Education and Child Policy

April 2, 2020 3:46PM

Homeschooling During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As nearly one billion students around the world miss school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents suddenly find themselves working and learning alongside their children. While this is far from a typical or ideal homeschooling experience, it can provide an opportunity to nurture family relationships, explore new interests and skills, and get a glimpse of education without schooling.

In a recent three‐​part Cato Daily Podcast series, I spoke with host Caleb Brown about this unprecedented educational moment, including sharing strategies and resources for overcoming the challenges of unexpected, unchosen homeschooling, as well as possible outcomes as more parents seek alternatives to conventional schooling post‐​pandemic.

In the first episode, I explain that what families are experiencing right now is not authentic homeschooling. Most homeschoolers will tell you that they spend more of their time outside their homes than inside, becoming fully immersed in the people, places, and things of their community. With social distancing, all of us are separated from those community networks, mentors, classes, friends, local libraries, museums, and so on. As a homeschooling mother of four, I can tell you that this distancing is just as tough on our family as it is on families with children in a conventional school. We are all feeling the stress of separation and uncertainty, as we try to continue learning and working at home. I emphasize this point in the first podcast episode, suggesting that parents avoid replicating school at home and instead use this time to encourage their children to explore their passions and discover new ideas, using the vast network of free, online resources that are sprouting daily amidst the pandemic. If parents feel that they need to stick to a schooled routine and be the curriculum enforcer in their households, it could lead to mounting stress and frustration during a time when all of us should be focused on trying to minimize family stress and maximize health and well‐​being.

In the second podcast episode, I explain how the pandemic has loosened education‐​related regulations, including absolving some districts of compulsory attendance laws, waiving federal standardized testing guidelines, and prompting many schools to say that any coursework completed this spring will be optional. This regulatory pause can give families a chance to separate from standardized schooling expectations and instead explore the many learning resources available to them outside the conventional classroom. Parents may find, for instance, that plentiful online learning resources, including many high‐​quality, free ones such as Khan Academy and Duolingo, make it possible and pleasurable to facilitate their child’s learning without feeling like they need to be the teacher and curriculum designer. During this time at home, parents may also see that their children are discovering new talents, reading books that are meaningful to them, initiating projects, and otherwise rekindling a love of learning that may have been lost through forced schooling.

The final episode in the Cato Daily Podcast homeschooling series describes the history of the modern homeschooling movement, its changing demographics, and the wide variety of educational approaches and models that exist under the homeschooling umbrella. Drawing from insights from my Cato policy brief last fall, this episode also highlights the growing demand for educational choice and freedom—a demand that is likely to accelerate as parents disconnect from conventional schooling this spring. Education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts, can help to broaden the definition of education beyond schooling by enabling families to use a portion of public funds for tutors, classes, books, and curriculum materials, as well as tuition, to customize an education program that is right for each child. The regulatory and pedagogical flexibility of homeschooling allows for ultimate education personalization and experimentation, particularly as new hybrid homeschooling models emerge, and virtual learning and in‐​home microschools expand homeschooling access to more families.

Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we may be on the brink of a massive educational reset. With families back in charge of their children’s education, free from the constraints of compulsory schooling, they may increasingly demand more educational choice and freedom. Some of these families will choose to opt‐​out of schooling altogether, inspired by the learning, growth, and reignited curiosity they witness in their children during this time at home. In his recent book The Politics of Institutional Reform, Stanford’s Terry Moe describes how the devastation and disruption of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 weakened long‐​held power structures and led to the creation of a nearly all‐​charter school system in New Orleans. The COVID-19 crisis, while terrible overall, may be another natural disaster that disrupts institutional control, empowers families, and reveals that children can be educated without being schooled.

March 13, 2020 10:19AM

Free, Online Learning Resources When Coronavirus Closes Schools

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just changing how we live, it’s also changing how we learn. Over 300 million students worldwide are currently not attending school due to quarantines, and that number is expected to increase over the coming weeks, as more countries and cities shutter schools indefinitely. Many colleges and universities canceled in‐​person classes for the remainder of the semester, switching to online instruction. Some K‑12 public schools have moved to virtual schooling in the wake of closures, with instruction happening over videoconference and worksheets moving to Google Docs.

