and in adult life. The Cardus survey, while it did correct for background factors, was also limited, because its study was designed to look only at Christian schooling. We know that many families prefer a Christian or other kind of religious education to the secular public school curricula, but not all homeschooling families choose this kind of education for reasons of faith. So Cardus, too, does not provide reliable conclusions.

These two studies show a huge range of findings. Some show that those homeschoolers who go on to college do very well; others that they do not. Some show that homeschoolers tend not to pursue education beyond high school. Some show that they are more involved in society; others that they are not. The evidence is clearly inconclusive. What we do know is that young people are having a hard time finding meaningful jobs often because they lack the necessary education. We also know that the drug crisis is, in part, fueled through people who have been unable to find a productive and satisfying place in society. Choice in a democratic society is essential, but we need to be sure the choices in education teach young people what they need to succeed. We all probably find aspects of our world that we don’t like, but we must live in it and prosper in it, and if we choose to shield our children’s education from things we find objectionable, we do not help them.

Katharine Gregg is a poet, essayist and former educator. She lives in Mason. She can be contact at kggregg@myfairpoint.net.