Why School Education Reform Is a Lost Cause

Why School Education Reform Is a Lost Cause April 24, 2013

Today I feature a guest post from Steven Horwich here at FaithWalkers as I travel on the other side of the world.  Steven Horwich is a teacher, writer, director, and founder of Connect the Thoughts, providing resources and training for homeschooling. You can follow him on Twitter @Homeschoolcurr and Facebook.

School education reform is an endless discussion, a droning litany that has pointlessly moaned on for decades. It is a migraine-inducing waltz with little variation and no joy.

You’ve heard it ceaselessly chanted by “educators,” politicians, angry parents. It comes in a few forms. “We must have education reform,” and “We are currently reforming education” are the most common versions of this litany.

The sad fact? There is almost a universal agreement that school reform is necessary. It is, in fact, beyond dispute. Monstrous drop-out rates for public schools, rising functional illiteracy in the real world, the unemployability of college grads, the amount of bullying and abuse taking place on campuses at all levels — Nope. No sane person denies the need for a significant change.

Politicians and teachers incessantly claim that they just need more. More money, more parent involvement, more everything, and well, public education will finally work.

Only it won’t.

Public education has had decades to prove that it does not work. There’s nothing there worth reforming, and the cost in lost generations and trillions of dollars has long exceeded reason or excuses.

How to Reform Eduction

So, how might one “reform” education? I believe you’d need to start by realizing that every student is utterly unique.

No “cookie-cutter” approach will ever work, not for all students, and not for many students. No national or even regional system, no matter how well-intended or considered, will service the stunning variety of minds, and interests innate to our young. Standardized testing, classroom-oriented approaches, grading and evaluations, standardized curriculum (especially when restricted to “approved subjects”), all of the “tools” schools insist on using, doom the entire idea of “school.”

The approach schools are locked into ignores the most basic truth of education – that education is for the student. It is not for the teacher. It is not for “the system.” And given that every student is unique, a system attempting to handle 77 million such students as is the case in the U.S. is simply doomed to standardize everything, and hence, fail almost every child.

Do I need to state the rest of the case for walking away from public schooling? The unbelievably high expense of public schooling, particularly given their abysmal track record? The amount of bullying that takes place in our schools (according to 2,000 recently polled students, some 46% of all students are annually bullied in school)? The atrocity of teacher abuse of students, the number of said atrocities boggling the mind?

Reform this system? Really? Why bother? It is already perfectly sized and shaped — for the nearest trash can.

 A Family-based Alternative

There is, however, a system that avoids every pitfall of public education. It has existed for as long as the family, many thousands of years. It is an approach to education that strengthens the family, the building block of civilization. This approach to education has quite a proven track record. In fact, when you open a history book, nearly every great man or woman you read about will be a result of this system. And what’s more, today, millions of families use this system.

We call it homeschooling.

Homeschooling is the antithesis of “standardized.” No one knows a child better than their family. Sorry, Mr. and Ms. Teacher. Sorry, Madame college adviser and Master school psychologist – you folks aren’t even in the running, no matter how often and how loudly you shout about your degrees and your “expertise.”

Mom and dad, you gave birth to and raised that boy or girl. You watched as they first spoke, first walked. You probably were the first to read to them, and to be read to by them. And because you know that child, you can best orient their educational efforts. You will be the first and most-qualified to see the light in their eyes when they discover the subjects and activities that they will love for the rest of their life. You may well be the very first to understand your child’s dreams, even their “calling.”

Schools just can’t do that.

A teacher has on average perhaps 1 – 1 ½ minutes per student per period, and they use seating charts to remember your child’s name. They do not know your child, and they do not have ANY understanding of their dreams, skills, interests. The closest they ever get to actually looking your child in the eye is the issuing of tests that have little or nothing to do with your child, and the following evaluation of the results of those tests.

Parents as the Most Qualified Teachers

It’s the truth, mom and dad – you are by far the best-qualified to understand your child’s educational needs and wants. That makes you, like it or not, the most qualified to deliver their education! Because you will make decisions for them based on intimate understanding and a real passion for your child to do well in the world. A school cannot and will not do any of that.

