Labor

Homeschooling Alone

Why corporate reformers are ignoring the real revolution in education.

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It's Saturday morning in downtown Modesto, California, and for a city with 200,000 residents, not much is happening. The streets are mostly empty, and the outdoor tables at Starbucks are unoccupied. Outside the Modesto Convention Center, though, a steady wave of soccer moms (and a smattering of soccer dads) are pushing strollers and lugging plastic shopping bags as they enter and exit the center's 12,000-square-foot exhibition hall. Inside, representatives from dozens of educational publishers and related concerns pitch their wares to the attendees of the Valley Home Educators 11th Annual Home Education Convention.

Valley Home Educators is faith-based, and so are many of the exhibitors and seminar speakers. Among the mainstream basic skills primers and educational toys on display, there are titles like The Christian Teaching of Mathematics and Biblical Economics in Comics—along with items that could send secular public school dissidents fleeing to the comfort of their local PTA meeting. One vendor is distributing a pamphlet whose cover displays a terrified tot; the title is The Urgency of Enforcing Parental Discipline. Elsewhere Robert E. Lee: Gallant Christian Soldier is available, and there are workshops on "Biblical Principles for Government" and "Preparing Sons to Provide for a Single-Income Family."

But what's at least as striking as the event's religious component is how enthusiastic everyone is. The aisles buzz with the energy characteristic of all large gatherings where hitherto unlinked individuals are thrilled to discover that, yes, there are others—lots of them!—who dress up like giant plush toys, or consort with medically invasive aliens, or teach their kids at home. And it's not just the parents who are excited. Young teens are leafing through math instruction systems, skimming adventure novels, and generally displaying the well-mannered exuberance of trained dolphins.

A semi-exclusive door policy is in effect: Children under the age of 12 are out of luck, unless they happen to be "nursing infants whose parents are considerate of others." Presumably, this means that everyone else is welcome—including, say, grant makers, former CEOs with a penchant for pedagogical re-engineering, and pretty much anyone else from the world of mainstream education reform. No one like that has shown up, however. Despite homeschooling's increasing popularity—a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that approximately 1.1 million students are now being homeschooled in the United States—neither corporate altruists nor philanthropic foundations have shown much interest in it.

Instead, would-be reformers continue to give generously to a public school system they routinely condemn as inefficient, dysfunctional, and hopelessly obsolete. To fix such a system, they say, it will take fresh thinking, radical change, a completely new approach. So instead of dumping billions each year into the public school system, as the federal government does, today's private-sector benefactors forge an entirely different path, dumping only hundreds of millions each year into the public school system. They promote charter schools (which boast a nationwide enrollment of around 500,000). They champion school vouchers (which are currently used by fewer than 20,000 students nationwide).

The Business of Reform

In doing so, they overlook people like Joyce and Eric Burges, who are at the Valley Home Educators convention promoting their organization, the National Black Home Educators Resource Association. The Burgeses produce an annual symposium for African-American families in their home state of Louisiana, and Joyce Burges dreams of opening up a series of private learning centers where homeschooling parents can combine resources and offer instruction in a central location. In pursuit of this goal, Burges has reached out to local businesses and foundations, but few have responded so far. "We're an upstart, grassroots organization," she says, "so I'm asking businesses for anything that can help us get the word out that parental involvement in education is a viable way of ensuring that children do exceptionally well….A lot of them say, 'Yes, we sense your passion, but we can't really do anything.'"

According to the American Society for Training and Development, a workplace-learning trade group based in Alexandria, Virginia, a survey of Fortune 500 companies found that teaching employees "basic skills" accounted for 17 percent of their training costs in 2002. Similarly, in a 2001 survey conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers, 32 percent of the companies responding reported that their workers had poor reading and writing skills; 26.2 percent said their workers' math skills were inadequate. By 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts, America will face a shortage of 12 million qualified workers in the job market's fastest-growing sectors.

While public school reform has existed for almost as long as public schools have, the business world has made it a major preoccupation over the last two decades. In April 1983, a federal report titled A Nation at Risk helped kick off the modern era of Whither Our Schools? malaise. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war," the report declared. "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the 'information age' we are entering."

