Posted by jlwile on January 24, 2011A Facebook friend of mine (I honestly thought I would never use that term) recently posted the video on the left. It discusses several errors that are found in U.S. school textbooks. With the post, she noted, “I am so thankful and blessed we are able to homeschool!” As I reflect on her comment, I realize that there is a profound truth expressed there.
Several of my posts related to home education discuss the fact that homeschool graduates are, on average, head and shoulders above their peers. That was my experience when I taught at the university level, and it is the conclusion of many academic studies. There are several reasons that a home education tends to produce superior students, and I have explored some of them in the posts linked above and in articles I have written for homeschool magazines. However, I think my Facebook friend’s post provides yet another: Homeschooling materials are, on average, superior to what you find in most schools.
Like many true statements, this one is a bit counter-intuitive. After all, teachers choose the materials that are used in schools. While teachers are generally not experts in their field, they are at least more knowledgeable in their field than most parents. As a result, you would expect teachers to choose better educational materials than parents. Nevertheless, as someone who has examined the science texts used in schools and the science texts used in homeschools, it is my opinion that the ones used in homeschools are, on average, superior.
Why is this the case? Well, the first thing you have to realize is that while teachers are, indeed, more knowledgeable in their field than most parents, that doesn’t mean they tend to choose accurate materials. As I have mentioned previously, even an expert doesn’t know everything about a topic, which is why peer review is so important in scientific publishing. In addition, there are a lot of myths that all experts learn through the course of their training, and many experts hold on to those myths because they never bother to sort through the supporting evidence. Thus, while a teacher will probably spot a lot of obvious errors in a text, the less obvious errors will often not be noticed. Even when a group of teachers get together to look at what text to adopt, many errors pass through the group review unnoticed.
But aren’t parents who are not as educated in a given subject prone to miss even more errors? Absolutely. However, there is a crucial difference between the way a homeschooling parent chooses a text and the way a teacher chooses a text: The homeschooling parent typically chooses a text based on results.
When a teacher chooses a text, the school is stuck with it for the entire textbook cycle, which is typically seven years. Since you can never truly evaluate a text without actually using it, it is very possible that a teacher will start noticing all sorts of problems with a textbook once he or she starts teaching from it. Unless something extraordinary happens, however, that won’t matter. The teacher (and anyone who comes after him or her) will have to continue to use it until the end of the cycle.
Worse yet, the teacher’s knowledge of the effectiveness of a text typically ends with the final class. Very rarely does a teacher follow a student in college or the real world to see how effectively the student was prepared by his or her class. So even in the case where a teacher finds a text that he or she thinks is truly first-rate after using it for a few years, that evaluation is generally based solely on what happens in his or her class.
Now compare that to the homeschooling parent. First, the parent is not held to a textbook cycle. If the parent starts noticing issues in the text (be they factual errors or just issues regarding whether or not the student can use the book effectively), the parent is free to get another text.
Also, consider the kind of review a homeschooling parent has when it comes to a textbook. Unlike students in most schools, homeschooled students generally have to do research regarding any given subject, specifically because there is not a teacher there who can answer most questions. As a result, a homeschooled student gets on the internet or goes to the library to find other resources that help explain the material. Those resources, of course, will overlap with the book, and if there are discrepancies, this causes immediate concern.
I can’t tell you how many students write to me and say, “Your book says one thing, but this other resource says something quite different. Which is correct?” That’s something I never encountered while teaching at both the high school and university levels. So while a homeschooling parent doesn’t have as much knowledge in the subject matter as a teacher, the parent often gets the benefit of a kind of “peer review,” because the student is spending time looking at other materials related to the text.
But the review doesn’t end there, and I think that’s the major point. Unlike a teacher, a homeschooling parent closely follows the progress of his or her children as they graduate and move on to college or the real world. This often leads to a long-term evaluation that a teacher never gets. Once again, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a homeschooling parent say something like, “My son used this text for calculus, and even though we thought it worked well at the time, he crashed and burned in his university calculus course. I won’t be using that text for my other children.” Of course, that kind of review gets passed on to other homeschooling parents, and fairly soon, not a lot of homeschoolers are buying that text anymore.
The reverse is true as well. I have also heard homeschooling parents say something like, “We used that text for calculus, and when my daughter got to university, she was much better prepared than the others in her calculus course.” This is the kind of statement that causes other homeschooling parents to go buy the text. As a result, effective textbooks tend to be very popular in homeschooling.
So in the end, I find the quality of homeschool curriculum superior (on average) to that of most public and private schools. That doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible materials in homeschooling. There certainly are. However, I don’t find them as popular as the good materials, and I think that is due to the very nature of home education.