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D.C.’s Scandal and the Nationwide Problem of Fudging Graduation Numbers (EdWeek)

D.C.’s Scandal and the Nationwide Problem of Fudging Graduation Numbers

By Catherine Gewertz

February 9, 2018

The headlines made a big splash, and yet they were strangely familiar: Another school system was reporting a higher graduation rate than it deserved.

The most recent scandal—in the District of Columbia—is just the latest example in a growing case file of school systems where investigators have uncovered bogus graduation-rate practices.

Those revelations have unleashed a wave of questions about the pressures and incentives built into U.S. high schools, and fueled nagging doubts that states’ rising high school graduation rates—and the country’s current all-time-high rate of 84 percent—aren’t what they seem.

The newest round of reflections was triggered by an investigation, ordered by the D.C. mayor’s office, that found that 34 percent of last year’s senior class got diplomas even though they’d missed too much school to earn passing grades, or acquired too many credits through quick, online courses known as credit recovery. Only three months earlier, the school system touted a 20-point rise in its graduation rate over the last six years.

“It’s been devastating,” said Cathy Reilly, the executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, a group that focuses on high school issues in the District of Columbia. “It’s made people here feel that our graduation rate gains weren’t real.”

A National Problem

Such revelations are hardly confined to the nation’s capital. In the last few years, a federal audit found that California and Alabama inflated their graduation rates by counting students they shouldn’t have counted. News media investigations showed that educators persuaded low-performing students in Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., to transfer to private or alternative schools to eliminate a drag on their home schools’ graduation rates.


See AlsoThe D.C. Public School Attendance Scandal: Where’s the Outrage? (Commentary)


The drumbeat of graduation-rate fudging has opened the door to renewed attacks on the pressures imposed on schools by accountability rules, particularly the high stakes that some systems attach to specific metrics. In the District of Columbia, for instance, high school teachers and principals are evaluated in part on their schools’ graduation rates.

With those kinds of stakes, teachers can feel immense pressure to award passing grades to students who haven’t earned them, a dilemma that intensifies in schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism and academically struggling students.

In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.

Scott Goldstein oversaw the survey as the founder of EmpowerEd, a year-old coalition of D.C. teachers that works to strengthen teacher leadership. To him, the results cry out for a new conversation about the “moral dilemmas” embedded in accountability systems that rely heavily on just a few metrics, like graduation rates.

“If you pass students [who haven’t completed course requirements], you’re leading them into a world they’re unprepared for. But if you fail them, you’re harming their lives in other ways,” said Goldstein, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. Teachers’ decisions should rest on a professional appraisal of student mastery, not on fear for their own jobs, he said.


Pressure From the Top

Pressure to Graduate: Perspectives From Educators

“Our principal sent us a notice that said: ‘I met with the superintendent yesterday about our academic progress…He made me aware that failure rates should be taken into consideration during the [evaluation] process. … Please closely monitor your failure rates and ensure that all is being done for your students to keep those rates low.’
Our teachers can read between the lines.”

John R. Tibbets

“I have been pressured not to fail students who miss 20-plus of the 45 days in a quarter….My colleague was ‘reminded’ that we are a first-year school, and that it ‘wouldn’t look good’…if a large number of kids failed.”
A teacher in a new alternative school

“I will NEVER recommend a student pass any class who has not worked toward standard based, content mastery of any class. However, some teachers use inappropriate rigor and grading practices…It’s sometimes hard for an administrator to challenge and claim a teacher [didn’t meet] those standards, but this is a professional decision reserved for classroom teachers. At the end of the day, staff have to ensure they hold students to high expectations.”
Jeremy W. Hurd, principal of McLaughlin High School, McLaughlin, S.D.


Even in school systems that don’t reward or penalize educators for their schools’ accountability metrics, teachers can feel immense pressure from administrators on their grading practices.

In postings on social media, Education Weekasked high school teachers if they’d ever felt pressure to give passing grades to students who hadn’t done the work.

“Never mind high school. I feel that pressure in 3rd grade,” said Annie, an elementary school teacher in central Virginia. She asked Education Week not to identify her so she could discuss sensitive issues.

