The Newark Star-Ledger recently published a lengthy article portraying the state’s “unregulated” homeschoolers as wide-eyed fringers, not on the opinions page but as straight-facts reporting. When I emailed the editor to protest, he replied (and later courteously gave me permission to quote): “We made quite clear that this was not an overall evaluation of home schooling, but a piece looking at [Andrew] Schlafly's operation, in the context of an entirely unregulated field.”
Let’s look at how clear and fair the reporting is.
The article is entitled, “New Jersey home schooling: The Wild West of education.” It does focus on Schlafly (Phyllis Schlafly’s son), a Harvard-educated lawyer and tea partier who teaches distance classes to about 200 homeschooled high-schoolers. The title alone, however, demonstrates how the paper extrapolates from Schlafly’s teaching to New Jersey homeschooling as a whole.
The article targets Schlafly for teaching “a misguided curriculum that defies science and, well, common sense.” This because he teaches creationist ideas, gives girls and boys separate tests (and makes the girls’ tests easier), and criticizes public schools, liberals, atheists, and homosexuals.
Yes, a few of those things are odd. All are politically incorrect and may even seem crazy to New Jersey newspapermen, but, for example, only 4 in 10 Americans believe in evolution, and the likelihood of a creator has been rapidly increasing in recent scientific estimates.
My point is not to line-by-line examine the reporter’s assumptions. It’s that the reporter is responsible to do that herself, and that she enhances her embedded bias by quoting experts on unsettled topics who only espouse one side. Not only this, she aims readers towards a false conclusion.
The first quote of the article, besides the early lines I’ve quoted already, set the context for the rest: “In this state, there are no laws shielding thousands of these students from lesson plans that recognized educational experts would consider nonsense. ‘One of the goals of creating clear, agreed-upon curriculum standards is to protect kids against people who have extreme ideological positions,’ said Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”
Actually, no. Curriculum standards usually enforce ideology. That’s why, for example, the Common Core national standards, among others, have barely brushed history or social studies—the organizers can get no agreement on politically charged figures and events. New Jersey public schools promote ideology—such as substituting President Obama’s name for Jesus in lyrics elementary children were taught, portraying Christians as terrorists in a mock school shooting, and offering (before canceling) a cross-dressing fashion show featuring an 8-year-old boy in women’s clothing. No word on whether the Star-Ledger wants more state regulation to prevent such incidents.
The paper also uses the clearly controversial Schlafly as a foil for attacking New Jersey homeschooling as a whole. The article holds him up as the extreme representative of an extreme “movement” with “fierce ideological views” that quickly “shut down” “any attempt to impose standards.”
Yes, because “imposing standards” has worked so well in American education. As I recall, federal standards are the reason Montana and Idaho are ignoring No Child Left Behind this year and why Education Secretary Arne Duncan has unilaterally decided to relegislate NCLB “relief” in exchange for unspecified state education policy changes. We definitely need more bureaucratic oversight over ideologues like Andrew Schlafly. He has absolutely no leftist counterparts reigning over publicly-funded classrooms in New Jersey and around the country.
The Star-Ledger is correct in one thing: Homeschoolers have not been largely studied and analyzed like public school students. The paper notes in horror, “No reliable data exist on whether home schoolers do better as a whole, because their parents don’t have to notify the state or district of their choice to home-educate. They aren’t required to show a curriculum or textbooks. They don’t even have to be high school graduates. And their kids don’t have to take state tests or earn diplomas.”
The data we do have, while admittedly not randomized or uniform like that on public-schooled kids, demonstrates that complete amateurs can educate kids to scoring, on average, around the 80th percentile on standardized tests. Research has also shown no correlation between increased homeschooling regulations and higher homeschooler test scores. Perhaps rather than attacking how ably these Americans employ their freedom, we should protect and extend it to others.
Joy Pullmann is an education research fellow and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.