It is one of the most frequently recalled scenes from the popular teen movie Mean Girls: a trio of stereotypically backwoods children talking about how their parents homeschool them in order to instill some unconventional scientific and historical beliefs. And until recently, it neatly communicated how the majority of Americans viewed families that homeschooled their kids. But with a growing number of parents losing faith in American educational system, the typical home-schooler is diverging ever further from popular stereotypes.
As Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and author of the popular blog Instapundit, writes in USA Today, home schooling is not just for Christian Fundamentalists anymore.
The fact is, Americans across the country — but especially in large, urban school systems — are voting with their feet and abandoning traditional public schools, to the point that teachers are facing layoffs. Some are going to charter schools, which are still public but are run more flexibly. Some are leaving for private schools. But many others are going another step beyond traditional education, and switching to online school or even pure home schooling.
Just last month The Atlantic profiled a number of families – fully secular ones – who turned their backs on the NYC public schools in order to teach their kids at home. In the view of families featured in the piece, that was the only way to ensure that their kids got a quality academic experience.
Their biggest surprise, however, came from how many families they discovered who were exactly like them: who were choosing to teach their kids themselves not because they were seeking to divorce themselves from an overly secular world, but because they wanted to give them something that their local schools weren’t able to provide.
New York’s public school system is indeed notoriously inadequate. And, like most public school systems (or public systems of any kind), it’s run more for the convenience of the staff and bureaucrats than for the benefit of parents or kids.
As Reynolds explains, even as the world was changed by technology in the past three decades, public schools have remained stubbornly unchanged. As he puts it, public education continues to follow Ford’s moving assembly line model, ignoring the tools that would allow schools to customize learning to each of their students.
In short, those who home school are realizing that it is no longer possible to justify teaching to the lowest common denominator in today’s world.
That isn’t to say that every student who abandons the local public school is doing so for the livingroom-turned-classroom. With the success of the school choice movement, parents have many more options, among them charter schools and virtual academies that offer part or all of their curriculum online. According to Reynolds, this flood is on the point of becoming self-sustaining, which means that public schools will continue to lose their best, most engaged students, thus producing even worse results every year.
At some point, it’s a death-spiral: As kids (often the best students) leave because schools are “notoriously inadequate,” the schools become even more notoriously inadequate, and funding — which is computed on a per-pupil basis — dries up.