The best educated children in America don't go to school.
Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, compared home schoolers and public school students on the results of three standardized tests -- the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test -- for the 2007-2008 academic year. With public school students at the 50th percentile, home schoolers were at the 89th percentile in reading, the 86th percentile in science, the 84th percentile in language, math and social studies.
Socio-economic factors may have a lot to do with why home schoolers do so much better. Virtually all have a mother and a father who are living together. Nearly two-thirds of fathers and 62 percent of mothers have a bachelor's degree or higher.
The explosive growth in home schooling has been fueled by dissatisfaction with public schools.
We spend more per pupil than any other country, but among industrialized nations, American students rank near the bottom in science and math. Only 13 percent of high school seniors knew what high school seniors should know about American history, says the National Assessment of Education Progress. Half of 18-to-24-year-olds in a National Geographic Society survey couldn't locate New York state on a map.
The United States is the only major country where young people will not know more than their parents, the education expert for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development told the BBC last year.
About 2 million children are home schooled. Since 1999, the number being home schooled has increased 7 percent a year. Enrollment in public schools fell 5 percent between 2005 and 2010.
The first students to leave public schools tend to be the better ones, because their parents care more about education, said University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds. "When they leave, the overall quality of the remaining students, and thus the schools, will drop."
When enrollment declines, funding is cut. Because powerful teachers unions want to preserve benefits, first on the chopping block are music, art and athletic programs. (In Buffalo, N.Y., where teachers are covered for free cosmetic surgery, music programs may be eliminated in half the schools.) These cuts make public schools less attractive, accelerating departures.
Teachers unions have made it all but impossible to fire bad teachers. There are a lot of them. Colleges of education are an "industry of mediocrity" that churns out ill-prepared and underqualified teachers, the National Council on Teacher Quality said last month.
So much for the argument that children learn more from the "credentialed professionals" in public schools. "Many parents these days have just as much education as teachers, if not more," notes Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead.
Also false is the claim that children schooled at home are poorly socialized.
According to a 2006 study, 71 percent of home school graduates, but just 37 percent of all adults of similar age, participate in community service. Eighty-eight percent of home schoolers, but just 50 percent of all adults, belong to a church, civic or professional group.
Parents who home school spend about $600 a year on educational materials. This doesn't include their labor, but contrasts vividly with the $10,560 per pupil spent in public schools in 2011.
Home schooling is a viable option primarily for two-parent families. But we can all benefit if we grasp the significance of this fascinating fact: Variation in the income and educational attainment of parents makes little difference in the superior performance of home-schooled students.
Children with parents who have an income of $49,000 or less scored in the 86th percentile in core studies (reading, language, math), Mr. Ray of National Home Education Research Institute found. Children whose parents had an income of more than $70,000 scored in the 89th percentile. In families where neither parent was a college graduate, home schoolers scored in the 83rd percentile. If one parent had a college degree, the 86th percentile. If both, the 90th percentile.
Home schooling succeeds because its focus is on children, and because home-schooling programs are flexible.
Public schools fail mostly because they're run for the benefit of administrators and teachers, not students, but also because they are so rigid. As long as we have teachers unions, public schools will stink. But if we relax rules and de-emphasize credentials, they wouldn't stink as much.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1476).