I just spent some time perusing a website (1.) all about No Child Left Behind. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to this issue prior to now, because our children have all been homeschooled for the past sixteen years. Homeschoolers are exempt from NCLB. However, I do remember hearing President Bush’s inaugural speech when he became president for the first time, and I also remember shaking my head and saying out loud, “More testing is not what this country needs.”
No Child Left Behind. It sounds so positive. But the initiative itself builds on so many of the things that are wrong with the education system today. Let me explain my thinking.
Here’s a quote from NCLB: “Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results. The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system.” Huh? Whoa there, folks! Education is, in my not so humble opinion, primarily a parental responsibility. And the government’s idea of reward and sanction is about giving and taking away money. The lack of connection of money to educational success has been proven over and over again by that same government. This article says so, just a few paragraphs below my first quote: “Over the years Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This "program for every problem" solution has begun to add up -- so much so that there are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year. Yet, after spending billions of dollars on education, we have fallen short in meeting our goals for educational excellence. The academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Anglo and minority is not only wide, but in some cases is growing wider still.” I couldn’t have said it better.
One of the first suggestions of NCLB is to increase testing, so parents will “know that their children are learning”. News flash! Testing proves no such thing. If you don’t believe me, just get acquainted with FairTest (2) to learn more than you ever wanted to know about testing, and why it doesn’t do what test makers, school districts, government and public school officials and a whole lot of other experts are telling you: They explain so clearly all the answers to your questions including why tests aren’t unbiased, why they don’t really show what students have learned, and why test scores aren’t reliable. Increasing testing, one of the very first premises of NCLB, is flawed.
Another NCLB suggestion is to empower parents. The problem with this is that the public education system, in its present form, makes parents feel powerless. Except for the occasional mover and shaker parent, who volunteers in the school, chairs every committee, and is room mother, chaperone, and field trip organizer; most parents prefer to stay fairly far away from the school their child attends. They often get just close enough to drop off or pick up their student. They may attend parent night, concerts, and the occasional school function, but in many cases, they don’t even do that. Why? If you ask them, they may tell you, “I don’t like to walk down the hall of a school. The smell brings back too many bad memories.” “I had a teacher who tied my left hand behind my back and made me write with my right hand. When I finally got a different teacher, it was hard for me to catch up.” Or “My kid does okay; he (or she) doesn’t need his old man in there acting dumb.” Huh? It’s true. There are a lot of parents out there, sending their child to school, who had such negative (i.e.: horrific) experiences that they don’t really want to go there, and yet they are sending their child there because they feel so powerless that the thought of taking responsibility for their child’s education sends them shrieking in the opposite direction. I know. I’ve heard their comments, when they tell me why they don’t homeschool. (I didn’t ask them, by the way. There’s something about homeschooling that makes people feel they have to defend their position.) “I don’t have enough patience.” “I didn’t do very well in school; I don’t know enough to teach them.” “They wouldn’t listen to me.”
My eldest son struggled, a square peg in a round hole, for six long (and I mean LONG) years before we learned about homeschooling. I had met a homeschooler prior to that but it certainly never occurred to me to attempt such a thing! I thought she was some sort of radical person. But finally my back was against the wall, and I felt like I’d tried every avenue within and without the system that was possible; pull-out programs, private tutors, patterning, testing ad nauseum, even special ed. Yes, my bright, articulate, auditory-kinesthetic learner was put into special ed because he could not read at age five. He failed kindergarten!!! The words learning disabled and dyslexia were bandied about. Looking back now, and after totally homeschooling a younger son with similar learning style, I know that Ryan was not the failure. The system failed him. A system that depended upon photocopied worksheets and quiet seat work was not a good fit for a kinesthetic, hands-on, auditory learner. The constant questions had been replaced with negative self statements. After a summer of knowing he was going to be homeschooled, some of his confidence and zest for learning re-appeared, although it was quite a while before the mantras, “I’m dumb” and “That’s not how my teacher said to do it.” disappeared from his vocabulary.
Another quote from NCLB that stopped me short: “States and school districts will have the flexibility to produce results, and may lose funds if performance goals are not met.” What? If more money is the key to success, then why are we taking away money if the school is not succeeding? Shouldn’t schools that are not succeeding get even more money, if this is the case? This all sounds like double-speak to me, but what do I know? Well, I know that we have successfully lived and learned with a trio of boys, two of whom are already responsible, contributing, successful, happy adults, each pursuing life and learning and making us proud of who they are and the things they have accomplished and are accomplishing in their lives. The third one is still at home, young enough not to have made a lot of waves since his graduation, but, as he puts it, he “has a life”. He’s working full-time in the family business, going to college part-time, and has both short-and long-term goals regarding his education. My point? We have never spent more than $1,000 per year on homeschooling, even when we were paying about $450.00 a year to a cover school, thanks to legal issues in our state. Even when we were homeschooling all four, we didn’t spend more than $1,000 per year on materials or activities. Sometimes we took trips, paid for private lessons or tutors, or bought educational toys, but usually those were things we would have done whether we were homeschooling or not. So even though those things contributed to their education, you could say that if they’d been in public school, they would have only been considered supplemental, so counting them is optional. Our kids haven’t made headlines due to their achievements, but neither have they made headlines for any negative reason. They aren’t rich, haven’t received meritorious honors or awards of any great significance, but then, none of those things were reasons why we decided to homeschool. Those weren’t goals we set for our kids. At under $350.00 per kid per annum, we’ve achieved our goals. Money is not the key to reaching the children, teaching them more, or giving them the ability to do better on a standardized test. (The first standardized test that Son #3 took was the state driver’s ed test! Oops! He didn’t know what the bubble answer sheet was for at first, but managed to get a 97% anyway. The second was the ACT, and he managed to get a college scholarship with that one.)
