There’s no place for traditional school in effective school reform

This is a guest post from Gary Houchens, professor at the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Western Kentucky University.

One of America’s foremost scholars of school leadership and improvement is Joe Murphy, professor of education at Vanderbilt University. His 2012 book, Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement, offers the most comprehensive look to date at one of the nation’s fastest-growing school choice options.  Murphy’s book makes it clear that what we know – and don’t know – about homeschooling offers deep lessons for professional educators.

In his book, Murphy offers a thorough, detailed, and easy-to-read examination of existing research.  American homeschooling is a movement skyrocketing in popularity (as many as 4% of school-aged children are now educated primarily at home).  Murphy traces modern homeschooling to the democratic and free school movements of the ’60’s, though religious conservatives dominated the ranks of homeschoolers by the 1980’s.

While today’s homeschoolers are largely demographically heterogeneous (white, middle class, religiously and politically conservative, and better educated than the average American family), as the movement has grown in popularity it also has become increasingly diverse, and secular homeschoolers also occupy an large and important segment of the homeschooling population.

1. Nonreligious homeschoolers tend to unschool.
Homeschoolers confess two typical motivations: a desire for more family time and an urge to pass on the family’s values. Most report a concern that their children will be harmed academically, socially, or spiritually by traditional schooling.  And homeschoolers make pedagogical choices that are strongly associated with religious motivations (with religious-oriented homeschoolers tending toward more traditional approaches to teaching and learning) or non-religious ones (in which case families tend toward more student-centered methods, such as unschooling).

2. Data shows homeschooling does no harm.
Murphy provides a thoughtful overview of research on the effects of homeschooling, noting that the dearth of sophisticated, controlled studies prevents researchers from concluding that the same child learns more in a homeschooling environment than she would in a traditional school setting.  However, data is clear that homeschooling does no harm in that, on a variety of measures, homeschooled children perform as well as their traditionally-school peers.  On the other hand, numerous studies show that homeschooled children from families of color, and of lower incomes and educational levels, typically perform higher than demographically-similar peers in traditional schools.

3. Socialization is a non-issue: homeschooled children are fine.
The most common argument against homeschooling is that children are not be properly socialized.  But Murphy presents research rejecting this hypothesis, demonstrating that based on multiple socialization measures, homeschooled children are adept socially, and in fact have higher levels of adult interaction and engage in more community-based activities.

4. Current schools don’t work. Homeschooling is a viable alternative.
Traditional schools fail because you cannot meet the needs of America’s diverse children through a one-size-fits-allstate-run monopoly on education.  The central planning required for the government to deliver any public good (including education) requires standardization, which prohibits schools from tailoring learning to the needs and preferences of individual children and their families.

But the homeschooling movement demonstrates that children can be effectively educated without these structures, and without a vast, expensive cadre of professionally trained teachers and administrators.

5. The future of education is outside of traditional schools.
As more and more families demand educational options that address their values, academic preferences, and individual learning needs, the traditional structures of schooling will become largely irrelevant.  Professional educators can use their considerable political clout to resist this inevitable demand (paternalistically insisting that they know better than families, and denying those families their desired choices), or they can embrace personalized learningtruly innovative models of instruction, and school choice.

The greatest educators in the 21st century will very likely not work in traditional schools.  But that doesn’t mean there will be no place for professional educators.  On the contrary, true educators will discover new venues by which to deliver the public good of education, and provide a far more meaningful learning experience for children than they were ever allowed in a traditional school.


9 replies
  1. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Good links, I will go back to his blog and read more.

    But rather depressing too, when will schools change? When, when, when? Too many kids rely on school to abandon reform.

  2. Rachel C.
    Rachel C. says:

    Great argument for alternative education. I hear a lot about homeschooling and unschooling these days, but I’d love to hear more about some other alternative education opportunities that hold promise.

  3. terrymac
    terrymac says:

    Rachel C, regarding alternative approaches, one of those would be the Democratic Free Schools briefly mentioned in the article – Sudbury Valley Schools, Summerhill, and their kin. Another avenue, not mentioned in the article, is James Tooley’s research into parent-funded, unregulated private schools in the poorest provinces in India, China, Africa, and S. America, which are teaching 50-80% of the students. His book The Beautiful Tree is a starting point.

    There’s also Sugata Mitra’s research. I think we as a society are finally making some serious innovations. One thing I’d like to see is qualitative research about successful educational outcomes – what are skilled practitioners, in and out of school, doing? How are home-school educators sending so many children to college at age 12 or 14? Why are their students so successful?