She said her principal has cautioned her not to fail any student or recommend that they repeat a grade because she “doesn’t want anyone to feel bad about not succeeding.” When she gave a student a D recently, she was summoned to a meeting with the principal, Annie said.

“She was upset. She said, ‘Why didn’t you work harder to get the student to turn in missing work, or re-do work?’ She sees a D as a teacher’s failure. But I think it’s a disservice to kids to give them grades they haven’t earned.”

John R. Tibbetts, who teaches economics at Worth County High School in rural Sylvester, Ga., and is the state’s 2018 teacher of the year, said his district’s policy doesn’t include course-failure rates in teachers’ evaluations. But his principal recently sent teachers an email conveying word from their superintendent that “failure rates … will be taken into consideration” in their evaluations anyway.

A Change of Approach

Tibbetts said he would like to replace that “threatening” posture with a more collaborative one.

“If the superintendent is concerned with course-failure or graduation rates, what we really need is for him to have a conversation with teachers about what we need to do to improve, what policies we can implement,” he said.

Education advocates who believe accountability can be a force for good worry that graduation-rate scandals could tarnish a tool that’s important for shining a light on inequities and applying pressure for school improvement.

They hope, instead, that uncovering problems can spark a rebalancing of the pressures and supports built into accountability systems, and change school practice to respond better to issues like students’ poor academic skills and chronic absenteeism.

“We shouldn’t stop paying attention to high school grad rates, or not have them in accountability systems,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which works with states to raise academic expectations.

“The right response to all of this is to double down on efforts to support students, and to support teachers, early and consistently, so they’re not pressured to game the system and they can give kids what they need.”

Experts who study and track graduation rates acknowledge that in some places, the rates are inflated by cheating or inaccurate reporting. But they contend that those cases account for a tiny share of schools overall. Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who studies graduation rates, estimates that those cases account for 2 to 4 percentage points in the national graduation rate.

‘Hard-Earned Gains’ Are Real

John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a think tank that examines graduation rates for the annual “Grad Nation” reports, said his team has visited dozens of schools to find out what they’re doing to produce significant gains in their graduation rates.

In a few places, he said, he and his colleagues have had to shave 2 to 4 percentage points off the rates districts were reporting because they were improperly counting some types of students who shouldn’t be included, such as those who started home schooling in their junior year of high school.

But with few exceptions, Bridgeland said, his team has found that “the hard work” of better instruction and student support explains higher graduation rates.

“We need to call out the problems when gaming or cheating appears,” he said. “But at the same time, taking isolated examples of gaming the system and saying that high school grad rates are not real diminishes and undermines the many schools, districts, and states that have hard-earned gains and clear progress to showcase,” he said.

Those who study graduation-rate calculations point out that while they’re still imperfect, they’ve been much more reliable since 2008 when federal regulations began requiring all schools to calculate them the same way—the portion of each freshman class that earns regular diplomas four years later.

Balfanz said that more stringent calculation and reporting requirements “without a doubt” have been responsible for a very real rise in states’ graduation rates.

“People don’t remember the bad days before 2008, when schools were allowed to measure graduation rates however they wanted,” he said. “Kids dropped out, schools would code them as ‘whereabouts unknown,’ not as a dropout. No one knew, and no one cared. That wasn’t a good place. Accountability makes schools pay attention to a key outcome, like graduating our kids from high school.”

But even those experts acknowledge that there are still too many hidden variations in the way states report graduation-rate data. To get a more accurate understanding of schools’ graduation rates, they’ve quietly identified about a dozen variations that should be ferreted out and handled in uniform ways.

For example, even though federal rules don’t allow states to count summer graduates, or those who earn high school equivalency certificates, some still do. Some schools include summer graduates, or students in juvenile justice facilities. Others include teenagers who “transfer” into home schooling late in high school.

Hidden Labels Hold Students Back (EdWeek)

COMMENTARY

Hidden Labels Hold Students Back

Five questions for school leaders to move beyond tracking

By Robin Avelar La Salle & Ruth S. Johnson

February 5, 2018

Schools used to blatantly track students. Beginning in the early 20th century, many schools funneled students into high, medium, or low groups of expected academic achievement and educational attainment, regardless of their potential. Once labeled, students most likely remained in those groups throughout most or all of their schooling, which undermined their future workforce opportunities.

