Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More on Public Education

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the topic of public education, entitled "The Greatest Scandal." In an effort to point out the differences between our candidates for President, the article highlights how school vouchers and privately-run public schools are improving education drastically for those students who are able to take advantage of them.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides parents of disadvantaged children with up to $7,500 to attend private schools. This is in fact a huge savings to the government, since the District of Columbia spends $13,446 per student per year. According the WSJ article,

To qualify, a child must live in a family with a household income below 185% of the poverty level. Some 1,900 children participate; 99% are black or Hispanic. Average annual income is just over $22,000 for a family of four.

These people are obviously needy - exactly the kind of kids who fall through the cracks in many public schools today. But as the WSJ article points out,

A recent Department of Education report found nearly 90% of participants in the D.C. program have higher reading scores than peers who didn't receive a scholarship. There are five applicants for every opening.

This is a program that is working! So are our leaders jumping at the chance to duplicate this kind of success rate? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Instead, they are instead refusing the reauthorize the program.

The article also mentions the phenomenal success rate of EdisonLearning in Philadelphia, which in 2002 took over 20 of the city's 45 worst-performing schools.

The number of students performing at grade level or higher in reading at the schools managed by private providers increased by 6.1% overall compared to 3.3% in district-managed schools. In math, the results for Edison and other outside managers was 4.6% and 6.0%, respectively, compared to 3.1% in the district-run schools.

Wow - another program that is working! But again, the powers that be, instead of rushing to duplicate this kind of success, are trying to shut it down. "Last month, Philadelphia's school reform commission voted to seize six schools from outside managers, including four from Edison."

The WSJ article concludes with this:
Mr. Obama told an interviewer recently that he opposes school choice because, "although it might benefit some kids at the top, what you're going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom." The Illinois Senator has it exactly backward. Those at the top don't need voucher programs and they already exercise school choice. They can afford exclusive private schools, or they can afford to live in a neighborhood with decent public schools. The point of providing educational options is to extend this freedom to the "kids at the bottom."

A visitor to Mr. Obama's Web site finds plenty of information about his plans to fix public education in this country. Everyone knows this is a long, hard slog, but Mr. Obama and his wife aren't waiting. Their daughters attend the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where annual tuition ranges from $15,528 for kindergarten to $20,445 for high school.

So just exactly why does Mr. Obama think it's fine for him to have school choice - choice that costs him almost as much as our family makes in a year - but not for the rest of us?

School choice promotes competition, which almost always results in a better end product than a monopoly. In Colorado, open enrollment has allowed students some measure of school choice since 1994, and has been pretty effective; however, options are limited to public and charter schools, parents are responsible for transporting students to open-enrollment choices, and the best schools fill up quickly, often from within their own attendance areas.

But when we study the reality of what happens when families get real choices in education, we discover that, just as was true in Washington, D.C., choice means improvement. The Alliance for Choice in Education offers scholarships for children from needy families in Denver to attend private schools - and those students have a 95% graduation rate (in spite of the fact that 78% of their scholarship recipients have a household income of under $30,000/year, and the families are required to contribute half of the private school tuition!). Not only that, but students in these programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, where school vouchers are widely used, show significant improvements in reading and math (between 7 and 15 points higher in their percentile ranking from their own previous scores).

So what's the conclusion? As might be expected, increased competition means improved schools. I am aware of no studies that show what happens to public school test scores when competition is introduced (via charter schools, open enrollment, school vouchers, or privately-run public schools). Admittedly, this might be difficult to determine, since the competition would undoubtedly "skim" some of the better students from the public schools; still, it would be interesting to see what heppens. It would also be interesting to see the results of school choice on individual students. (We may someday be able to see these results, as the Milwaukee Longitudinal Educational Growth Study has just released its "Baseline Report" - perhaps 10-15 years in the future we'll be able to tell whether students in school voucher programs in fact show greater improvement in their test scores and in their success rates in life.) But given what we know now, state and local governments across the nation ought to be looking to increase competition in order to improve performance for all schools.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Do We Need a New Federal Policy in Education?

Many people have written criticizing NCLB - the No Child Left Behind Act. I have my own criticisms of that act, which I will not go into here.

But the Forum for Education Reform has produced a 72-page report entitled "Democracy At Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education." In that report, they propose to increase federal spending on education by $29 billion per year. Considering that 2008 federal spending on education amounts to something over $67 billion, that's a pretty hefty increase - 43%.

Among their evidence in support of the "need" for this, you'll find this statement:
By the mid-1970s, achievement had improved, college-going rates for African American and Hispanic students were equivalent to those for white students, and teacher shortages had been nearly eliminated. The United States led the world in education.