Can you teach your child? YES. It is almost always legal in the U.S., even if you have no degree and not one minute of teaching experience. There is a ton of assistance available for today’s homeschool families, and many different approaches. I prefer the forming of homeschool groups, three-four families with similar goals, working together. The group shares resources (not many are needed), and the parents parcel out “teaching” time so no one mom or dad gets slammed. (Often, older children can teach, as well!) I had 10 kids in my home (eight plus my two) for years, and two other parents helping with teaching. It worked.

How about results? Homeschoolers, strangely enough, score higher as a group in all testing than public schoolers. Homeschoolers are highly recruited today by most colleges and universities who understand that homeschoolers are BETTER adjusted to a world they are not afraid of, and are academically advanced when compared to public schoolers.

And all of those homeschoolers are taught by “unqualified” parents. Hmmm. Imagine that.


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  • Jim Wells

    A very self serving view and highly exaggerated by Mr. Horwhich. Home schooled students in Texas do no better and in many instances worse than public school students on standardized tests- depends on which sample you choose . There are some incredibly abysmal public school systems in this country. There are also some of the best in the world providing students a first class , relevant education. I am sure there are some incredibly gifted home schooled students who are successful because of remarkably able parents. Equally there are some that are very unsuccessful and would be equally served in some of the worst of America’s public schools. Generalizations can not and should not be made regarding all schooling outcomes. To do so is naive. To suggest that all students in this country should be home schooled is ludicrous at best and is a highly impractical solution for most. The answer is to improve those bad public schools that create opportunity gaps for students or close them down. That is the new mantra for school reform, not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Do parents home school their students for post secondary training and higher education opportunities leading to degrees? Of course not. The current state of post secondary education is the same as public education. Many are good institutions, some not so good- but one must complete a program of study to receive a credential or degree. I have never gone to a “”home schooled” doctor who received their training at home. Simplistic answers and folly will not solve the country’s need to have better educational outcomes. Home schooling is a choice and is right for some students. It is not a panacea. Our country became a leader in the world over the past century based on our public education system and private institutions as well as a myriad number of educational alternatives in a variety of settings that students have pursued. As a retired 37 year public educator and former high school principal, I have been inspired for decades by the outcomes I have witnessed as a result of public education. Simply put in response to Mr. Horwich’s” opinion- one coin, but two sides.

  • Steven Horwich

    Jim – you did not respond to the article! You just provided the same lip-service as do nearly all teachers, and people with vested interests in public schooling. Sure, you could select “tests” and show whatever results you want – just as the 170 Atlanta school teachers did last year when they were caught cheating to elevate student test scores – so those teachers and their encouraging administrator could steal more $ from the system at the expense of truly poorly-performing students and a failed school system! This is, of course, happening throughout the country in public schools, and more teachers are caught doing it every month. How’s that for self-serving? (The teachers admitted it, by the way, when the government stepped in. Were any fired? I doubt the teacher unions allowed them to be fired.)

    Yes, there are some poorly educated homeschoolers. Absolutely! But ON AVERAGE, homeschoolers score higher in all testing than public schoolers, and that’s why colleges are actively recruiting homeschoolers! In other words, if you want an educated child, the numbers now say YOU SHOULD HOMESCHOOL. But even given the failures generated through homeschooling, homeschool doesn’t carry the approximately 40-50% drop-out rate many school districts carry, and that means almost 1/2 of the kids dependent on public ed in those districts – your brand of snake oil, Jim – are getting NO education. NONE. A 40 – 50% failure rate in districts in large cities! Homeschooling does far better than that! And of those you have left in public schools, most of them score lower on tests than homeschoolers. It’s a fact, but you won’t admit it. Got to keep selling that snake oil, right?

    Yes, the “mantra” of public schools, as you essentially put it, is MORE. I mentioned that fact in the article, and in your way, you verify it. I know that wasn’t your intent, but there it is. You’re writing here as a spokesperson for public ed, as your bio attests to. Talk about biased and self-serving, the very thing you accuse me of! Well, I’m sure your retirement is “sufficient.” I’ve known retired teachers and how much money they made in retirement.

    Bottom line – your system,public education, has failed students, failed families and failed the community utterly, and in the process, is ruining this country, as declining literacy and “employability” of our work force demonstrate. Your system serves ONLY teachers, administrators, and the few very motivated kids who succeed inside the system and in spite of the nonsense you call “education.” And yet, from folks like you, the same deadly and endless “mantra” (your word). “Give us more. Give us more. Give us more…” Shameful.