However, dating back to Howard Becker’s development of the “labeling theory” in the 1960s, sociology research has long suggested that students’ images of themselves may become intertwined with the label. Regrettably, most schools and districts still have systems for “sorting” students, which are often rooted in tracking legacies associated with race, income, ethnicity, gender, and language status.

Many districts are working to change their policies and practices to align with higher standards and expectations for all students. This is promising, but such a transformation requires vigilance, courage, and the will to assess and to call out and eliminate detrimental sorting systems. Leadership by administrators, teachers, school boards, parents, community, and even students is necessary to expose and shift systems of harmful sorting.

We have worked with hundreds of schools in dozens of districts over the past 20 years through our consulting work, partnering with schools and school districts with diverse student populations to improve student achievement. Here are some major questions we’ve learned that schools and district leaders should be asking to keep expectations high for every student:

1) What systems in our schools are creating the academic results students are currently getting?

It is imperative that results are analyzed by using multiple indicators to reveal how all students are performing. High-achieving schools and districts may have pockets of underachieving students whose performance is masked by aggregate data. If the results indicate a need for improvement, responding correctly is critical.

One of the most common approaches we have observed is a phenomenon we describe as the “wallpaper effect,” which occurs when often well-intentioned school and district leaders launch programs or interventions based upon limited data without full understanding of the most critical underlying issues.

2) What are our hunches about those results?

We all may have a lot of hunches about the underlying causes of academic disparities, but everything is just a hunch until we analyze pertinent data. To bring authentic issues to light, school and district leaders must combine data from academic, discipline, and other indicators, examined from every possible angle. These findings often show a vast difference in underlying conditions and frequently dispel myths about why some students are underachieving. Consequently, these data inform leaders about which crucial academic inequalities to address.

3) What types of decisions do we make about students based on their labels?

“If students are in the same group for much of the day, leadership must be concerned about equity issues.”

Decades ago, many struggling students were labeled “special education,” even if their struggle was simply being an English-language learner. Today, we hear labels like “Title I kids,” “long-term English-learners,” “at-risk students,” and so on. Students’ labels and grouping may limit access to premium educational experiences. For example, does a student identified as an English-learner, or student with disabilities, or one who has been suspended get as much access to a high quality, enriched schooling experience as a student labeled “honors”?

If students are in the same group for much of the day, leadership must be concerned about equity issues: Is this grouping linked to differential expectations? How does it inform students’ expectations for themselves? If students need additional support, the support must result in students becoming more proficient after the intervention. Leaders must analyze evidence concerning proficiency and ensure an exit strategy so that students can be eventually moved out of these groups and not be defined by what should be temporary challenges.

4) What are the results of the programs initiated to support students’ academic needs?

It is essential to scrutinize the contents of curricula and courses. For instance, at the secondary level instead of algebra, some students may get guided toward readiness for algebra; instead of biology, life science; and instead of English literature, senior English. The course titles vary, but they all are less rigorous versions of expected requirements for college and career readiness.

Decades of research confirms the futility of this approach. Although these classes are ostensibly created to give struggling students a greater chance to succeed, the failure rate in these courses is almost always higher than classes with mixed achievement levels. Since the publication of her book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality in 1985, Jeannie Oaks has documented how underachieving students have the best chance of academic success when they are in classes that have academic rigor, higher expectations, and higher achieving students.

5) Are there large disparities in our grade distributions and diploma pathways?

When examining grades by individual high school teachers, we often find large disparities in grade distributions for the same course taught by different teachers. Some teachers routinely award a high percentage of passing grades, while others fail a sizable percentage of their students. Disparities are attributed to curriculum rigor, ineffective teaching, and teachers’ perceptions about students’ abilities. To uproot systemic unconscious biases, schools and districts must analyze syllabi, textbooks, course requirements, grouping patterns, grading criteria, and content coverage for the same course. This analysis allows them to develop cohesive curricula and expectations for each course.

A 2017 Alliance for Education study of nine states found 98 different pathways to a high school diploma. Unfortunately, only 47 of those pathways represent college- and career-ready diplomas. A disproportionate share of the less rigorous diplomas were earned by students of color and low-income groups. It is of paramount importance that schools and districts consider what are our diplomas are worth.