However, many of these initiatives were ended in the 1980s and the gains lost when the federal share of education spending was sharply cut in half. Although modest progress was made in the 1990s, other countries have surged ahead with strategic investments in systems that promote top-flight teaching for higher-order skills in every school.

You'll forgive me if I'm a bit skeptical of this position on American education in the mid-70's. In this sample chapter from Salem Press' book, The Seventies in America, the education scene during the 1970's does not look nearly as positive as the Forum for Education Reform would suggest. This was the decade of forced busing, "white flight," court-ordered equalization (meaning the court required that there be no more than $100 difference in spending between public school districts) and open classrooms. By 1975, according to this link, "reports showed that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), used as a college entrance examination, had dropped dramatically since the previous decade." And this in spite of the fact that federal spending on education between 1965 and 1975 had increased by 207%! The final sentence in the chapter from the Salem Press book is: "Concern over apparently dropping test scores and over the quality of American education began to grow." Does this sound to you like the Forum for Education Reform's description of the mid-1970's in American education? (Oh, and by the way - until 1979 there WAS no U.S. Department of Education - so if the United States in fact "led the world in education" during the mid-70's, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves whether the federalization of American education might have had something to do with the decline in our schools.)

The Democracy At Risk report goes on to say that "the federal share of education spending was cut in half" during the 1980's. However, a more rational look at the situation is provided by the National Center for Education Statistics' report, entitled "Federal Support for Education: Fiscal Years 1980 to 2002." On page 3 of this report, the most significant drop in education spending between 1980 and 1985 is reported in this sentence: "During this same time period, elementary and secondary education funds dropped 21 percent, after adjusting for inflation." And between 1985 and 1990, spending on elementary and secondary inflation actually increased 12 percent.

As for the Democracy At Risk report's "modest progress" during the 1990's, on-budget education spending for elementary and secondary education increased 87% between 1990 and 2002; "off-budget support and nonfederal funds generated by federal legislation" increased 281%. If this is modest, I wonder what it would take for them to consider a funding increase "substantial"! Federal spending on education has continued to increase throughout the 6 years since 2002.

But for the Forum for Education Reform, we are still not spending enough federal money on education. In fact, on page 27 of "Democracy At Risk," they spend an entire page praising the Finnish system, which provides teacher candidates with a 3-year graduate degree in education, paid for entirely (including room and board) by the Finnish government. And while I would agree that it appears the Finnish system has produced excellent results, raising Finland to the very top of the heap in international comparisons, the cost has been extremely high. While in the United States our 2008 Tax Freedom Day was April 23 (meaning the average American has to work until that date just to pay our taxes), in Finland they did not hit theirs until June 5. That means the average Finnish worker pays almost half his/her income in taxes!

There must be a better way to improve America's education system than just throwing more money at it. The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following information on per-pupil spending in different states:
School district spending per pupil was highest in New York ($14,884), followed by New Jersey ($14,630) and the District of Columbia ($13,446). States where school districts spent the lowest amount per pupil were Utah ($5,437), Idaho ($6,440) and Arizona ($6,472). (More info here.)

But the amount spent per-pupil does not appear closely related to the likelihood that a state's young people will graduate from high school. Utah, which spent the least on education, had the second highest rate for high school graduation (88%), while the District of Columbia had only a 78% graduation rate. And the average graduation rate for the top five states in per-pupil spending was 81.8%, only .2% higher than the average graduation rate for the bottom five. The amount of money spent is clearly not the issue.

It seems to me that if this nation wants to improve our education system, we've got to do something besides continue to raise taxes and hand money to public school systems. As the Heritage Foundation article entitled, "Examining 'A Nation At Risk'" points out,
This year, American taxpayers will spend more than $9,200 on the average public-school student. That's a real increase of 69 percent over the per pupil expenditure in 1980. The total bill for a student who remains through high school will be almost $100,000.

And we see our schools continuing to decline. On page 6 of the Heritage Foundation's Backgrounder, April 28, 2008, the graph makes it clear - as funding has increased over the years since 1970, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has remained stable. The Heritage report continues,
We also know what doesn't work: Federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind. That law required states to test students, but it ends up giving states an incentive to "dumb down" their tests to maintain federal funding.

A 2006 study by University of California researchers found the gap between state and federal proficiency scores had increased in 10 of 12 states examined since NCLB was enacted. It's better to simply let states provide the funding and hold themselves accountable.

