Across the land we continue to hear the cries that public education is under attack. That greedy governors and legislators are destroying public education because they cannot justify increasing spending on top of the many thousands of dollars spent per student per year for horrid outcomes (in terms of testing, graduation rates, college readiness or life preparation). These people claim that if only we supported the teachers, if only we spent more, if only we would let government have even more control over the lives of our children, then finally, they’d be able to provide something better than a terrible product. It’s never the system’s fault, and it’s never the teachers’ fault. It’s always the fault of those who do not want to fork over more taxpayer dollars into an endless pit, or even better, it’s the fault of the parents for not being more “involved”.
Their arguments are generally absurd, but I agree to a point that some blame belongs with parents. While the public education system is a failure for a plethora of reasons which have nothing to do with parenting, the system would not exist if not for the parents who send their 50 million children to public schools each year. It’s true, parents who send their kids off to public schools are often less involved because they often believe that it is not their job to educate their own children, but that it is the job of the state to educate their children. This is an unfortunate belief, considering that parents are most often better teachers than the college educated, certified teachers who populate the public education system.
First and foremost, a college degree does not make one a capable teacher, nor does it even serve as a good screening tool to determine who might become a good teacher. Unlike the claims of politicians, we don’t have too few people going to college; we have too many going to college. Approximately 70% of high school graduates enroll in college, but most of them are not prepared for or capable of doing well in higher education. According to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), only 36% of college students graduate within four years, only 58% in six years. Of those that do make it through college, most learn very little while they are there, and most graduate in debt without skills that are transferable to the workplace. As if it were not worrisome enough that colleges were largely filled with those who aren’t prepared for or capable of doing well in higher education, it isn’t the best and the brightest of that lot that usually enters into teaching. Out of an already unimpressive pool of college graduates, only 14 percent of those who majored in education scored in the top quartile of SAT/ACT test takers, while 28% of them scored in the bottom quartile. That means that for every education graduate that was in the top quartile of test takers nationally, there were two education graduates that scored in the lowest quartile. Education majors performed worse than all other listed majors, which included business, humanities, mathematics/computer/natural sciences, and social sciences. Clearly we are not filling our public schools with teachers who are the best and brightest.
Note that I am not saying that there aren’t highly intelligent teachers, there are, or that one needs to be extremely intelligent to be an effective teacher, one need not be. But this fixation on college degrees does nothing to move us toward better education outcomes for our children. All the degree requirement does is create a barrier to entry to protect current teachers, ensure hundreds of millions of dollars per year flow into education schools across the nation, and suggest that parents who didn’t waste four, or six, or more years in college for a degree that they didn’t need are not capable of teaching their own kids. However, homeschool families in which neither parent has a college degree vastly outperform the general population which is taught by teachers with college degrees. Another tool which the education-industrial complex uses to benefit current teachers, enrich select institutions and attack parents is teacher certification. Again, homeschooled children of parents who are not certified teachers vastly outperform the general population. In fact, while most likely not statistically significant, they even performed better than homeschooled children of parents who were certified teachers.
John Holt suggested three reasons why homeschool parents (of all education backgrounds) produce better results than college educated, certified public school teachers in his book Teach Your Own. First, parents are not distracted by the problems of managing a class. No matter how big the family, it is highly unlikely that a parent will have more children to manage than a public school teacher. Homeschool children are able to move at their own pace through various subjects, meaning they are less likely to get bored as would a student whose teacher was focusing their attention on slower students, or less likely to get frustrated as would a student whose couldn’t keep up with his class. Homeschool students also aren’t typically forced to spend too much time on subjects which are boring to them and irrelevant to their future, and instead can focus on those which are most exciting and meaningful to the child. Coupled with the absence of the distorted adolescent culture pervasive in public schools, these factors lead to an environment where parents are able to spend most of their time actually coaching, encouraging and enabling their children to learn, whereas teachers spend much of their time barking, ridiculing and scolding their students.
The second reason homeschool parents produce better outcomes than public school teachers is because they know their children better. Public school teachers at the primary level are typically responsible for a class of students for an academic year. At the secondary level teachers are typically responsible for multiple classes, and spend only a fraction of each school day with their students. In the course of managing a class, teachers must try to learn how to assess the various capabilities of students, to motivate students to want to learn, and to effectively deliver instruction to each student. No matter how talented an individual teacher is, she cannot possibly come close to understand her students in a way that is at all comparable to the ability of a parent to do so. Parents know their children’s unique personalities, and they know what motivates their children. They don’t pick their kids up at the age of 5, 8 or 12, and hand them off a year later. Parents have watched their children develop from birth, and as such they can better understand their children than anyone else.
The third reason why homeschool parents teach their children better than public school teachers are able to is because they care more about their children than the teachers do. While there are without question teachers who take their jobs very seriously, and sincerely care for their students, their love for 20 or 40 or 80 students cannot compare to the love a parent feels toward her children. Where a teacher may get frustrated and write a student off, a parent will continue to fight to ensure that their child masters a topic. Teachers are often willing to sacrifice a student as an example to be made in order to better control the rest of the students under his charge. Parents don’t typically sacrifice their children. While a teacher may look forward to handing the child off to another teacher at the end of the year, or escaping for the weekend, a parent is always working for the better interests of her child. Even if all teachers were MIT physicists, and all homeschool parents were high school dropouts, the results would change little. Parents are better teachers because they put their children first.