The Washington Times
March 21, 2005

Washington Times Op-ed – Public Education Isn't Preparing Teens

by J. Michael Smith
HSLDA President

Bill Gates has declared American high schools "obsolete." In a Feb. 26 speech to the National Education Summit on High Schools, he said "our high schools — even when they're working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today."

These criticisms are not new, but the fact that America's most successful businessman is concerned about how America will survive in a world that requires educated workers should cause people to take notice. Mr. Gates went on to say he was "terrified for our work force of tomorrow."

The problems of high schools are well-documented — low graduation rates, graduates who enter college but require remedial classes, billions spent on retraining by businesses to bring employees up to a basic level of English and math. Consequently, many people have concluded that public high schools are failing in their mission.

However, there is an alternative, as the burgeoning numbers of home-schoolers, 2 million children or 4 percent of the school-age population, attest. Their parents have voted with their feet and left the public system.

Interestingly, many parents intend to home-school only until sixth or seventh grade. It's a strange paradox. Many home-school families plan to stop home-schooling right at the time when there is the greatest need for the one-on-one tutoring and high-quality education home-schooling provides.

Why don't these parents have a vision for home-schooling through high school? The main reason is a concern about the ability of parents to teach high school level classes. At first glance, it's an understandable fear, but it is nonetheless unfounded.

Few parents can teach all subjects at the high school level. In the same way, few public school teachers would be able to teach all subjects. You don't need expertise in every area. Home-school co-ops are a way of pooling educational resources and one of the best ways to advance a home-school education through high school. In addition, there are online resource centers that offer challenging courses to home-school teens, as well as many high-quality correspondence courses.

Another reason some home-school parents consider public high school is the availability of sports programs. Teenagers who have athletic ability are understandably concerned about access to sporting opportunities.

Fortunately, some enterprising home-school families have developed home-school sports leagues. These leagues are growing rapidly and producing high levels of competition. There are two national home-school basketball tournaments, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association recently lessened restrictions on home-schoolers partly because colleges were seeking to recruit home-school athletes.

Mr. Gates has focused on academic achievement, which also should be of concern to home-school families. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reports that academics are dropping as students go through high school: "By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations."

One of the goals of the foundation is to dramatically improve the public school system. The foundation's Web site describes the ideal school this way: "Successful schools combine rigor — high expectations and a meaningful course of study — with relationships — powerful, sustained involvement with caring adults who mentor, advise, and support students throughout their high school careers." This sounds like a typical home-school program.

In addition, the foundation is deeply concerned about the lack of civic participation by the average public school graduate. "In the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds was below 40 percent. ... [T]oday's young people have the highest score on record on the Political Apathy Index. They are considerably less interested and knowledgeable about public affairs and therefore less able to participate effectively."

This is not the case with the average home-schooler. In a 2004 study by the National Home Education Research Institute, the number of home-schoolers age 18 to 24 who had voted in the past five years was 76 percent.

Parents working closely with their children can tailor their education to meet the children's needs. This is no different in the high school years.

Home-school parents should think carefully about sending their teenagers to public school. If the home-school alternative has worked for your family up to sixth grade, it can be successful in the all-important high school years, too.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at 540/338-5600, or send e-mail to media@hslda.org.