Okay, another subject. Focus on early literacy is another bugaboo of the NCLB initiative. I quote: “States that establish a comprehensive reading program anchored in scientific research from kindergarten to second grade will be eligible for grants under a new Reading First initiative.” While putting reading first sounds very positive and high minded, studies have shown that many children are not ready to read at such a young age, and indeed, can be harmed by having it introduced before their eyes are developed enough. Why don’t the educators know this? Of course, we have to remember that this initiative was put together by politicians, but one would want to assume they had very well-versed educational consultants advising them, wouldn’t one? Dr. Raymond Moore and his late wife Dorothy (a reading teacher) support their contention that reading should not be pushed, with scientific studies! (3) Their book, Better Late than Early, explains their position, along with a bibliography of the studies they used to support their position. Isn’t it amazing? There are scientific studies used by NCLB to promote early reading and scientific studies used to promote later reading by a homeschooling advocate!
All I can say is that my brother told me years ago that you can prove anything with statistics. So perhaps the same holds true with scientific studies. I cannot cite any scientific studies with assurance, but I can point out that I had two later readers, one who struggled to fit in to the school setting, and one who was never “schooled”. With the intervention of homeschooling, and the environment of a household where reading aloud was the norm, and books occupied more space than any other single item, our older son eventually became a reader. In fact, I have often said that he “read his education” after we began homeschooling him. However, that reading sometimes took place auditorily, through books on cassette or family read-alouds and bedtime stories. His reading was supplemented extensively with hands-on activities and real life experiential learning, modalities that suited him well. He began pursuing reading more avidly when he realized that he could learn how to repair the engines and motors he loved, by reading service manuals and instruction books. My second later reader never lagged in his education due to his inability to read at age five, six, or seven. Indeed, even at eight, he was able to keep right up with anything he needed to learn because an older sibling or parent was always available to read to him. He taught himself to add and subtract using an old workbook and a calculator, supplementing those materials with his incessant questions about what the plus and minus, multiplication and division symbols did. We played some games that introduced phonics (letter-sound correlations) and bought him a phonics program with cassette tapes and accompanying books. When reading clicked, he was almost nine, and from that point on you would be hard pressed to know that he had been a later reader. Within six weeks, he was reading aloud fluently, and comprehending adult materials with absolutely no problem. I know, I know, it’s not scientific. It’s anecdotal. But it’s true. It hasn’t been tweaked or twisted. I know how hard it was to simply trust that with the right environment, and a little patience, with a lot of books and fun and laughter, eventually our obviously bright son would learn to read. When he was ready. To watch another local homeschooling family whose son was even older, almost twelve, when he learned to read. And to hear later that he finally learned to read so he could follow an investment his mother helped him make; since then I’ve head that he is investing money for others and succeeding beyond what older “trained” investors were achieving. Anecdotal. But it gave me courage at the time. As a parent, I was very aware that I would be responsible if this child didn’t learn to read. That if he was illiterate and jobless I would be responsible, as well, for supporting him. But having observed and read and talked and e-mailed with homeschoolers across the country, and even in other countries, I persevered in letting him proceed at his own pace. At nine, he reads. He comprehends. He’s presently devouring an annotated unabridged version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He previously studied the Constitution. He amazes me with his insights. My kids are “outlearning” me! It’s great!
What were my goals for my kids, the ones that I think are more realistic, and which I know are much cheaper, and more meaningful than NCLB? I wanted to provide them the opportunity to learn to think, to love to learn for the sake of learning, and to have values about God, family, and community. I wanted to educate them in such a way that they would have their own opinions and be able to defend them articulately, to provide for themselves and their families, and to give back. They have exceeded my expectations. That’s more than you can say for educational reform. While the politicians and the educators wrangle over NCLB, may homeschoolers continue to live and learn. Homeschooling allows each family unit to initiate learning in the way that suits them best. They can take into consideration every facet of their life, and how each piece fits together to form the whole. They can flex and bend as children grow, and interests and needs change. When disasters and emergencies happen, when a parent is deployed, or ill, or a family member needs special help, the homeschool simply reconfigures and the learning continues. There is no need for the time-consuming flux of legislation, and trickle-down theory, or any of the unwieldiness of a “system”. Families and homeschools are more flexible and more personal, more attuned and aware, than a public school could ever be. While we don’t need written policies and we certainly don’t want to get involved in mandating what another homeschooling family “should be” doing, it is lovely to be able to look back and see where we’ve come from, and how our expectations have borne fruit. And the fruit is sweet.
A freelance writer, Marsha serves as a homeschool resource for her local library and has written articles for "Home Education Magazine" and a column for "Home Educator's Family Times." She has served on the planning committee for her local homeschool cooperative, taught creative writing, edited the newsletter, and been a member of the HUB Homeschoolers United Building advisory committee. Her book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling" was published in February 2001, and she has spoken at homeschool conferences and curriculum fairs in Texas, California and Michigan. She also works part-time outside the home as an office manager for both the family business and at a local church.