And their solution? It's much better than the "Democracy At Risk" report's suggestions, which are full of "educationalese" - perhaps because it's written by private citizens rather than professionals in the education establishment. "Examining 'A Nation At Risk'" recommends:
We have big problems in our education system. But we'll solve them from the bottom up, not the top down.

It's time to slash the regulation and start creating the educational system our students deserve.

And the Backgrounder article has this recommendation:
At the federal level, Congress should reform federal education policies to protect academic transparency, eliminate inefficient bureaucracy, and encourage innovation at the state and local levels. Policymakers should embrace policies that give more families the freedom to choose their children’s school; allow school leaders to innovate and develop successful school models and improve teacher quality; and allow parents, lawmakers, and the general public to hold public schools and students accountable for results.

This is near and dear to my heart as a professional educator and homeschooler. I hope the leaders in our federal government listen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More on the Stridency of Some Homeschool Advocates

If you've been following the comments in my previous post on the stridency of some homeschool advocates, you know there's been a fair amount of interest generated in this topic. And apparently the interest extends beyond just the readers of this blog - my Google alerts on the topic have picked up several similar posts in the last few days.

Here is one that expresses my own concerns: "Homeschooling without being a Separatist? etc.! "

Karry begins her post with this:

I have been reading some things that previously homeschooled folks have said about their experiences, and why they hated homeschooling. The #1 reason I have found is exactly what I think a problem among Christian Homeschoolers is: an attitude of being separate and "better" than everyone else. As if, because we homeschool, our family is better than the family across the street who sends their kids to public school, or the family down the street who sends their kids to private school?

This is precisely my concern, and Karry goes on to discuss why she believes this attitude is wrong. She also brings up a related concern, about the fact that some homeschooling parents keep their kids away from the public-schooled kids in their neighborhood. Now, I don't allow my kids to hang out indiscriminately with the kids in my neighborhood; but I do believe God has put us in this neighborhood for a reason, and He expects us as a family to minister to the other families around us. So I do allow my kids to play with our neighbor kids, closely supervised, of course. In fact, the only families in our neighborhood we've been able to build relationships with are the ones who have children near our own kids' age - those are the ones the Lord has given us to reach out to.

Here's another post on the topic, this time from The Accidental Homeschooler: "Called to Homeschool." Kelly has some great insight here, including a conversation she had with a friend as she was considering the question of whether "every Christian is called to homeschool."

Kelly links also to this post from Spunky Homeschool on the same issue: "Conventional Wisdom." Spunky's post is fascinating. I especially thought this quote was interesting:

Asking the homeschool movement to decide whether it will advance a specifically Biblcial vision or not is like asking a hammer if it will build a house or a table. It can't decide anything nor can it lose a vision for what it is supposed to build. Homeschooling, like a hammer, is completely dependent upon the one who uses it. No one philosophy or worldview controls homeschooling. As long as the freedom to homeschool is open to all parents, it is an exercise in futility to demand that the movement have only one specific vision --secular or biblical.

And the post that started it all: "Homeschooling is NOT the Gospel." This one is full of piercing questions and comments, including this:

Furthermore, the problem is not bad education, it is bad character (sin). The solution is not homeschooling, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and participating in the growing kingdom of God. The utopian society is not homeschool grads in power, but the consummation of the kingdom of God which will only occur at the second coming of the Lord in glory. I fear that many in the Christian homeschooling movement have a false understanding of the problem, the solution, and the ultimate goal. And smooth-talking, eloquent, yet misguided speakers that give vision and encouragement to homeschooling parents are not helping build the kingdom of God.

One more post on this topic and I'll leave it alone for a bit. This one is from IndianaJane's Journal, and is entitled, "Ruminating on Homeschooling." A sample of her post:

And they wouldn't mind keeping the non-Christians out of homeschooling, too. "In like manner, the homeschool movement must decide whether it will work to advance a specifcally Biblical vision, or take a “big tent” approach that is now comfortable and uncontroversial - and lose the covenantal vision. "

What they don't seem to realize is that they were never the totality of the homeschool movement and with each year they are a smaller part. I have worked
hard for over ten years to help build the big homeschool tent, and in spite of
false witness from some in their camp, we are seeing the big tent get more and
more full.