Fortunately, there are numerous online learning resources that families can take advantage of, including many that are free. Some of these resources have paid or premium options if you choose, but even the free versions offer great features and functionality. There are also many low‐​cost online learning resources, such as Outschool, that are worth exploring.

As parents prepare to spend time at home with their children for the foreseeable future, these digital tools can be great for kids and help the whole family to learn together:

Khan Academy – Perhaps the leader in free, high‐​quality, online learning content for kids, Khan Academy offers no‐​cost YouTube instructional videos in a wide range of content areas, including all levels of mathematics, English language arts, science, history, computer science and programming, and SAT preparation. Content is aligned with state curriculum standards, and parents can view and track their children’s progress. Khan Academy is widely used in schools across the country and can be a great resource for in‐​home learning.

Prodigy Math – Also used by many school districts, Prodigy is a free, online math program that uses a fun video game‐​style interface to engage learners. Users create their characters and conquer challenges while doing math along the way, tied to their skill level and aligned with core competencies. The paid version offers more math and allows parents and teachers (parents can register as teachers), to run tests and diagnostics, emphasize certain mathematical concepts, and assess progress behind the scenes, while the learners happily play the game.

Duolingo – If you or your child are interested in learning a foreign language, Duolingo offers free online learning tools in 36 languages.

No Red Ink – This free, online writing and grammar resource helps learners of all ages to practice and refine their writing skills. Sign up as a teacher (you can use your home as a school), create a learner profile for your child, and then allow your child to log in to the student account and get practicing.

Mystery Science – Mystery Science is offering free memberships for up to one year, with engaging lessons in a variety of science‐​related areas, including timely topics such as, “How do germs get inside your body?” Video lessons are complemented by hands‐​on experiments and downloadable activities.

Codecademy – This spring could be a great time for young people to learn in‐​demand skills like coding in different programming languages, web development, design, and data science. Codecademy offers free access to basic lessons, with the option to pay for more advanced courses if your kids get really into it.

Marginal Revolution University (MRU) – Economics isn’t always taught at the K‑12 level, but the dynamic, self‐​paced introductory economics courses offered for free through MRU are likely to pique your older child’s interest. These are also great classes for you to learn alongside your child.

Lyn​da​.com – Available for free through many public libraries, Lyn​da​.com has an array of online learning resources in subject areas ranging from photography to business to web development. Check with your local library for access details, and while you’re at it, explore the many other digital resources your local library likely offers. Many public libraries provide free access to e‑books, streaming films and music, digital magazines, and even language learning resources, such as Mango.

TED‐​Ed – TED‐​Ed offers a free suite of high‐​quality videos on a variety of topics for learners of all ages, including supplemental materials, discussion questions, and opportunities to probe deeper into areas of interest. Register as an educator and you can help to customize your child’s learning experience, or let your child explore independently.

Smithsonian Institution – Many museums, including the Smithsonian Institution and especially its open access Learning Lab, offer free, online resources and activities for learners. Check out the websites of your favorite museums to see what free, digital education tools are available.

Open Culture – Access 1,500 free, online audio and video courses from top universities, as well as 1,000 free audio books.

Edx –Edx offers access to free online courses delivered by a consortium of leading colleges and universities. Learn college‐​level content in computer science, engineering, and robotics, among others. Similar to Edx, Coursera also provides a wide range of courses created by various colleges and universities, including many that are free.

Academic Earth – View hours of free lectures and course materials from leading universities.

Alison: Offering a range of free online courses in all subjects, Alison’s trending course is all about the coronavirus.

Don’t Forget About Offline Learning As Well

Online learning resources can be incredibly valuable, particularly now when our in‐​person interaction may be limited and our daily routines are disrupted. But don’t underestimate the enduring power of offline, emergent learning. The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to step back, slow down, and gather together as a family. Parents may understandably feel pressure to maintain their children’s schoolwork for fear that they will fall behind, but a few weeks of “deschooling,” or unwinding from the rigidity and regimentation of school, can be beneficial and may unlock new curiosities, interests, and talents in your children. Allow for abundant unscheduled time and lots of opportunities for play. Get immersed in board games and card games as a family, read a book out loud for all to enjoy, linger over breakfast, go for a walk. While today’s digital tools help to keep us all connected and engaged during this uncertain time, let’s also use this historic moment to reconnect with our children in analog ways as well.