Transforming systems for all students to meet higher standards is hard, but it is necessary and noble work. Many educators who are equity warriors are already engaged in meeting the challenge. Our children deserve leaders who fervently ask and answer: Does my school or district have the highest expectations and results for all children? All of our students deserve no less than the best.

10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing

COMMENTARY

10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing

We must grapple with digital equity, year-round schooling, gender parity in STEM, and more

By Matthew Lynch
January 26, 2018

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post for my Education Futures opinion blog on edweek.org, entitled “10 Reasons the U.S. Education System Is Failing.” I listed 10 problems and issues that prevent the U.S. education system from living up to its potential. Even years later, my list—which addressed economic shortfalls, gender and racial disparities, parent engagement, and more—still periodically shows up as one of edweek.org’s top-read blog posts of the day.

Because of this sustained interest from readers, Education Week’s opinion editors thought it would be interesting to revisit this list, and I wholeheartedly agreed. Most of the reasons that I listed still ring true, so I am adding 10 additional emerging problems and issues with our education system.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

1. In this digital age, we need to rethink literacy. Historically, literacy referred to print texts, but it’s becoming increasingly complex as we transition to a digital age. To accommodate this generational shift, educators need to start adopting a curriculum that covers digital literacy. Beyond basic reading and writing, students should be able to use technology to conduct research and make their own judgments about what they read. Without these skills, students will be left behind in our digital age.

2. The way we currently assess students is not working. The current testing system does not accurately measure the progress of individual students. In our digital age, we should be searching for testing options that can implement technology, gather information, and account for the differences among students who take the assessments. The initial cost outlay could be substantial, but we owe it to our students to create a fair testing system to help deliver brighter minds for the future.

3. We do a poor job of educating boys of color. Black and Latino boys have consistently been misunderstood in America’s schools. Their behavior, learning styles, and social skills are often misconstrued as problems. Until this situation is remedied, boys of color will continue to slip through the cracks. They have higher dropout, poverty, and incarceration rates than their peers. Perhaps the education system is partly to blame.

4. We continue to retain and socially promote students. The U.S. education system retains students at astronomical rates. The cost is outlandish, likely exceeding $12 billion annually, according to a 2012 estimate from The Brookings Institution, even though research shows that holding children back has little effect on their academic achievement. On the other hand, social promotion also poses a problem, as students will struggle to meet academic standards without extraordinary intervention. To end social promotion and retention, we must move from a graded classroom approach to a multi-age approach. Multi-age classrooms let students learn at an individualized pace, working to reach their full potential in their own time.

5. Anti-intellectualism and academic disengagement are running rampant. In this digital age, students are accustomed to instant gratification. In response, school districts water down academic standards to keep students on an equal footing, but the result is academic disengagement. Traditional education is undermined by this growing anti-intellectualism. Today’s students are less inclined to pursue academic achievement if it offers no direct relevance in their daily lives.

6. We need more year-round schools. Most schools in America maintain the antiquated system of granting students the summer off, even though the economic justifications for such a schedule no longer exist. Unfortunately, the solid evidence that a switch to year-round schooling would improve our academic system is ignored because it’s too challenging to make a change. Teachers and policymakers alike would have to agree to switch up the status quo to accommodate this drastic shift in scheduling.

7. We are not able to consistently produce quality teachers. A child’s education is highly dependent upon the instruction they receive. The reality is straightforward: Not all teachers entering the classroom have enough training and experience to foster student learning. A strong teacher is an invaluable classroom tool, but we have yet to discover what it takes to produce strong educators with any degree of consistency.

8. We are not doing enough to foster digital equity. In the modern age, technology is an essential part of the world and academics. Students from wealthier backgrounds have greater access to the internet and technology in general than their impoverished counterparts. The result is that wealthy students end up ahead, creating another barrier for schools with high poverty rates. Digital equity could eliminate this gap and provide a more level playing field.