What I get, from all these posts, is that many homeschoolers believe deeply in what we are doing, but disagree with those who hold that it is the only acceptable position for Christians. It's my feeling that if we're going to successfully minister to the majority of people with whom we come in contact, we are not going to do it by preaching how much better we are than everybody else. When we flaunt our own self-righteousness, we alienate those to whom we could minister. We aren't able to encourage those who are struggling to hang in there, at least for one more year, to see what God might do for them. We aren't able to expose those who hold inaccurate positions on Scripture or young-earth creationism or any other topic to accurate, rational, factual information. And most significantly, we destroy our witness to the unbelievers among us - whether they are unbelieving homeschoolers, workers at the convention site, or curious bystanders who wonder what we're up to. The way to reach these people is with graciousness, gentleness, a loving spirit, and an openness to interact. If we don't demonstrate these qualities, all our self-righteousness is useless.

It's also important to keep in mind that, while the Lord will certainly hold us accountable for how we raised and educated our children, He will also hold us accountable for how we ministered to other believers and how we witnessed to an unbelieving world. He's not going to be impressed if all we can say is, "Well, I homeschooled my 8 children and discipled them so everyone else could see how faithfully we followed You" - He wants us interacting with lost people, and showing our children how to do that.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Time Magazine on Teen Girl Purity

Time.com, Time Magazine's website, has a very interesting article this week entitled, "The Pursuit of Teen Girl Purity." All too often, secular sources tend to look at conservative, Christian events with a skeptical eye; for a change, Nancy Gibbs, the journalist who wrote this article seems interested and curious as she attended a Father/Daughter Purity Ball at the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs. What could motivate fathers and daughters, in 2008, to come together in the interest of preserving the young ladies' purity? As Ms. Gibbs comments, even the term purity has a "shadow of stains and stigma."

Apparently much to Ms. Gibbs' surprise, she discovers that the ceremony is beautiful, and that "The goal seems less about making judgments than about making memories." Well, what do you know? :) These Christians who are so insistent that it's good for young people to practice abstinence really DO love their kids - rather than passing judgement on kids for being kids, we really believe it is in their best interest to have strong bonds with their parents (especially their fathers), and to save intimacy for marriage. And so we do what we can to give them a solid foundation, positive memories of what really matters in life, and to build the kind of relationships that will help them to stand in opposition to all the pressures they face (rather than wimping out and saying, "Well, since you're going to anyway, be sure to use birth control.").

She sums up her article this way:

Maybe mixed messages aren't just inevitable; they're valuable. On the one hand, for all the conservative outcry, there is no evidence that giving kids complete and accurate information about sex and contraception encourages promiscuity. On the other, a purity pledge basically says sex is serious. That it's not to be entered into recklessly. To deny kids information, whether about contraception or chastity, is irresponsible; to mock or dismiss as unrealistic the goal of personal responsibility in all its forms may suit the culture, but it gives kids too little power, too little control over their decisions, as though they're incapable of making good ones. The research suggests they may be more capable of high standards than parents are. "It's always tempting as a parent to say, Do as I say, not as I do," says a father who's here for the first time. "But it's more valuable to make the commitment yourself. Children can spot hypocrisy very quickly."

I was relatively pleased at the ending of her article. It shows a remarkable willingness to look honestly and fairly at what she was seeing, in a way that few in our culture are willing to do. And though I don't agree with her about whether telling kids everything encourages promiscuity (after all, what kid isn't insatiably curious on these topics? And what kid doesn't experiment with something if it seems mysterious and important - and inevitable, as so many s-x ed programs teach?), I'm thrilled to see her encouraging parents to help their kids have high standards.

Just before that last paragraph, Ms. Gibbs wrote this one. It speaks clearly to the value of events such as the purity ball she visited, not only for the fathers and daughters involved, but also for the watching media and for the culture who sees these events through their eyes.

If you listen long enough, you wonder whether there is really such a profound disagreement about what parents want for their children. Culture war by its nature pours salt in wounds, finds division where there could be common purpose. Purity is certainly a loaded word--but is there anyone who thinks it's a good idea for 12-year-olds to have sex? Or a bad idea for fathers to be engaged in the lives of their daughters and promise to practice what they preach? Parents won't necessarily say this out loud, but isn't it better to set the bar high and miss than not even try?

I hope more people gain this sort of insight from authors such as Nancy Gibbs. And I hope more parents are encouraged to set the bar high - missing is possible when you do that, but so is winning. :)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Should Children Have Rights?

Back in June I wrote a post entitled, "Another Court Takes Law Into Its Own Hands." The post was a discussion of a Canadian judge who had overruled a father's logical consequence to his 12yo daughter, deeming it "excessive." A regular blog reader and commenter, after reading the original article on which my post was based, responded, in part, with this paragraph:

I notice . . . the reference to Senator Clinton and legislation that sees children as "child citizens" and permitting them some rights against their parents. I do not find this so awful as there are instances when parents are not acting in the best interest of their children... we see it all to often in the media. However, I would think that such legislation (passed or pending) needs to be very clear and not open to simply granting child rights simple for not getting a child's way.