Related Event

Beating the COVID-19 Education Disruption: Answering YOUR Questions

Live Webcast • March 26, 2020 • 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM EDT

With over 300 million students worldwide not attending school due to quarantines, coronavirus is significantly changing how we learn. While millions of families are already familiar with learning outside the school walls, we have assembled a panel of homeschooling and education policy experts to provide advice informed by research and years of experience.

Get Answers to Your Questions
March 11, 2020 3:08PM

Coronavirus and Educational Options

Child watching computer

I do not have any expertise in COVID-19. From what I can tell, I am reflective of the vast majority of people, and hence we are all facing a time of significant uncertainty.

What I do know is that in the face of uncertainty it is good to have diverse options. Just as you want a diversified portfolio of investments because you will be ruined if you put all of your money in one thing and it tanks, when you are not sure what will work you want several possible solutions to exist.

The good news for American education is that it is both decentralized, and diverse options exist.

Within public schooling, local control means that districts can respond to their unique local situations. Schools all over the Seattle area can close while Albuquerque’s stay open, and schools can try lots of measures short of lengthy closure to mitigate the coronavirus threat. Of course, local districts face a lot of state and federal mandates, especially about annual testing and related accountability mechanisms, and how those will be handled is stickier.

Perhaps more important than decentralization of government schools is that our charter, private, and homeschooling sectors—and even some traditional districts—have been able to be incubators of sometimes very different ways of delivering education. We may well need to tap into these new mechanisms at greater scale if brick‐​and‐​mortar schooling is substantially disrupted. This will certainly mean more schooling occurring in homes, perhaps controlled entirely by parents. It will very likely mean more online content delivery as traditional public schools try to quickly transition from in‐​person to electronic teaching. The latter will not be easy, but thanks to our having embraced at least modest diversity in education there are already online models operating at scale to provide some blueprint.

For some families, a major disruption may even mean discovering the possibility of “unschooling” — letting kids largely steer their own educational paths, with parents only assisting and facilitating. There is experience with that to draw on, too. Indeed, Cato adjunct scholar Kerry McDonald has been especially prominent in disseminating information about unschooling, and she co‐​founded a website where you can find lots of unschooling options.

COVID-19 is uncharted territory, and nothing will make it painless to cope with. But at least in education, local autonomy, and having allowed many models to proliferate, lays some good groundwork to respond.

Related Event

Beating the COVID-19 Education Disruption: Answering YOUR Questions

Live Webcast • March 26, 2020 • 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM EDT

With over 300 million students worldwide not attending school due to quarantines, coronavirus is significantly changing how we learn. While millions of families are already familiar with learning outside the school walls, we have assembled a panel of homeschooling and education policy experts to provide advice informed by research and years of experience.

Get Answers to Your Questions
February 28, 2020 3:12PM

About Castro’s Literacy Boom

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders got into hot water this week with his celebration of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s seemingly wonderful literacy efforts. Setting aside for a moment how Castro used literacy, let’s look at the stats.

Below is a chart of literacy rates in Cuba starting in 1900, with data from numerous sources. What you see is growing literacy in the relatively prosperous country until it flattens, and even dips, between 1950 and 1960. It is unclear why the dip occurred—maybe political instability, emigration, or war—but we then see a big spike between 1960 and 1962, which is presumably from Castro’s “year of education.” The rate, however, drops soon after the 96 percent that Castro claimed to hit (that figure is not apparently in data collections such as the CIA World Factbook and World Development Index) and the trajectory basically returns to what it was pre‐​revolution.

Literacy rates in Cuba, 1900 to 2015

What happened? Perhaps the spike was illusory, manufactured by the Castro regime to suggest grand progress. Or maybe many of the lessons didn’t stick after the big surge. Regardless, after the spike literacy growth more or less returned to its trajectory before the 1950s lull.

Are there broader lessons here?

It is, of course, in the interest of dictators to promote government education, which is a vehicle ideally suited to indoctrination. Widespread literacy is especially terrific if all that the people are allowed to read is what the government approves, which is exactly what we saw in Cuba.

