A Homegrown Alternative

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A Homegrown Alternative

Greg Beato

In 2002, when the national average SAT score was 1020, homeschoolers averaged 1092. In 2003, 248 homeschoolers achieved semifinalist status in the National Merit Scholar program, with 109 of them winning Merit Scholarship awards. In 2004 homeschoolers scored an average of 22.6 on the ACT college entrance exam. By comparison, public school students scored an average of 20.9.


All of these statistics are mitigated by the fact that relatively few homeschoolers take national achievement tests (or at least identify themselves as homeschoolers when they do). While more than 1.1 million public and private school students took the ACT exam in 2004, only 7,858 self-identified homeschoolers did so. It's possible, skeptics argue, that their strong performances aren't representative of all homeschool students (many of whom, of course, are too young for high school achievement tests).


Still, as the number of homeschooled test takers grows, their overall average stays higher than their traditionally schooled counterparts. In 1997, when 1,927 homeschoolers took the test, they averaged 22.5. During the next eight years, as the number of homeschoolers taking the test increased 307 percent, their annual average score topped the national average every time.


Thanks in part to such statistics, the general take on homeschooling is starting to change. Or at least the media's take is. You can still occasionally find articles that stereotype homeschoolers as gubmint-hatin' religious wackos, or fretfully posit the demise of Miss Grundy's English class as the end of democratic pluralism. (Never mind that old Abe Lincoln himself was a homeschooler!) These days, though, homeschooling mostly gets good press, and articles extolling its virtues exhibit all the subtlety of an infomercial host. Meet the Florida 16-year-old who scored a perfect 1600 on her SAT! And the Michigan 10-year-old who took first place in the 2002 National Geography Bee! And the Type A Renaissance kid who gargles in Latin, plays cello in the local orchestra, and thinks taking out the trash is a great way to earn extra credit!


Of course, there are also homeschoolers who do lousy on standardized tests. Some have never even built their own harpsichord from scratch or taught themselves how to read hieroglyphics. But the positive anecdotes and statistics do make it clear that overcrowded classrooms, peer pressure, and apathetic teachers are no longer the only guarantors of academic success. College admissions officers have been quick to pick up on this: A decade ago, homeschool students rarely were accepted by top universities such as Harvard or Stanford, but now such events are commonplace. More than 1,000 colleges in the U.S. will consider applications from homeschooled students.


Part of the reason corporate philanthropists haven't shown a similar interest is that it's not very convenient to give money to homeschoolers. "If you're a foundation or a corporate gifts program and you can't find a 501(c)3 to give your money to, you're not getting the tax deduction," says Justin Torres, research director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to education reform. "Then you're just giving money to an individual, and there are all kinds of IRS headaches with that."


As homeschooling evolves, though, more homeschooling groups are filing for 501(c)3 status. There are national groups such as Brian Ray's National Home Education Research Institute and regional ones such as the California Homeschool Network. But while headache-free giving opportunities in the world of homeschooling do exist, size matters too. If you really want to turn a philanthropist on, it helps to be big. Hewlett-Packard, for example, doesn't consider requests from individual K–12 schools, and IBM's Reinventing Education program set its sights on the vast forest of the public school system, not mere trees. "Rather than creating a model school or enriching a few classrooms with technology, our goal is to use technology to jumpstart comprehensive and lasting school reforms," the company announced at the program's inception.


"Business leaders focus on how to get the most impact with the least effort," says Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve Inc., an education reform group that features such high-profile executives as Prudential CEO Arthur Ryan and Intel CEO Craig Barrett on its board. As with many business-driven reformers, Achieve's mission is to strengthen standards, assessments, and accountability—in effect, to homogenize the school system to ensure uniform levels of achievement. Homeschooling, on the other hand, is essentially an attempt to diversify education. Some homeschoolers are just as focused on standards as groups like Achieve are. Others have little interest in tests or assessments of any kind. "You can have more impact on something that's actually a system," Gandal concludes.


Since homeschoolers value their autonomy so strongly, it's easy to assume they have no interest in outside assistance. In a two-income society, however, homeschooling is something of a financial anachronism, and many homeschoolers are thus less closed-minded on the subject than one might assume.


Homeschooling Alone
Why corporate reformers are ignoring the real revolution in education.
Greg Beato | April 2005 Print Edition