    I have no study, but I can offer anecdotes from my personal experience and observation which can point the way for research. Home education tends to be very aware of the individuality of the child; even those who seem to be using formal curriculum and methods tend to keenly observe and adapt to the needs of their child, and those toward the unschooling side, even more so. Consider a child who knows how to read by age 4 or 5 — as many home-schooled children do. It is deeply inefficient to have that child spend an hour in “reading” class of the sort which is typical in most schools – wait your turn to read two lines, then do the same tomorrow. Instead, if the child is fluent – and many are – she will spend a lot of time reading independently. A parent will ask “can you read a few pages to me” from time to time, listen, and offer tips. For instance, when I hear a pause before a word, I ask “Do you know that word?” — and a quick vocabulary lesson ensues.

    In the same way, we don’t need math drills. I teach deep understanding, not rote memorization. My students know at a young age that addition is just an easy way to count groups. They learn how to optimize the process – take the bigger number and add the smaller. They learn, incrementally, to group things into tens and break them apart. The learn to visualize multiplication as a rectangle; to break it apart and recombine it in different ways; they learn to be competent with mental math at early ages. I don’t do 45 minute lessons; I have very brief conversations, each one about a useful idea, at whatever level the child is. The proof is in the pudding: kids often learn addition, subtraction, negative numbers, exponents, squares and cubes and roots, binary arithmetic, fractions, decimals, by age 8. The “traditional” curriculum is way behind what a child of even modest gifts can easily attain. I try not to bore the child, not to waste her time or mine. This is a lot easier in a small-group setting.

    There’s a recent article about Juarez Correa, teaching in Mexico, published in Wired. He captured the small-group dynamics by letting his students do much of the thinking, solving, and sharing of knowledge. He’d simply put an interesting problem on the board, and wait. If asked, he’d answer questions, but the students had to do the thinking. The results were remarkable – ten of his students scored at the 99.99th percentile level on the standardized national math test.

    Around the 1930s, Louis Benezet had similarly interesting results with math students. He wrote a few articles which are available on the ‘net.

    I’ve heard of teachers who have “inside out” classroom strategy. This means: ask the students to learn material at home via Khan Academy, and use class time to do exercise, to “show their work” and ask specific questions of their teacher, to get past any “rough spots.” The teacher moves from group to group, and has the ability to monitor progress on Khan Academy. I am told that some of the students are several years ahead of grade level.

    I don’t know exactly how to organize the future, but I can see a lot more adaptation to the individual, a lot less assembly-line processing, a lot more flexibility, and a lot more of what I call “micro-testing” — tiny, small sampling methods which tell the teacher where each individual student is, and suggest where any help might be offered.

    One of my talents is as a math tutor. Each problem, in my view, is a chance to discover how a child solves problems, and a teaching tool to improve that process. I do not teach One True Way to solve problems; I teach each child A True Way which a) fits that child’s current development and b) is robust.

    What I mean by “robust” is that it must be completely correct. It must include self-correcting strategies, ways to check for error and correct it. It must be understood, not memorized. My students have done well. An inspiration was Georg Polya’s How To Solve It.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    In our area, homeschool among minority populations, especially African-Americans and South Asians, is growing. I think it’s great and I expect the trend will continue. I encourage people all the time.

    People say this: “Well, I don’t want to give up my… and stay home with my kids.” My old response: “What are your kids having to give up when they sit in a classroom 35 hours a week?” was not a winner. So now I try this: “Hey, if your kids are enthusiastic and wildly excited about school then you must have made the right choice.”

    Because I’ve never met a bored homeschooled (we unschool) child.

  5. Norman W Wilson, PhD
    Norman W Wilson, PhD says:

    Where did the parents of the current home schooled get their education? What checks are in place for these “teachers”? Are we playing a game of one-up-man-ship by talking standardized test scores? Instead of fleeing our educational system why not fix it?

    • mh
      mh says:

      Speaking as one of the parents, my answers are these:

      A) 12 years private school, Bachelor’s 4 years university, 3 years Master’s through distance learning. Lifelong learning: 4+ decades.

      B) Hah.

      C) Maybe, but compulsory school chose the battlefield.

      D) How many generations have been talking about “school reform?” School bureaucrats are infatuated with novelty, to the detriment of learning. How long do you expect parents to wait? Compulsory school is unfixable.

    • Cindy Ziegler
      Cindy Ziegler says:

      I am a teacher in brick and mortar schools for over 15 years. I am in my third year of teaching online math intervention classes for a large virtual school curriculum company. I am working on my doctorate in education and should be finished by October. My sister also homeschools her daughter and has a doctorate degree. She works as a large school district assessment coordinator. Both of us work at the college level and work at different universities. The current educational system was failing both of our kids. My son is gifted and was spending most of his day in kindergarten practicing writing letters. My niece was adopted at 4 and possibly ADHD. Her teacher was placing kids who were misbehaving in the hall or sitting them at their desks with their heads down. Principals were not concerned and other schools we tried had different issues. My sister and I are working hard through our career and education to make an impact on existing schools, but we are not willing to allow our kids to not get a quality education as we wait and wait for the system to be fixed.

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