That said, no matter what dictators—or other governments—do, there is abundant evidence that people want to learn how to read, and will seek out literacy on their own. Cubans were clearly pursuing literacy before Castro. Similarly, in colonial America and the early United States, literacy was widespread long before public schooling was: roughly 90 percent of white adults were literate by 1840. Of course, some governments in the United States forbid literacy for slaves, because in an otherwise free country reading was a gateway to demanding liberty.

There is no meaningful evidence that the spread of literacy in Cuba needed Castro. Indeed, we’d probably all be better off with no government control of education.

February 25, 2020 1:52PM

Senator Sanders Is Wrong on Cuban Education and Healthcare

The current frontrunner among the contenders vying to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders (D‑VT), sang Cuba’s praises in a recent 60 Minutes interview on CBS. Senator Sanders applauded Cuba’s education and healthcare system. Potential Sanders supporters should know that Cuba’s literacy rate and healthcare system are nothing to lionize.

First, consider literacy. According to Sanders, “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?” Sanders is surely old enough to know that all communist dictatorships throughout history have ensured that their people were literate—in part so that the people might take in the disinformation printed by government propaganda ministries.

Furthermore, a look at the data reveals that all of the progress regarding literacy that happened under communism in Cuba would almost certainly have happened under a different political and economic system. While trustworthy data, defogged of Cuban propaganda, are difficult to come by, the U.S. Department of State tried to do just that by comparing improvements in human well‐​being in Cuba between the 1950s (the last decade of the hated Batista regime) and 2000.

Accordingly, Cuba’s literacy rate rose by 26 percent between 1950/53 and 2000. But literacy rose even more, by 37 percent, in Paraguay. Food consumption in Cuba actually declined by 12 percent between 1954/57 and 1995/97. It rose by 19 percent in Chile and by 28 percent in Mexico over the same time period. Between 1954/57 and 1995/97, the rate of change in car ownership per 1,000 people in Cuba declined at an annual rate of 0.1 percent. It increased at an annual rate of 16 percent in Brazil, 25 percent in Ecuador and 26 percent in Colombia.

Next, consider healthcare. Sanders has repeatedly extolled Cuba’s healthcare system, opining that in Cuba the communist revolutionary and dictator Fidel Castro “gave them [the Cuban people] health care, totally transformed the society, you know?” Yet a recent study has found that Cuba’s seemingly impressive health performance is partly due to data manipulation and coercion.

Life expectancy is the best proxy measure of health. According to Cuba’s official data, it rose by 25 percent between 1960 and 2017. Yet life expectancy increased even faster in comparable countries: in Mexico it improved by 35 percent, in the Dominican Republic by 43 percent, and in impoverished Haiti by 51 percent.

The data make clear that Cuba’s education and healthcare system are unremarkable. Cuban‐​Americans and others familiar with Castro’s record are rightly appalled by Sanders’ apparent affection for socialism on the island.

Castro committed numerous crimes against humanity. He enslaved thousands of Cubans in forced labor camps for being attracted to members of the same sex, harboring “counter‐​revolutionary” thoughts, practicing minority religions or even simply for looking unkempt (like a “hippie”).

The slave labor of those Castro called “social deviants” provided an important source of income for the young communist regime, and any accomplishments of the regime must be viewed with that system of forced labor in mind.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Senator Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper during the interview. We cannot help but wonder if the senator would offer a similarly nuanced portrayal of a right‐​wing dictator.

The 60 Minutes interview is only the most recent episode in Sanders’ lengthy history of acting as an apologist for socialism. From his infamous honeymoon in the Soviet Union that led him to extoll what he called “the strengths” of the communist system, to his 1980s praise for Castro’s Cuba and the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua, Sanders has often had sympathetic words for left‐​wing dictatorships.

As recently as February 2019, Sanders even refused to describe Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro as a “dictator” (in the September Democratic debate, when pressed, Sanders finally admitted Maduro was a “tyrant”).

Sanders, at age 78, should know better than to exalt the alleged accomplishments of communist dictatorships. Hopefully Americans will take a look at the data instead of taking Sanders’ claims about Cuba’s education and healthcare systems at face value.

