Carving Out the Core: A Former Homeschooler’s Perspective on the CCSS

Marilee Turscak

With recent controversies surrounding the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum in the United States, many questions remain about how the Core will affect the nation’s growing population of homeschoolers.

The absence of a conventional curriculum is one of the main draws of homeschooling, and many homeschoolers have used their educational flexibility to pursue interests that they may not have found the time to develop within a traditional school. While growing up in the homeschool community I had one friend who traveled the world as a professional dancer, one who paid her way through college by managing a thriving photography business, another who attained a cosmetology license by age 16 (funded primarily by Ohio’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program), and yet another who scored a job with Proctor and Gamble after poring over science magazines and working in labs throughout high school.

One high-achieving homeschooler is Serennah Harding, an Alabama native who used dual enrollment courses to obtain a B.A. in mathematics by age 17, and who at age 22 became one of the youngest physicians in American history. While I was in high school, my parents encouraged me to use my extra time and freedom to explore esoteric interests such as raising exotic poultry, learning to play the harp, taking Spanish classes at the local university and Great Books classes at our homeschool co-op, and allowing fencing lessons to count as physical education.

Of course, homeschooling has different results for different people. Some of my peers attended Ivy League universities, others pursued trade professions, and others are now prestigious drug dealers. The blessing of homeschooling is that students have time to follow their dreams; the curse is that they also have the option to squander that time. Just as there are stories of homeschoolers who competed in the Olympics or won the Scripps Spelling Bee, there are also stories of students who enjoyed the home life so much that they never left their parents’ basements. As with any endeavor, success requires a combination of nature and nurture—of personal motivation and access to good resources. The difference, though, between homeschool education and public education, is that homeschool students have more flexibility to take advantage of their circumstances without the restraints of federal bureaucracy.

While homeschoolers are sometimes stereotyped as people who avoid college and formal education altogether, the homeschool movement is becoming a more mainstream way for people to take shortcuts on the path to college. That fast track has broad appeal, and homeschooling’s popularity is increasing. From 1999 through 2007, the percentage of American students in homeschool increased from 1.7% to 2.9%—a number that has likely escalated further in recent years.

Now, with the implementation of the Common Core curriculum in 46 states, it is not unreasonable to predict that more parents will start to take their children out of school. Because “educational freedom” is one of the main selling points of homeschooling, any potential threat to this freedom raises cause for concern. Since the federal government granted $4.35 billion dollars to schools who chose to adopt the Core in 2010, the curriculum has become the norm in most public and many private schools. While states were not technically “forced” to adopt the Core standards, Race to the Top funding was made available only to states that implemented the curriculum, and with $4.35 billion dollars at stake, the incentive to adopt was high.

The Common Core is experimental at best, and Bill Gates, one of the Core’s main proponents, surmises that it may take up to ten years to determine the plan’s success.

Because the curriculum inflates the percentage of “informational texts” against that of fiction reading and teaches an experimental approach to math that was regarded as a failure in Russia, many parents have pulled their children out of school due to concerns over the Core’s standards. Karen Lamoreaux, a mother and former National Honor Society member, appeared in December 2013 before the Arkansas State Board of Education to voice her concerns over the CCSS standards. She explained that the Core presents an inefficient approach to mathematics that requires students to go through many unnecessary steps in order to solve simple multiplication problems. Students who previously scored As on exams are coming home with Cs and Ds—not due to their lack of skill, but due to the odd new rubric teachers must now use. When dividing 90 by five, for instance, students are expected to draw 18 circles with 90 hash marks in them, solving the problem in 108 steps rather than the two steps recommended by traditional teaching. This is but one example of the Common Core’s questionable methods.

In the language arts, the Core imposes equally experimental standards. Rather than emphasizing time-tested classic fiction, the language arts standards mandate that high percentages of reading time be devoted to non-fiction “informational texts.” Two suggested informational texts for eleventh grade are Totally Tolerant: Spotting and Stopping Prejudice and Ice! The Amazing History of the Ice Business. These seem like interesting books, but they are ones students could probably read on their own. More often, students need the guidance of a teacher for the complexities of rich fiction, but they will have much less time for fiction in schooling under the Common Core.

Parents in Wichita, Kansas, as well as parents in Horry County, South Carolina, have staged formal protests and some have started homeschooling their children in response to the implementation of the standards. Wichita parents Justin and Jennifer Dahlman recently pulled their children out of school after noticing that their four girls had suddenly begun to struggle in school. When they later found that Common Core math and English standards had been implemented into the schools without their knowledge or approval, the Dahlmans turned to homeschooling.

Dozens of Horry County protesters voiced similar frustrations over the way that districts started teaching CCSS standards without their approval. On November 18, Bob Crout, a father of a public school student, pulled his child out of school and joined a number of other families for “Don’t Send Your Child to School Day” to protest the Common Core State Standards outside  the South Carolina Department of Education. Crout said that the standards were overbearing and “set [students] up for failure.”

One homeschool parent, Tina Wilson, joined Horry County public school parents in their protest against the CCSS initiative. A main concern, she said, is that providers of homeschool textbooks will change the content of their textbooks to suit CCSS standards.

"They're either going to align with Common Core and alienate their homeschool base," she said, "or not align and lose their public school customers."

For homeschoolers, the Core will primarily have three effects: first, it will alter the material in the textbooks that homeschoolers purchase; second, it will change the content of required graduation tests; third, as of 2014, the SATs and ACTs will test on the Core, so parents and co-op teachers who wish for their children to attend college will be obligated to amend their curricula.

One of the greatest dangers of the CCSS initiative is that it might prevent students from attaining the education that suits them best. The compulsory nature of the Core will present a challenge for teachers who will now need to rework their “tried and true” teaching methods, as well as teachers who must adapt their material to individual classes and learning styles. With homeschooling, parents and students, if nothing else, have some say in the matter.

Now, the homeschool community has an opportunity to shine during a confusing transitional period. In many ways, homeschooling provides an oasis and a chance for educational flexibility in an increasingly regulated K-12 system. However, this freedom does not come without difficulty. Those who wish to sidestep CCSS regulations will need to find creative ways to jump through the hoops and fulfill state requirements while still maintaining their own prerogatives and the democratic integrity of homeschool education.

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