March 21, 2005
Washington Times Op-ed – Public Education Isn't Preparing Teens
by J. Michael Smith
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
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
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.