February 24, 2020 3:43PM

Back To the Battlefront on Religious Exemptions and Discrimination Law

The Supreme Court today agreed to review a challenge to Philadelphia’s policy of excluding Catholic Social Services from its foster care system because of its refusal to place children with same‐​sex couples. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia could potentially clarify the heated ongoing conflict over the rights of religious objectors in discrimination law. Potentially is the word because it’s far from clear on what issues the Court will choose to resolve the case.

It might focus on whether the city of Philadelphia overstepped the Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop guidance by showing improper animus against religion, and if so whether it matters (as the Third Circuit thought it did) that the city would have turned away a secular agency that followed the same placement policy. Or, with more dramatic implications, the Court might revisit its Employment Division v. Smith precedent, which holds that the Constitution affords no right to religious exemption from otherwise neutral and generally applicable laws.

Note that Philadelphia was enforcing a local ordinance of its own making; the case is thus on a very different footing than if it were, say, a challenge to the Obama‐​era regulations (which HHS has since proposed to rescind) that tried to arm‐​twist all states and cities into adopting policies like Philadelphia’s. In the HHS episode, it was the liberal side of the controversy that was trying to impose a uniform standard from coast to coast; in this case, it is some conservative religious groups that hope to do that. Scott Shackford has more in a piece at Reason quoting my views, as does the Christian Science Monitor in a piece last week.

Separately, in a case this morning called Patterson v. Walgreen, Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately in an otherwise routine denial of certiorari, joined by Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, to say the Court should revisit its 1977 precedent in the case of Trans World Airlines v. Hardiman, which held that the federal law prohibiting religious discrimination in employment does not require accommodation of a worker’s religious practice if doing so would saddle the employer with more than a “de minimis” burden.

I wrote about the Hardison precedent in my 2015 Cato Supreme Court Review article on the Abercrombie & Fitch hijab case: basically, Hardison let employers off easy, at the semantic cost of defining a term of art, “undue hardship,” in a way almost comically opposite to the way it has since come to be used in, say, ADA cases. One result is that religious discrimination complaints in the workplace, while growing, have not emerged as a massive headache for management, nor have they blown up as a series of regular culture war showdowns.

Just as with the better‐​known issue of RFRAs, or Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, the ideological polarities reversed over this period, with liberal forces, at first the strongest proponents of accommodation rights, turning into their strongest critics. Alito’s concurrence makes clear that more battles are likely to lie ahead– unless Congress chooses to change or clarify matters, as it could do quite simply any time by choosing to update the statute.

February 19, 2020 1:35PM

Book Review: Overturning Brown

Dunbar School Plaque

Despite the fact that minority families tend to want school choice, and certainly desire it more than white families, choice opponents love to imply that the modern choice movement is grounded in segregation. On what do they base this? After the U.S. Supreme Court declared longstanding, government‐​forced public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), some people in the South tried to use publicly funded private school choice to avoid integration. Lately, choice resisters have been citing a “new” book by Steve Suitts, former vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an adjunct lecturer at Emory University, to make their case. The title says it all: Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice.

Why do I put “new” in quotes? Because while the book is technically new, it appears to be an almost word‐​for‐​word reproduction of an article Suitts published last year in Southern Spaces. That he turned the article into a book is fine, but it is important for journalists, wonks, and other readers to know that de facto responses to the book may already be out there. Indeed, I wrote one myself, published by Education Next. So I’m not going to write a review here—it already exists!

My response lays out, in as measured and charitable a way as I could muster, many failings of Suitts’ argument, including his unfair treatment of Milton Friedman, his almost entirely ignoring that Roman Catholics demanded school choice beginning in the 1840s, and his skipping over the Ku Klux Klan working to force all students into public schools in the 1920s. Suitts basically turns a blind eye to the deep pock marks of bigotry all over public schooling, and leaves out much of the history of school choice, to hang the “segregationist” banner on modern‐​day choice supporters.

I won’t add anything here, except to say to journalists, wonks, or anyone else involved in the school choice debate, if you don’t challenge the school‐​choice‐​is‐​segregationist narrative you are doing a major disservice to your readers, policymakers, and anyone seeking truth about American education. Feel free to reach out to Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom whenever you want to put together a full and fair treatment of American education. We all deserve nothing less.