Katharine Gregg: What outcomes from school choice?

For the Monitor
Published: 2/25/2018 8:16:29 AM

Like many states around the country, New Hampshire 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, home schools – 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 are also 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 home schooling 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 home schooling 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 “Home-school Outcomes” the CRHE claims there are only two research studies that have been done so far on home schooling. 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 home-schoolers’ 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 home-schooling 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 home-schoolers who go on to college do very well; others that they do not. Some show that home-schoolers 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 and essayist living in Mason. She can be reached by email at kggregg@myfairpoint.net.)

(Editor’s note – The following correction was submitted by Beth Green, the education program director for Cardus Education Survey: “The column incorrectly states that the CES is designed to look ‘only at Christian schooling’ and therefore ‘does not provide reliable conclusions.’ In fact, the CES is a major cross-sectional survey designed to compare the impact of multiple school sectors to the public school sector in the U.S. and in Canada. The CES, carried out by an academic research team at the University of Notre Dame, collects data on the impact of attending an independent non-religious school, independent Catholic school, publicly funded separate Catholic schools (in Canada), independent Protestant evangelical schools and those who were home schooled for religious and non-religious reasons. The CES is widely recognized to be the benchmark for comparing the effects of school systems on graduates in North America. The column also states that the Cardus report that focused on the United States was published in 2011. We collect data every two years, alternating between Canada and the U.S. We have in fact reported U.S. data twice in 2011 and 2014.”)

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