I personally don't like the whole approach of spelling out certain rights of children, primarily because the results depend on our capricious court system. I recently discovered that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, states that one of the child's rights is to have their parents make decisions in their best interest. The problem with that is that parents sometimes have to make decisions that are NOT in the child's best interests, but ARE in the best interests of the family as a whole.

Here's one example: My younger daughter is having difficulty learning to read. I have tried everything I can think of, and have been doing that for about 5 years, and she's still struggling (and is now approximately 2 years behind grade level in reading - fortunately since we homeschool I can read aloud to her and she can continue to progress in other subjects!). So yesterday, after having her evaluated by a friend who is a reading specialist, I came to the conclusion that she needed to attend our local homeschool enrichment program on Mondays, when my friend will be teaching a reading class, rather than on Fridays as we always have. My older daughter was devastated - "All my friends are going to be in the Friday school!" It is not in my older daughter's best interests to move to Mondays; however, my younger daughter's need to learn to read supercedes my older daughter's need to be with her friends. And our family's budget does not allow us to drive the half hour each way on two different days.

But what would a court say if my older daughter chose to hire a lawyer and sue, and our country had agreed to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? How could I then make the best decision for our family? I definitely DO consider my daughters' best interests; but sometimes decisions need to be made that on the surface seem contradictory to a given child's best interests in order to account for the whole picture of the family.

And who is responsible for determining the best interests of my child anyway? I may believe it is also in my older daughter's best interests to make this change, too, because in the long run she will learn that certain needs are more significant than others, and that sometimes we must sacrifice what we want for the sake of someone else. But can I convince the court of that? I don't know. The judge may put more value on my daughter's socialization than on her character development - does that mean the judge has the right to decide?

As a parent yourself, I'm sure you could also give examples when you've had to make this kind of decision. And this is only one example of how spelling out legal rights for kids can have unintended - and maybe disastrous - consequences for families (and even for the kids themselves).

By very definition, children are immature, and thus are not able to make wise decisions, considering all the factors. While I realize some parents are negligent in their responsibilities toward their children, I don't think giving children legal rights is really going to solve that problem. I DO think it may cause serious problems to families who are doing their best to raise their children wisely and well. Ultimately, we have to give parents, not judges, the right to decide what is best for children - within certain limits, which obviously include NOT allowing child abuse. Granting children the right to sue their parents in court does not benefit children or their families.

The Stridency of Many Homeschooling Advocates

Once again life has caught up with me and I've dropped the ball on my blog for several weeks. My apologies to anyone who reads me regularly.

Dana has a great post over at Principled Discovery called, "Homeschooling Is Not the Gospel," which picks up on one of my pet peeves about our state homeschooling organization. Those of you who know me well are aware that I live in Colorado; if you know much about Colorado homeschooling, you know that our state organization is headed by Kevin Swanson. Now don't get me wrong, I like Kevin as a person, and agree with him about many things - but I strongly disagree with the tone he (and our organization as a whole) seems to take toward anyone who doesn't agree with him.

Dana's article is excellent and well worth reading in its entirety. She sums up her point with this statement:

Actually, I fear that some of these overzealous arguments against public schools do more to close people off from the idea of homeschooling than anything.

She's right.

I too get very frustrated at the tendency of many homeschooling advocates to make this a huge battleground. Our state organization is becoming more and more strident in tone - and the funny thing is, that’s in spite of the fact that homeschooling is becoming easier and more popular all the time. The criticism becomes more heated every year, and the range of those criticized becomes greater. This year, the state organization allowed only those curriculum providers who would sign a young-earth creation statement. Now I’m a young-earth creationist myself, but I think that’s just wrong!

Homeschooling does not benefit when homeschooling organizations become exclusionary: you must be a Christian, you can’t be enrolled in any kind of government schooling program, you must be a young-earth creationist - and it wouldn’t surprise me if soon you’ll have to believe birth control is wrong, too.

Unlike a previous commenter, I still like the seminars on Christian worldview, building up the family, and maintaining a vision for homeschooling - many of them are pretty good and help keep me going when things get stressful. But I, too, am beginning to avoid the general sessions - and there are certain speakers I simply won’t go hear, because they are far too contentious.

Why do we ask for war when it’s not necessary? And whatever happened to Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”? Or Colossians 4:5,6: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders . . . Let your conversation be always with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”?

It seems to me it’s time for a little grace, you know?