by Mike McHugh
I heard a story once about a small town where life revolved around the factory where many of the townspeople worked. In this same town, there was a watchmaker’s shop. In the display window facing the sidewalk was a large, ornate clock. The watchmaker carefully set the clock every day because many people would set their watches by this clock. One man in particular caught the watchmaker's attention. Every morning at 6:25AM, this man would stop and carefully set his watch by the clock in the window. He never missed a day. One day, the watchmaker was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store when the man stopped by at 6:25 AM as always. The watchmaker mentioned that he had noticed the man stopped at the same time every morning, and he was just curious as to why. The man answered, with pride in his voice, that he had a very important job that affected the whole town.
"You see," he said, "I am in charge of the whistle at the factory. When I blow the whistle in the morning, everyone knows it is time to work. When I blow the noon whistle, the people at the factory know it is lunchtime, and their spouses know it's time to prepare the lunch table. In the evening, I signal the end of the workday. I carefully set my watch each morning to this clock to make sure the whistle blows on time." The watchmaker answered, "You mean every day you set your watch by this clock so you can blow the noon whistle on time?" "Yes," said the man, "that is correct." "Oh my!" said the watchmaker, "for years now, believing the noon whistle to be very reliable, I've been setting this clock by it!"
Parents who choose to homeschool their children seem to be very concerned about the quality of education their students receive. I am concerned, however, that many homeschooling parents are, like the watchmaker, judging their effectiveness by the wrong standard. That standard is a moving target, and it is headed in the wrong direction.
The vast majority of families homeschool as independents, i.e., they don’t enroll in a program, and they purchase materials from multiple sources. In short, they put it all together themselves. Today there are many options for such families. There are programs, and packets, and paces, and products galore. Fads and philosophies abound.
The problem, as I see it, is that it has become difficult to nail down what constitutes a good education. To be honest, I think that many of the current trends in homeschooling would not have caught on if the public schools had continued to maintain the educational standards of the past—all questions of secular philosophy aside.
Parents sometimes ask those of us who are on staff with the Christian Liberty Academy home school program, "Why do you require so much grammar (or math, or science, or history)? Our public school does not require this much." We require what we do because we use a standard that isn’t moving. Some homeschooling parents have made the same mistake as the watchmaker. They have unknowingly used a continually changing standard to judge their students’ achievement. They are apparently satisfied as long as their students are doing as well as, or a little better than, their public school counterparts. As public educational standards have continued to slide, however, so have the standards of homeschoolers who have “set their watches” by them.
Our ministry tracks this trend by continuing to use the older 1970 edition of the California Achievement Test precisely because subsequent versions have lowered the standard. I believe this “dumbing down” was at least partially done in an effort to mask declining achievement test scores in the public schools. We have seen a trend in students who matriculate into our program. When measured against the 1970 standards, public school students coming into our program are trending lower. At the same time, we are noticing a marked decline in the achievement of previously homeschooled students coming into our program. The number of high school students entering our program with insufficient high school credits continues to rise. We find ourselves disqualifying, or at least remediating, an increasing number of students who are simply not academically prepared for our program. This is especially true of independent homeschoolers.
Whenever homeschoolers judge the quality of what they are doing by what the public schools are doing, they will miss the true mark. When the watchmaker and the whistle blower each used the other to set their clocks, instead of setting their clocks to an unchanging standard, they were both adrift. It may be that many homeschooled students are not really getting a good education. While the education they are getting may continue to be relatively better than that of their public school counterparts, what does that prove when the public schools are getting worse?
The old saying has it that, “Even a broken watch is correct twice a day.” Maybe the public schools don’t get absolutely everything wrong, but it is critical that Christian home schoolers use a much more reliable benchmark. One sure way is for such parents to partner with Christian educators who can help them to establish and maintain a program for their children that has consistently high standards.
Copyright © 2007 Larry Hovde
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