9. We are not doing enough to get girls involved with STEM. Despite Beyoncé’s declaration that girls run the world, there are still plenty of academic fields where females are underrepresented. The booming STEM industry is primarily male-dominated, with few opportunities for young girls to join. The issue is not a lack of interest but a lack of encouragement for girls to enter these fields or study the subjects at school. We must find new ways to promote STEM subjects to girls and help them foster a love for the mechanical and chemical.

10. Teacher-preparation programs don’t teach neuroscience. Most teacher-preparation programs focus exclusively on education instead of providing a more holistic view. Truly great educators need to understand neuroscience to grasp how the brain and nervous system work fully. It would fortify educators if they had a better understanding of how the brain learns new information and how strong neural pathways are formed. Even the most basic understanding of neuroscience could influence and improve the way teachers perform in the classroom.

The underachievement of the U.S. education system is not the result of one problem. It is a confluence of issues that undercut the cultural importance of education equity and broad-based intellect. To achieve better results, we must put aside partisan politics and petty policy disagreements and try to improve our schools, no matter what. I am overjoyed that my last piece has resonated with my readers, and I hope this installment will also strike a chord. Now, let’s get to work.

The Problem With Calling Scholars ‘Too Political’

COMMENTARY

The Problem With Calling Scholars ‘Too Political’

Education scholars have a responsibility to the public good

By Diana Hess

January 16, 2018

Education scholars should vigorously participate in public debate about the important issues on which they have expertise as one way to give back to the networks that support them. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I teach, the federal government and numerous private foundations and individual donors invest in the development of graduate students and faculty by funding teaching, research, and scholarships. This support is critical to creating a society in which true expertise—the kind that develops over many years from concentrated study in a particular area—can inform the decisions that we make as a community.

Among education scholars’ responsibilities, contributing to the public good comes first. Scholars who opt out of public-policy debates for which they have a deep well of knowledge violate public trust and compromise the university’s mission to reach beyond the classroom. After all, the knowledge of scholars belongs not to them alone but to all of us. Consider the scholar who has spent years—often decades—rigorously investigating what can be done to narrow the opportunity gaps in schooling that harm too many young people and their families: When she weighs in on debates around this issue, she should not be merely tolerated, but should be recognized and applauded for doing her job.

In this special collection of Commentary essays, Frederick M. Hess and four education scholars discuss the pros and cons for academics who want to wade into public debate.

Yet it’s understandable why some scholars might be hesitant to voice their opinions. Scholars are sometimes castigated for being “political,” as if there were something unseemly at best, and manipulative at worst, in connecting expertise with the creation of public policy. Politics have become so highly polarized in recent years—and because, in this day and age, everyone can share their thoughts with the click of a mouse—scholars may not be regarded as highly skilled experts whose opinions we should seek out.

Of course, specialized experts are not the only voices that should be taken seriously in public discourse. But to eschew expertise is to rob the public of what we know it takes to develop high-quality answers to nuanced and important problems. This does not mean, however, that scholars should express every opinion they have on every issue for public consideration.

Consider my own case. For almost two decades, I have been honing my expertise on what schools should or should not do to teach young people thoughtful engagement in discussions of controversial political issues. Reporters frequently contact me for my opinion, and I have a duty to weigh in on these debates. The university supports me even if political leaders criticize me for doing so.

But I lack expertise on a whole host of other issues—even though I do have opinions as a citizen. When reporters ask me to weigh in on issues for which I do not have true expertise, I demur because I must not confuse my opinions as a citizen with my opinions as a scholar—which are well-warranted conclusions based on years of rigorous study.

By exercising intellectual humility, scholars can maintain the line between providing much-needed contributions to policy issues and becoming simply another partisan voice.

How (and When) Researchers Should Speak Truth to Power

COMMENTARY

How (and When) Researchers Should Speak Truth to Power

Four guidelines for academics who want to participate in heated education debates

By Pedro A. Noguera

January 16, 2018

In many respects, the polarization that characterizes the national political climate has long been present in the debates over the direction of public education, which took a particularly rancorous turn with the enactment of No Child Left Behind 16 years ago. Fierce conflicts over the expansion of charter schools, school closures, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation, and the merits of the common core have been common in communities across the country. Unlike the current political debates over immigration, taxes, and healthcare, which typically pit Republicans against Democrats, the fault lines in these long-running conflicts over education have frequently put leaders in the Democratic Party against constituencies that are typically regarded as a stable part of their base, namely teachers’ unions and parents and activists in low-income communities of color.