There was plenty of evidence to support such pessimism. In 1982, for example, Time reported that half of the employees at Ford who'd been selected to learn new statistical process control techniques couldn't understand the training materials due to poor reading and math skills. Similarly, when a G.M. plant issued a questionnaire asking employees what kind of basic training they needed, many couldn't understand the questionnaire well enough to complete it.

As part of his 1991 proposal to overhaul the nation's education system, President George H.W. Bush invited big business to take part in the fun. "The architects of the New American School should break the mold," he advised. "Build for the next century….Start from scratch and reinvent the American school….There's a special place in inventing the New American School for the corporate community, for business and labor." Instead of starting from scratch, though, pedagogical turnaround artists sought out the familiar. Public schools had market share. They were semi-desperate for cash and thus fairly compliant. In the software world, Microsoft is known for "embracing and extending" popular standards developed elsewhere. In the realm of education, virtually every corporate philanthropist employs this strategy, and thus the money flows to public schools.

A few months after Bush's 1991 address, a group of CEOs created the New American Schools Development Corporation. Furnished with $130 million in contributions, they aimed to shake up "the nation's stagnating education system with the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector." In 1993 billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg upped the ante with a $500 million pledge for public schools. A year later, IBM introduced its Reinventing Education initiative; during the next decade, it invested $70 million in the program. Since its 2000 inception, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has distributed more than $600 million to 1,457 high schools and committed more than a $1 billion to the Gates Millennium Scholars program, a college scholarship program for low-income minority students. Hewlett-Packard has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and cash to schools and universities. Wal-Mart donated $40 million to education-related causes in 2003. According to the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization that compiles information on U.S. philanthropy, elementary and secondary schools received $1,176,520,000 in grants during 2002, or roughly 7.4 percent of all distributions that year.

In a public school system where expenditures for 2003–2004 totaled a whopping $501 billion, though, $1.1 billion takes you only so far—especially since some of that money was actually donated to private institutions. In 1992 the "status dropout rate," which represents the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who aren't enrolled in school and haven't earned a high school credential, was 11 percent. A decade later, in 2001, it was 10.7 percent. SAT scores are less stagnant. In 1991 the average score was 999 (adjusted to account for subsequent changes in the scoring scale). In 2004 it rose to 1026. Even so, both colleges and employers continue to report that many high school graduates are unprepared for higher education or the workplace. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of incoming college freshman took at least one remedial course in 2000.

Learning Factories

Against such stats, another set of numbers looms: The public school system is 90,000 schools strong, 3 million teachers wide, 47 million students deep. So while it's easy enough to demand euthanasia, it's another thing entirely to actually kill the beast.

And for the business community, such grave measures would also be an admission of failure. While corporate reformers often talk as if every public school failure can be blamed on the inevitable inefficiencies of public-sector monopolists, the truth is that private forces have been helping to shape America's public education system since its inception. In the 19th century, for example, wealthy philanthropists popularized the idea that tormenting children with fractions and vowels required specialized training and certification; the teaching colleges they helped create ushered in the era of the professional instructor. In more recent years, as education historian David Tyack has pointed out, it wasn't just fuzzy-minded progressives who sabotaged our schools with holistic curricula like metal shop and driver's ed. For those innovations, we also have the National Association of Manufacturers, car dealers, and insurance companies to thank.

If today's corporate reformers don't know much about history, they do display a well-developed sense of irony. In one breath, they argue for more "school choice." In the next, they advocate the development of "best practices" that can be franchised from classroom to classroom and lobby for legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act, which essentially coerces all schools everywhere to teach the same subjects using the same methods and materials. To streamline an education system where "the vast majority of students and teachers are struggling against bureaucratic constraints," IBM introduced its Reinventing Education program, which, in impeccably fluent Educratese, proudly touts its "student assessment practices, continuous teacher improvement models, and teacher instructional planning." If there's anything that can get apathetic students and teachers energized about learning, it's "student assessment practices" and "continuous teacher improvement models."

