Saturday, March 21, 2009

A tale of two management teams

By Bruce N. Shortt

Let’s conduct a thought experiment.

Suppose you have a critical project that is being carried out by two independent management teams. One team has a well-established track record of success even though it has always had very limited resources. The other management team fails at nearly everything it touches, despite having vastly larger resources than the other team. Nevertheless, the failed management team wants to regulate the successful management team. Would you agree to it?

State senators Jim Wilson (D-Tahlequah) and Mary Easley (D-Tulsa) introduced legislation this year that would have given the same pedagogically challenged bureaucrats who run Oklahoma’s failing government school system new power over Oklahoma’s highly successful homeschooling families.

Senator Wilson claims that he is motivated in large part by concern for the academic well-being of homeschooled children. Indeed, he has suggested in public statements that homeschooled students are behind their government schooled counterparts academically.

There is an element of humor in this. Fifteen to 20 years ago, government education bureaucrats, like Senator Wilson today, tried to discredit homeschooling by claiming that parent-directed education couldn’t possibly reach the lofty academic heights achieved by highly trained government education professionals. Sadly for the government education bureaucrats, however, when this "intuitively obvious" argument was put to the test, the results proved "counterintuitive," at least to the education bureaucrats.

In study after study, homeschooled children outperformed their government-educated counterparts. Moreover, studies found that this was not only true in the United States, but in other countries. Before long, the results became so profoundly embarrassing to the teachers' unions and other government education special interests that years ago they simply dropped the argument. Unfortunately for Sen. Wilson and Sen. Easley, someone forgot to send them the memo. Consequently, a brief review the situation is in order.

The facts about our two educational management teams—Oklahoma’s homeschool parents and Oklahoma’s government school bureaucrats—couldn't be clearer.

Management Team I

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as "The Nation’s Report Card," Oklahoma’s education bureaucrats have profoundly failed Oklahoma's children and taxpayers.
  • An astonishing 73 percent of Oklahoma’s 4th graders cannot read at grade level, and 35 percent cannot read at even a basic level. By 8th grade, 74 percent of Oklahoma’s children still cannot read at grade level, with 28 percent being unable to read at even a basic level.
  • In mathematics, 67 percent of the state’s 4th graders are below grade level, with 18 percent lacking even a basic grasp of mathematics. By 8th grade, math illiteracy is burgeoning in Oklahoma: 79 percent of students are below grade level in math, with 34 percent lacking even a basic understanding of mathematics.
Unfortunately, most Oklahoma parents generally don’t know much about the actual academic performance of Oklahoma's public schools. This isn't entirely their fault. Oklahoma's highly trained education professionals diligently work at making sure that parents aren't getting the facts.

Oklahoma’s education bureaucrats, together with their legislative enablers, have adopted a state "accountability test" (the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test) with standards so low that parents can be told that roughly 83 percent of Oklahoma’s 4th graders are reading at grade level, rather than the 27 percent that the NAEP reports. President Obama's education secretary said last month that some states are "lying to children and families"about the quality of education they're providing. Only Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have been more aggressive than Oklahoma in trying to pull the wool over parents' eyes about reading performance.

But the bravura swindle by Oklahoma's highly trained education professionals doesn't end there. They’ve also managed to reduce the number of Oklahoma public schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind by 85 percent through the simple expedient of lowering standards. Because of a skillfully executed, but deceitful, public relations campaign, parents have been under the impression that 97 percent or so of Oklahoma’s public schools are making Adequate Yearly Progress, the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

Then there’s the embarrassing problem of Oklahoma’s dropout rate. Oklahoma is among the national leaders in underreporting its dropout rate (Oklahoma has ranked 12th out of 47 states in the national dropout lie-a-thon). So, parents and taxpayers also don’t know that roughly 30 percent of Oklahoma students drop out before graduating from high school.

And yes, Oklahoma’s government-school-bureaucrat management team accomplishes all this and more while spending, as OCPA research fellow Steve Anderson has demonstrated, $10,942 per student per year when all costs are taken into account.

Management Team II

What about the other management team—Oklahoma’s homeschool parents? No study anywhere has ever shown that homeschooled students in any state do worse academically than government-schooled students.

In fact, virtually every study ever done on the academic performance of homeschoolers shows that they do very substantially better academically than their bureaucratically managed government-school counterparts. For example, in the largest survey done so far on homeschool academic performance, the average homeschooled child scored at the 77 percentile on the nationally normed Iowa Test of Basic Skills. That’s 27 points better than the average government-schooled child, who is at the 50th percentile.

Further, studies have shown that the longer a child is homeschooled, the farther ahead academically he is compared to his government-schooled peers. One national study found that by 8th grade, homeschooled students were four grades ahead of the national average, and the average SAT score for students who had been homeschooled at least seven years was in the 92nd percentile.

Not surprisingly, no study has ever shown that regulation of homeschool parents by education bureaucrats has any positive effect on homeschooling academic outcomes. In fact, two studies have found that the degree of state regulation of homeschooling is not related to homeschool academic achievement or preparation for college.

But this is not all. Homeschooling research has revealed some additional interesting facts. For example, even if the homeschool parents lack a high-school diploma or are low-income, the available evidence shows that their children outperform the average government-schooled child by a substantial margin.

By how much? In a battery of tests covering writing and mathematics, government-schooled children with parents who hadn’t graduated from high school scored on average in the 34th percentile in writing and in the 28th percentile in mathematics. In contrast, in a battery of tests that included writing and mathematics, homeschooled children whose mothers had not graduated from high school scored in the 83rd percentile, while homeschooled children whose fathers had not graduated from high school scored in the 79th percentile.

Even more intriguing, there is at least some limited evidence that, unlike any other educational model, homeschooling may largely eliminate the achievement gap between blacks and whites. This may be one reason why minorities are probably the fastest growing demographic within homeschooling.

As for how homeschooling prepares children to become adults, a recent large study of homeschoolers who had reached adulthood found that adults who had been home educated had much higher levels of civic involvement, participation in higher education, and life satisfaction than adults who were not homeschooled. However, it should be pointed out that homeschooled children do lag their government-schooled counterparts in one area: they watch far less television.

Where is the evidence that homeschooled children would benefit from government regulation? Why would state legislators even consider giving more authority over homeschool parents to Oklahoma’s crack team of government educators—the folks who spend billions of dollars a year to achieve heretofore unknown levels of semiliteracy and illiteracy among otherwise normal children?

As unpleasant as it may be for the government-school special interests to acknowledge, children generally thrive in every way when they are homeschooled. This may explain why the National Center for Educational Statistics recently found that homeschooling grew by 36 percent between 2003 and 2007.

The state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, was right to criticize this “ill-advised proposal to crack down on homeschoolers.” Indeed, given the dismal track record of Oklahoma’s educational establishment, it would have made far more sense if Senators Wilson and Easley had introduced legislation requiring parents intending to send their children to government schools to register with homeschool parents, and for Oklahoma’s highly trained education professionals to be required to report to homeschool parents the academic progress of government-schooled students.

Bruce N. Shortt (J.D., Harvard University; Ph.D., Stanford University) is an attorney in Houston.

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