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November 2015

Don't homeschooling families deserve some access to public schools?

For a second year Kentucky state representative Stan Lee (R-Lexington) is introducing a bill that would permit homeschooled children to participate in public school athletics. Nicknamed the "Tim Tebow" bill after the famous quarterback who was homeschooled but allowed to play high school football in Florida, Lee's proposed legislation would let any child educated in a "nonpublic" school setting participate in public school athletics if their own school does not provide a particular extra curricular activity.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association opposes the measure, and House Education Committee chair Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort), a persistent defender of the government's monopoly on education, says he will oppose it as well.  Opponents cite the difficulties of establishing academic eligibility for homeschooled students and the risk that students who do attend the school might be cut from teams or lose playing time to homeschooled students who just participate in athletics.

I've written elsewhere about how outdated policies regarding athletic eligibility can hamper good educational practice and doing what's right for kids, and this is probably another example, though it's the most legitimate argument opponents of Rep. Lee's bill can muster.  I don't have a strong opinion about the "Tim Tebow" bill per se, but I do think it's high time we rethink our attitude toward homeschooling in the larger educational landscape and the all-or-nothing choice we force families to make.

The bottom line is that homeschooling families pay taxes to support the local public schools just like everyone else.  As a fundamental point of fairness, why shouldn't these families be able to get some direct educational benefit from their tax contributions? 

The current educational system, which I have served for 20 years, empowers professional educators and institutions with the vast majority of control over who gets taught, what they get taught, and how.  Parents, by and large, must take what is offered - or if they have the financial means, leave it for homeschooling or non-public school options.

We need to begin shifting that emphasis, empowering families to take a larger role in the learning process, creating a richer educational marketplace, and giving all families the ability to customize their child's education based on their individual needs and preferences.

We need to see education as a public good (see "why school choice" in my recent post), and support it accordingly, but that doesn't mean all learning is best delivered by a government-run school.  Families should have more control over the tax money allocated for their children's education, and should be able to create a personalized learning plan for their children through a kind of "a la carte" menu of schooling choices.  See my recent post on education savings accounts (ESA) for an example of how this might work from a policy standpoint.

Every family should be able utilize their local government-run school district on a service-by-service basis, but also use their ESA to access tutoring services, online courses, vocational training, etc.  As one education writer put it, a student "might study algebra online with a private tutor, business in a local entrepreneur's living room, literature at a community college and test prep with the national firm Princeton Review," and perhaps take band class or study Spanish at their local public high school.  And maybe even play football.

And why not?  We all pay taxes to the local, state, and federal government to support education.  If we have children, why should we not have some say in how those tax dollars get spent?  And why should government-run schools be the only option?  Think parents are too stupid to make these decisions?  Then you might be guilty of educational paternalism, and should reconsider.

I suspect the opposition to Rep. Lee's bill is more about the general prejudice against homeschooling on the part of professional educators, who also have enormous political and cultural influence.  And yet, research makes it clear that millions of families are now successfully homeschooling their children outside of the educational system.  This fact should make us reconsider our assumption that the large, government-run model of factory schooling is necessary, or even serves the public good of fostering a well-educated populace. 

Government-delivery of education may remain a critically important part this revitalized educational marketplace, but it will be a choice and option among many others, not the best or only option for every family, and not a take-it-all-or-leave it service for anyone.

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Updated disclaimer, 10/19/16: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

Fixed to growth mindset: Not an easy change

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of helping kick off the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative's new MathPLUSE elementary grant.  This three-year grant, funded by the federal Math and Science Partnership initiative, will provide rich professional development to elementary math teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators in 11 high-need schools.

My role will be supporting school principals' efforts to lead implementation of new math instructional strategies in their schools.  During the kickoff teachers took a baseline assessment of their math content knowledge and teachers and principals completed attitudinal surveys that will help track their changing perspectives toward math instruction over time.  Sheri Brittenham of the Warren County Schools modeled a thinking strategies lesson for administrators and GRREC math consultants Randi Womack and Rebecca Gaddie provided a primer on Carol Dweck's concept of fixed versus growth mindsets.

I had several key take-aways from the day.

First, Sheri Brittenham's modeled thinking strategies lesson was eye-opening for the administrators I talked to. Thinking strategies help students become aware of their own thinking processes.  In Sheri's lesson participants worked with partners and used math cubes to calculate the volume of overlapping right rectangular prisms (I needed a little background knowledge review right off the bat!).  The goal was to articulate our reasoning strategies, better equipping us to understand the skill and correct our own errors in real time.  When Sheri gave out the exit slip that would serve as a formative check for understanding, one of the administrators at my table noted that in many classrooms, this is the assignment we would actually start the lesson with.  By unpacking the lesson with a focus on the logical steps needed to solve the problem, students become greatly empowered with a capacity for self-assessment and independent learning.

Later in the day, as Randi and Rebecca shared information on fixed versus growth mindsets, I made several additional observations:

  • While reviewing the characteristics of fixed mindsets, rather than students I immediately thought of teachers who are reluctant to admit the growth areas in their own instructional practice and the resistance school leaders sometimes face when delivering feedback to help teachers improve.  "Look smart in every situation and prove myself over and over again.  Never fail!" isn't just a mantra for many of our gifted and talented students.  Teachers too seem prone to this kind of risk-averse thinking.
  • While growth mindset really emphasizes effort over ability, much of our professional language still reflects an outdated emphasis on students' innate abilities.  Thus, I regularly hear educators use the term "ability grouping" when they actually mean flexible grouping.  Assuming their intervention groups really are flexible, what we're really talking about here is "readiness groups" and that's the language we should use.  I recommend educators banish the term "ability group" from their vocabulary.
  • On a related topic, we explored the dangers of praising students' ability rather than effort.  But I was struck by the on-going need to stretch our top performing students more so that we can legitimately praise their effort.  If we falsely praise a child's effort when he hasn't really had to exert any, then we've also undermined the goal of growth mindset.  Schools must do more to meaningfully challenge kids at all readiness levels.
  • If we do give kids real but reachable learning challenges, then we are set up to actually reward risk-taking and persistence - unlike the vast majority of carrot-and-stick systems schools so often use to reward compliance.  But my sense is that students get a deep sense of satisfaction from overcoming a challenge and in such a classroom would require very few external rewards for their accomplishments.

Finally, participants reflected on a recent article by Carol Dweck in which she addresses concerns that have been raised about growth mindsets, especially the idea that it's all about student attitude and that adults can misuse the concept to let themselves off the hook for changing their practice.  I think this is a very important point and one that reflects my concern above that teachers be as willing to challenge themselves with new approaches and practices as they are (hopefully) willing to challenge students.

I will continue to participate in the MathPLUSE training as I am able so I can further assist principals in their efforts to support teachers in learning these strategies and will reflect more as the grant unfolds.