The idea that the public school system is an Industrial Age artifact, a dreary factory (or prison) of learning, is a staple amongst education critics, including many corporate reformers. It's also what the latter like best about it. "The trend these days is really to intensify standardization, to intensify the curriculum. It's like the children are resources like gold or oil that need to be developed," observes education consultant Patrick Farenga, whose own approach to homeschooling follows that of his mentor, the late John Holt, who coined the term "unschooling" and popularized the idea of unregimented, child-directed learning in influential books such as How Children Fail and Instead of Education. Corporate philanthropists tend to like regimentation, though, and inevitably they think of education in business terms, emphasizing productivity, enforcing quality control, demanding measurable results.

To participate in IBM's Reinventing Education program, schools must agree to work overtime, "extending the length of the school day and school year." Charter schools, another favorite of education reformers, can be havens of Holtism, but they also often display a penchant for uniforms and discipline codes. In today's enlightened corporations, casual Fridays and flex-time rule, but yesterday's workplace lives on in the schools of tomorrow.

A Homegrown Alternative

In 2002, when the national average SAT score was 1020, homeschoolers averaged 1092. In 2003, 248 homeschoolers achieved semifinalist status in the National Merit Scholar program, with 109 of them winning Merit Scholarship awards. In 2004 homeschoolers scored an average of 22.6 on the ACT college entrance exam. By comparison, public school students scored an average of 20.9.

All of these statistics are mitigated by the fact that relatively few homeschoolers take national achievement tests (or at least identify themselves as homeschoolers when they do). While more than 1.1 million public and private school students took the ACT exam in 2004, only 7,858 self-identified homeschoolers did so. It's possible, skeptics argue, that their strong performances aren't representative of all homeschool students (many of whom, of course, are too young for high school achievement tests).

Still, as the number of homeschooled test takers grows, their overall average stays higher than their traditionally schooled counterparts. In 1997, when 1,927 homeschoolers took the test, they averaged 22.5. During the next eight years, as the number of homeschoolers taking the test increased 307 percent, their annual average score topped the national average every time.

Thanks in part to such statistics, the general take on homeschooling is starting to change. Or at least the media's take is. You can still occasionally find articles that stereotype homeschoolers as gubmint-hatin' religious wackos, or fretfully posit the demise of Miss Grundy's English class as the end of democratic pluralism. (Never mind that old Abe Lincoln himself was a homeschooler!) These days, though, homeschooling mostly gets good press, and articles extolling its virtues exhibit all the subtlety of an infomercial host. Meet the Florida 16-year-old who scored a perfect 1600 on her SAT! And the Michigan 10-year-old who took first place in the 2002 National Geography Bee! And the Type A Renaissance kid who gargles in Latin, plays cello in the local orchestra, and thinks taking out the trash is a great way to earn extra credit!

Of course, there are also homeschoolers who do lousy on standardized tests. Some have never even built their own harpsichord from scratch or taught themselves how to read hieroglyphics. But the positive anecdotes and statistics do make it clear that overcrowded classrooms, peer pressure, and apathetic teachers are no longer the only guarantors of academic success. College admissions officers have been quick to pick up on this: A decade ago, homeschool students rarely were accepted by top universities such as Harvard or Stanford, but now such events are commonplace. More than 1,000 colleges in the U.S. will consider applications from homeschooled students.

Part of the reason corporate philanthropists haven't shown a similar interest is that it's not very convenient to give money to homeschoolers. "If you're a foundation or a corporate gifts program and you can't find a 501(c)3 to give your money to, you're not getting the tax deduction," says Justin Torres, research director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to education reform. "Then you're just giving money to an individual, and there are all kinds of IRS headaches with that."

As homeschooling evolves, though, more homeschooling groups are filing for 501(c)3 status. There are national groups such as Brian Ray's National Home Education Research Institute and regional ones such as the California Homeschool Network. But while headache-free giving opportunities in the world of homeschooling do exist, size matters too. If you really want to turn a philanthropist on, it helps to be big. Hewlett-Packard, for example, doesn't consider requests from individual K–12 schools, and IBM's Reinventing Education program set its sights on the vast forest of the public school system, not mere trees. "Rather than creating a model school or enriching a few classrooms with technology, our goal is to use technology to jumpstart comprehensive and lasting school reforms," the company announced at the program's inception.