Not surprisingly, some academics (myself included) have chosen to weigh in on these education conflicts. Some have participated actively out of a sense of moral obligation because the research they have done has a direct bearing on the issues under debate. Others have done so because of their close political or ideological alignment to one side or the other. Most do quickly learn that becoming embroiled in such heated debates, especially when the stakes are high, always comes with risks to reputation, and in some cases, even job security.

Having participated in some of these battles over the years, I have arrived at an understanding about how and when to intervene in the debate through our scholarship and writing. Here are criteria that I have found helpful:

1) Avoid calling upon others to take stands that you are not taking yourself.For example, although I have been critical of high-stakes testing for many years, I have never encouraged parents to “opt out.” I feel that this is a decision that each parent must make on their own, and while I feel it is appropriate to explain the merits and drawbacks associated with high-stakes testing, I draw the line at telling parents what to do with their children.

2) Only enter conflicts in which you have a knowledgeable position that can be supported by research. This may seem like an obvious rule of thumb, but I have seen many scholars drawn into debates where they lack the expertise to offer well-reasoned positions. Invariably, their reputations are sullied when it turns out they can’t effectively defend a position they have taken.

3) Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the complexity of an issue even if it angers some people who want you to declare your allegiance to their position. For example, I have been asked repeatedly to weigh-in on the debate over charters and single-gender schools. My answer has consistently been that some are good, some are not, and there’s no evidence to suggest that expanding either will lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes.

4) Don’t be afraid of speaking truth to power. If you are confident about your position on an issue, don’t be afraid of speaking out or writing on the issue. Even if your position may be at odds with the position of powerful political or economic interest groups, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak for the interests of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Sometimes, silence is a form of complicity.

Homeschooling: Requirements, Research, and Who Does It (EdWeek)

Published: January 10, 2018

Homeschooling: Requirements, Research, and Who Does It

From left, Justin Barreras, 10, Adam Barreras, 11, and Garrett Barreras, 8, complete science schoolwork with their mother, Mariel Barreras, before soccer practice in Omaha, Neb. Mariel Barreras, whose husband is in the U.S. Army, is one of a growing number of military parents home schooling their children, in part to bring stability amid frequent relocations and long deployments.

From left, Justin Barreras, 10, Adam Barreras, 11, and Garrett Barreras, 8, complete science schoolwork with their mother, Mariel Barreras, before soccer practice in Omaha, Neb. Mariel Barreras, whose husband is in the U.S. Army, is one of a growing number of military parents home schooling their children, in part to bring stability amid frequent relocations and long deployments.
—Ryan Henriksen for Education Week-File

Even as recently as 1980, home schooling was illegal in a majority of states­—and didn’t become lawful nationwide until 1993. But once seen as a fringe practice of families on the extreme right and left­—religious conservatives and hippies—homeschooling today is viewed as a small, but integral part of the education ecosystem in the United States and a pillar of the school choice movement.

Home schooling has gained wider attention and more-mainstream acceptance as the numbers of students learning at home doubled in the past decade—a trend driven in some measure by the expansion of online schooling options.


How Many Kids Are Homeschooled?

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 3.3 percent of the country’s school-aged children are homeschooled. That’s nearly 2 million students.

That said, home schoolers are a notoriously difficult group to count and study. States define and track home-school enrollment differently, if at all. And researchers say survey data are difficult to collect on home schoolers because, as a group, they tend to be more wary of oversight and government infringement.

Furthermore, home schoolers who are enrolled part-time in district or private schools, or full-time in online charter schools, may get double-counted in some states.

But while firm data are hard to come by, experts are confident that home-schooling numbers have surged in the past decade.

However, by 2016, that growth appeared to have stalled, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES data on home schoolers is widely considered the most comprehensive available.


Online Homeschool

With the advent of online-course taking and growing school choice options, the boundaries between home schooling and traditional public schooling are becoming more diffuse.

There are full-time virtual or online charter schools where students learn at home from teachers over their computers and parents act more as educational guides, flexible setups where students attend a traditional school part time and home school part time, and education savings account programs, in which some states allow families to use the per-pupil funding allocated to their children on approved home-schooling expenses.

