John Whitehead once wrote, "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see." Christian parents understand that their children's education helps frame the "living message" they become, so many of them—like my wife and I some 25 years ago—decide to homeschool them. Homeschooling has now gone "mainstream," with celebrities like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith joining millions of Americans who choose homeschool over public education. Surprising to many is the high rate of minority homeschooling and that 70 percent of survey respondents cite a nonreligious reason as the top motivator in their decision to home school.
One of the hallmarks of the homeschooling movement has been the high level of student outcomes, with homeschoolers consistently scoring higher on standardized tests and college graduation rates about 10% higher than their public school peers. Yet, one of the questions that often perplexes homeschooling parents is whether or not the program of study they have chosen meets or exceeds the academic standards of their local school district. The latest academic standards' issue that homeschooling families face relates to the newly adopted Common Core State Standards. More than 40 states are currently using the standards; setting a higher academic bar than most states had in place, and homeschoolers now must respond to these standards, as standardized tests like the SAT and ACT will likely align to them.
The standards have become contentious in some Christian circles, and homeschoolers have often been at the center of the controversy. Homeschooling mom Jenni White led the charge against Common Core in Oklahoma, and her group, "Restore Oklahoma Public Education," was at the forefront of the repeal of Common Core recently signed by Governor Mary Fallin. Megan King of Lawrence, Kansas pulled two of her three sons out of their public elementary school, in part, because of the math standards, and she co-founded Kansans Against Common Core. Other parents see the standards as real progress. Physicist Chad Orzel, in a blog entitled "Thanks, Common Core," was grateful to report that his daughter was now "actually understanding the meaning of the process," and not just learning rote problems. John Tuma, a board member of the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators writes that, "The 5th grade (Common Core) standard that says, 'Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text' is not the problem." He goes on to write that: "The fact that the curriculum is tied to the Common Core Standards is not the problem either, but rather it is what worldview the curriculum is tied to that we should be concerned about." Tuma concludes, "Frankly, obsessing about public-school standards is just a bad idea for homeschoolers."
Not surprisingly, groups and organizations linked to the homeschooling industry (gross sales top $1 billion) have been quick to respond to the standards. A website named "Homeschoolcommoncore.com" (the URL itself indicates the impact Common Core has already had on homeschooling) tells parents that the states that require periodic assessment tests of homeschoolers (about 20) will align those tests to the new standards. Unlike most other homeschooling sites, this one outlines the rationale for them without judgment: "These new common core state standards are similar to the states that wanted more control over standards. The difference is that multiple states collaborated to develop these larger geographic standards. They were not set by the federal government." They add, "If your state is implementing these standards, it might be beneficial to compare your homeschool curriculum or program scope and sequence." Another site, Homeschoolwise notes: "Having curricula that meet (or exceed) Common Core standards is not the same as re-writing to align a program with Common Core. And having elements of Common Core in a program does not necessarily make it bad."
Yet, the man who has often been seen as the spokesperson for the homeschool movement in the US, Michael Farris, and his attendant organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) have been critics of the new standards, even creating a microsite and a documentary film to oppose them. Yet, some homeschooling advocates—like Home Education Magazine editor Mark Hegener—question HSLDA's right to "speak for everyone." As Josh Israel wrote recently, "While HSLDA has tried to present these public school standards as an 'immediate threat' to homeschooling families, critics from inside and outside of the homeschool movement wonder if it is part of a pattern of fear mongering by an organization eager to maintain its membership base." HSLDA spokesperson Mike Donnelly seemed to soften their stance recently when he said, "There isn't anything 'inherently objectionable' in the Common Core standards, but there is concern that if the standards become more mainstream, there will be more pressure for homeschooled students to conform to them." Currently, a majority of states do not require home-schooled students to take a standardized assessment. In those that do, parents are offered a range of standardized assessments they can use.
The massive companies that provide curriculum (even Ron Paul offers a homeschool curriculum) for homeschoolers all make mention of Common Core standards. A Beka Book, a longstanding leader in the field notes that, "Many Christian school educators and homeschool parents are inquiring about the sweeping national education standards known as Common Core State Standards (CCSS)." They point out that, "A Beka Book has historically met or exceeded recommended content standards, it is not surprising that when compared to current CCSS, the A Beka Book language arts and mathematics objectives were found to already meet almost all Common Core content standards." Giant Houghton Mifflin embraces the standards, promising to ease parents and students into this transition, "because ultimately your energy should be focused not just on implementing the Common Core standards, but on realizing their intent: guiding all students to 21st-century college and career readiness."
The trend to homeschool continues to rise, with North Carolina experiencing a 14% rise last year alone. Some posit that worries over Common Core may have prompted the increase. While it is impossible to know exactly what has led to this recent spike, many agree that the political debate, and not the high standards themselves, has induced skepticism from some. Most state academic leaders are urging parents and educators to remember that the Common Core are standards, and not curriculum or teaching methods.
Mississippi superintendent Carey Wright recently expressed a growing sentiment when she said, "I have no idea why (Common Core) is such a lightning rod." Her state recently outlined a five-year plan that is based on the Standards. She went on to emphasize that the standards "do not restrict districts on developing curricula," and the same is true for homeschool curricula, which is responding to the standards as companies ensure that their curriculum meets or exceeds them. Carmel Martin, a former Obama administration Education Department official who is the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said she finds homeschooling parents' opposition to the standards a bit "perplexing." "Those families make a personal choice, which is a legitimate choice that they are going to handle their child's education at home, so the Common Core doesn't really affect them," Martin said. "They have the option just like a private school to decide what curriculum is going to be used for their children."
As a former homeschooling parent, it is clear that today's homeschoolers—like their pioneering predecessors—are well organized and very motivated in the high calling of preserving the Christian worldview. High academic standards continue to be a distinguishing mark of the movement, and these new standards should not be mistaken as a threat to that worldview. Indeed, they simply serve as a new baseline to ensure the excellence for which the homeschool movement is known. As more and more homeschooling groups demystify the standards and separate them from the often-unrelated political debate, they are sure to embrace higher standards while at the same time ensuring that curriculum aligned to those standards values does not erode their traditions or beliefs.