"Business leaders focus on how to get the most impact with the least effort," says Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve Inc., an education reform group that features such high-profile executives as Prudential CEO Arthur Ryan and Intel CEO Craig Barrett on its board. As with many business-driven reformers, Achieve's mission is to strengthen standards, assessments, and accountability—in effect, to homogenize the school system to ensure uniform levels of achievement. Homeschooling, on the other hand, is essentially an attempt to diversify education. Some homeschoolers are just as focused on standards as groups like Achieve are. Others have little interest in tests or assessments of any kind. "You can have more impact on something that's actually a system," Gandal concludes.

Since homeschoolers value their autonomy so strongly, it's easy to assume they have no interest in outside assistance. In a two-income society, however, homeschooling is something of a financial anachronism, and many homeschoolers are thus less closed-minded on the subject than one might assume.

Daddy Warbucks

Take the financial assistance offered by the Children's Scholarship Fund, an organization co-founded by Wal-Mart heir John Walton that makes private and parochial schools a more viable option for low-income families by granting partial scholarships. As part of its efforts, it offers scholarships to homeschoolers as well, but hasn't emphasized this fact in its outreach efforts. When the organization first publicized its program in 1999, it received applications for more than 1.25 million eligible children. Currently, around 24,000 children receive support from the Fund Scholarships, with an average grant of $1,200 each. Of those 24,000, just 110 are homeschoolers. Since all applicants are chosen by lottery at odds of about 1.9 in 100, however, what this means is that more than 5,700 homeschooling families have sought assistance from the Children's Scholarship Fund, even though the organization has done little to court them.

As homeschoolers organize, sharing communal space and equipment, and sometimes even hiring teachers and other personnel, the impact a philanthropist can have on their efforts becomes substantial. Consider the Family Educators Alliance of South Texas (FEAST), which is based in San Antonio. Informally organized in the mid-'80s and incorporated since 1989, the emphatically Christian organization operates out of a former private high school that it purchased several years ago. Around 400 students attend at least one of the dozens of once-a-week courses it offers, and approximately 15,000 homeschooling families purchase homeschooling curricula from its bookstore.

Today, revenue from the bookstore and donations from parents provide FEAST's budget, but its long-term stability is due in large part to the generosity of James Leininger, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who made a fortune selling hospital beds, then branched out into numerous other endeavours, include partial ownership of the San Antonio Spurs. Known to his detractors as "God's sugar daddy" and the "Daddy Warbucks" of Texas conservatism, Leininger purchased a former bowling alley for FEAST in the early '90s, at a time when the group was operating out of a single office. "He told us, 'I'll buy it, but it's up to you guys to fix it up,'" says Ruth Perez, director of FEAST. "His support was pivotal in allowing us to prosper."

Right now, aspiring FEASTs outnumber homeschool-loving Daddy Warbucks types. And unless education reformers start viewing self-reliant, deeply committed mavericks positively rather than negatively, that will remain the case. "Corporate philanthropists want to generate positive headlines and good feelings," says the Fordham Foundation's Torres. "They're always going to err on the side of caution."

But in today's education landscape, where even the most generous donors can't hope to sustain a system that burns through $500 billion a year, philanthropists ultimately function as venture capitalists: They support good ideas with seed money and hope the best ones eventually find a market. Extending this metaphor, imagine if, in the mid-'90s, high tech's flushest angels decided to snub Internet trailblazers like eBay and Amazon and put all their money into the proposition that Montgomery Ward would pioneer online commerce. Essentially, this is the strategy of today's corporate philanthropists when it comes to education reform.

What makes such lack of interest especially baffling is that, theoretically at least, homeschooling seems tailor-made to the values and needs of business. It's a private, union-free institution in which the government plays only a minor role. It's an endlessly customizable approach to education that offers an alternative to the one-size-fits-all limitations of public school. It produces self-directed individuals who have learned how to acquire new skills without constant supervision or coercion.

The downside? It may be a little harder to mass-market Doritos, Nikes, and other articles of trade in a Southern Baptist's living room than it is in a public school. But in an era when the phrase school choice has become the mantra of so many education reformers and philanthropists, homeschooling, a choice that millions of parents and children have already enthusiastically embraced, remains the most unleveraged asset in the education universe.?