According to the NCES, more than 30 percent of middle and high school home schoolers report taking online courses. Of those, 25 percent took courses through a district school, 22 percent through a charter school, and 21 percent through a private school.

And the number of home schoolers enrolling in virtual charter schools and other forms of online education is only growing, according to research by the Education Commission of the States.


Homeschool Requirements

Requirements and regulations for home schoolers vary greatly from state-to-state, with most taking a decidedly hands-off approach to oversight.

A 2015 report by the Education Commission of the States analyzed state home-school laws. It found:

  • Twenty states require some form of academic assessment;
  • Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia mandate that home schoolers learn certain subjects;
  • Twenty-three states plus D.C. have attendance requirements;
  • Thirteen states plus D.C. require home-schooling parents or instructors to have certain qualifications—most require at minimum a high school diploma;
  • Almost 40 states plus D.C. require parents to tell the state or their local school district if they plan to home school a child; and
  • Twenty-six states allow home-schooled students to participate in extracurricular activities or attend their local district schools part-time.

Three states—Alaska, Idaho, and Michigan—put the fewest restrictions on home-schooling families, while three others—Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania—have the most regulations, according to the ECS report.

The lack of regulations in most states fuels much of the debate around home schooling.

School district officials and some homeschooling activists say that without testing requirements and other forms of oversight, it’s impossible to ensure that home-schooled students are receiving a quality education and the skills necessary to transition successfully into the workforce or higher education. And in some extreme cases, home schooling has been used by parents and guardians to hide physical abuse of children.

But some home schoolers, most prominently the largest and most-organized group, the Home School Legal Defense Association, have pushed back vigorously against regulation efforts, arguing that what might appear to be a single, benign law will lead to government overreach.


Home School vs. Public School

How home-schooled students compare academically to their counterparts in public and private schools is anyone’s guess.

It’s extremely difficult to pin down academic achievement data on home schoolers, leaving most people with little more than stereotypes of home schoolers dominating spelling bees to go on.

Of the research that does exist, almost all of it is qualitative and much of it is politically motivated, according to a review of more than 1,400 academic texts by researchers at Indiana University and Messiah College (a private Christian College in Pennsylvania). The same goes for high-school graduation and college matriculation rates for homeschoolers. But once in college, homeschoolers—or at least those who go on to pursue a post-secondary education—become much easier to study. That research has largely found there is no meaningful difference between homeschoolers and their more traditionally educated peers in academic achievement or the social and emotional transition into college.

In terms of the general public’s attitudes toward home schooling, many Americans support it or have no opinion on it. A recent survey by Stanford University found that 45 percent of Americans support home schooling, while 34 percent expressly oppose it.


Who Homeschools?

Home schoolers run the gamut from conservative Christians to secular “unschoolers,” who believe in putting all children in charge of their own learning. The typical home-schooler profile, however, is a white, suburban student from a family that lives above the federal poverty line.

More specifically, 60 percent of home schoolers are white, 39 percent live in suburbs, 29 percent in cities, 22 percent in rural areas, and 10 percent in towns, according to the NCES.

Eight in 10 home schoolers live in households with incomes above the poverty line.

What unites home-schooling families is not so much their demographics, but their motivations.

A large majority of home schooling parents report that they chose to home school their children because of concerns over the environment in their original schools. Ninety-one percent told the NCES that factors such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure helped drive them to home school their children.

There’s anecdotal evidence that concerns over bias and bullying in traditional schools are driving more black families, Muslim families, and families with LGBTQ children to home school, and that, in turn, is fueling a rise in diversity among the home schooling population.

Home schooling is also gaining popularity with military families who frequently move.

And there are also reports—although no firm data—that some families more recently are opting to home school to avoid vaccinating their children or exposing them to curricula tied to the Common Core State Standards.

However, the most vocal, visible, and organized home schoolers remain those who are religiously motivated, most often conservative Christians.


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How to Cite This Article

Prothero, Arianna. (2018, January 10). Issues A-Z: Homeschooling: Requirements, Research, and Who Does It.Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/home-schooling/