  • momhusfam

    Your post reminds me of a film I saw when I was in graduate school. The film, which ironically was made by the daughter of Walter Mondale, chronicled the history of American public education. It described all the permutations public education has gone through in our country. This doesn’t work, well lets try that. The state in which I teach is going through the painful process of adopting the
    Common Core Curriculum. Despite several training sessions, I still don’t understand Common Core and why it is a better way to educate children. Has research shown it is a better way? Or has it been tested with students who desperately need a good education in order to better their lives? No one seems to be able to answer these questions, but somehow appear to be convinced that Common Core is better than existing standards and pedagogy.

    What you have said in your post is what I have suspected for some time, that homeschooling is the best way to educate children. The number of children, particularly boys, who have been diagnosed with ADD and who are on medication so they can function in a classroom really troubles me. In a homeschooling situation, these students might receive the attention they need to focus and also be able to move around to a degree that isn’t possible in a classroom setting.

    In addition, you are correct that homeschooling parents can tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of their students to a degree that classroom teachers cannot. One thing however concerns me about homeschooling. As a teacher, I see students every day who have little 0r no respect for authority, learning, or their fellow students. I wonder about the wisdom of turning over the responsibility for the education of these children to the parents who have done such a stellar job of preparing them for school. Perhaps though, if more children were homeschooled, public schools would be better able to deal with the problematic behaviors and attitudes of those children whose parents are unwilling or unable to educate them.

    • Thanks for the comment! If I may jump in, your concerns about parents are well-founded. In many ways, our schools are trying to solve the symptoms of a deeper societal problem — the breakdown of the family and traditional support community. Anti-bullying programs are good example of this. Kids learn to be bullies form their parents, or are stirred to anger most often by what’s going on at home. Yet anti-bullying programs cannot address that root issue. So they pour money into the output, rather than impacting the inputs — because they can’t.

  • Barnabas

    One Christian speaker criticized homeschooling parents as “putting a helmet” on their children. While the speaker has written some good books and made some great biblical expositions, that doesn’t give him a free pass to insult other Christian families that decide public schooling isn’t the way to go. Does being exposed to the sin of the world at any early age better prepare children to know how to deal with them? Maybe, but is the lousy education and the throwing of kids into that mess to be changed by it worth it?
    Some students do better in homeschooling, and some slack off. This only strengthens the argument that individuals are unique and need different educational stimulation.
    In reality, we know that the system isn’t going to hand education back to the family. There are too many problems within the system to successfully transition, basically we’re stuck. That doesn’t mean the government should prevent individual families from making the choice–one that is, if anything, not “sheltered.” Does it always work? No, because we’re human. In the same vein, that’s why public schooling fails. Because we’re human. Is that an excuse for poor education? I hope not.

    Anyways, education is a constant battle. I’ve seen places with worse schooling, but then again they’re striving for something despite rampant poverty and ignorance. I hope we can do more with the many resources we have.

  • Stephanie Stern

    I think comments from both sides of the argument are interesting. However, no one has discussed the parents who themselves are illiterate. No one has discussed the parents who abuse, abandon, malnourish and neglect their children. I see this every day. Just read the news. Especially in homes where there are step parents and G*d parents who impart horrendous acts upon children. How are these precious children going to be home-schooled? The sad truth is that sometimes a school is more nurturing than a home. Please address this from the homeschooler’s point of view. And please do not infer that this never happens to observant religious people either. It has, it does, and it will.

    I think there are many benefits for parents who are educated, to be part of a home-school community. However, there are more children like the ones described above that exist.

    • Stephanie,

      You make great point about the parents. I agree, but how are we as a culture to engage this issue?

      Any thoughts?

    • Stephanie, Due to a technical difficulty, I am forwarding the author’s (Steven Horwich) response to you below:

      There are crazy people everywhere, and there are certainly some crazy and abusive homeschool parents/families. But given the known numbers of abuses against children in schools, abuse by families really pales by comparison. Last year, in a poll conducted with 2000 high schoolers, 46% of them said they were verbally or physically abused THAT YEAR while in school. They regularly stated that the schools did nothing to protect them. A Dept of Ed 2004 report stated that 6%-10% of all public school children would be sexually abused by teachers or staff. That’s some 4-8 million children! How could homeschool possibly be a worse or more dangerous option for children, generally speaking? Families overall tend to protect their children, not abuse them. Schools can make no such claim.