Seeking higher standards

Parents’ power to choose the best education for their children ought not be hindered when the default is failing them

By Patrick McIlheran

July 21, 2022 - Ask Dave and Sara Smith why they decided to homeschool their kids, and they first mention the local public school being too understanding.

Their oldest son was in 7th grade, said Dave, and let a lot of uncompleted assignments pile up. No problem, said the teacher, reassuring the Howards Grove couple that he’d get “full marks” even on work turned in late.

The Smiths didn’t see that as educational: “Half of what they’re supposed to learn here is responsibility,” Dave said.

Then came COVID, with virtual lessons badly executed, and little hope for normality from the school district as fall 2020 approached. The Smiths, after conferring with homeschooling neighbors, took the leap. They committed the fundamentally parental act of opting for what their children needed.

There was more in between, said Dave. Gender politics wormed into the schools “even in our rural town,” with pronoun drama and notions about one’s sex being mutable. “And there’s zero discussion allowed,” he said. “You’re not allowed to question these things, or even discuss them.”

This isn’t little for the Smiths, who profess themselves Christians. They want their children thinking critically rather than drifting with The Current Thing.

“The lack of being able to question what they’re doing and how they’re going about doing it is just unacceptable,” said Dave. “If you can’t have an open discussion or debate about something, then the matter’s already settled. These matters aren’t settled.”

It seemed their children were being taught to keep quiet and follow commands. They feel a different lesson is better: “If you have a question, ask it,” said Dave. “If they’re not able to answer it, that should be a red flag for you.”

But these doubts pale next to the shining reputation of Wisconsin’s public schools, no?

No. “Our oldest son can’t write cursive, can’t read cursive,” said Dave. “They stopped teaching cursive altogether. So he can’t even sign his name. That seems like a small thing. However, if you want to read the original Declaration of Independence, how are you going to read that if you can’t read cursive?”

“He can’t read a birthday card from Grandma and Grandpa, either,” said Sara.  

“And that seems like a small thing,” said Dave, “but that’s what it’s like across the board. The overall expectations of what you should be able to do once you graduate is not what I recall.”

Who are the Smiths to think they can do better?

They’re educated parents, equipped with professionally developed homeschool curriculum, supported by a network of homeschooling families around Howards Grove who meet, exchange techniques, and cooperate on lessons and outings as their kids get all the socialization that virtual schooling lacked. That’s who.

The Smiths concede they get a few odd looks. “How do you know they’re learning?” is the question you get, said Sara.

“By tests” is the answer, as in any other school. Tests also are the gauge of the default option, Wisconsin’s vaunted public schools. Let’s look at that gauge.

In 2019 — to be cleanly pre-pandemic — more than 1 in 5 Wisconsin freshmen entering the University of Wisconsin system needed remedial math, not having learned enough already. That 22% is up from 10% in 2000.

But aren’t we tops among states? No. We’re… ok. In 2012 Wisconsin scored third best on the ACT college test among states where more than half of students took it, but by 2019 we were in seventh place. Our 87% high school graduation rate was second-best in 2010; now, at 90% in the latest figures, it’s eighth-best, behind Alabama and Texas.

Wisconsin’s 4th-grade reading scores on the NAEP “nation’s report card” test are down from sixth place nationally in 1998 to 27th place in 2019. That year, 39% of Wisconsin 8th-graders were proficient or better in reading. In math, only 41% of our 8th-graders were.

Since you’re proficient, you realize this means 59% of 8th-graders are behind in math. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s own test, the Forward, shows similar results, with 64% of all 8th-graders statewide lacking proficiency in math in 2019. Sure, Milwaukee Public Schools, with only 13% of 8th-graders showing proficiency, weakened the average, as did Madison, with 29% proficient. But even Howards Grove’s public schools managed to get only 48% of 8th-graders up to math proficiency in 2019; just 52% of the district’s 8th-graders were proficient in reading.

Dave, who has relatives who teach, doesn’t see teachers as the problem. “Their hands are tied,” he said, by dysfunctional theories and administrative fads. “It’d be incredibly frustrating to be a teacher,” he said. But the Smiths aren’t regretting their departure.

Nor should they. If by the state’s own measure, more than 60% of public-school 8th-graders can’t proficiently read, how does anyone question a parent’s choice to opt for a better alternative — homeschooling or a private school under Wisconsin’s choice programs? If a public school can’t teach your child math, what’s its point? To indoctrinate her on pronoun etiquette?

The Smiths opted out for reasons particular to their family’s needs. They did so because safeguarding those needs is a parent’s duty — and, in a society that recognizes families’ importance, a parent’s prerogative.

This is why parents’ power to choose the education that they think best must be safeguarded, especially from a government that, by its own measures, fails to teach most children to read.

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.