By Joy Pullmann
Much of the time, public school initiatives and regulations do not affect homeschoolers. The “next big thing” in public education, called Common Core education standards, already is, and that influence will grow. There are three major ways this nationwide initiative affects homeschool families: curriculum, testing, and student data tracking.
First, a bit of background. Common Core lists what public-schooled children should know in each grade from kindergarten to graduation in math and English. Forty-six states agreed to replace their math and English standard with Common Core in 2010. In 2014-2015, these states will also have replaced their state tests with national Common Core tests funded by the federal government.
National education standards have been a goal of politicians and advocacy groups for decades. In 1959, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, President Eisenhower called for them. President Nixon said “fear of ‘national standards’” is one of the “bugaboos of education.” President George H.W. Bush embraced them, only to see the Senate shoot down national history standards. President Clinton pushed for Goals 2000 and voluntary national testing, which Congress also rejected.
This time around, national standards advocates put together Common Core under the auspices of two private trade organizations, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. Neither has any formal legislative power, and both mainly function as networking opportunities. The federal government gives funds to each, and states pay both for membership dues and consulting services. Although tax dollars helped sponsor Common Core, it was written during meetings closed to the public and the press. Common Core tests, which are entirely federal tax-funded, are also being written by private organizations in private meetings. Major businesses such as GE and Exxon-Mobil and education foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also contributed tens of millions to the Common Core project.
These realities have inflamed freedom of information and corporate collusion groups, but for homeschoolers the concerns go much deeper. Homeschooling gives families the freedom to teach their children how and what they wish. Common Core requires a unified national learning path, thereby restricting in what order and to what depth children will learn the components of math and English. This would be less objectionable if Common Core were not so mediocre, according to all of the academic experts on Common Core’s validation committee, who refused to sign off on it. Other standards and education experts have since sharply criticized Common Core’s academic quality. Because Common Core is so comprehensive, it is likely to influence even what and how homeschoolers teach, particularly through curriculum, testing, and student data tracking.
Let’s look at curriculum. Because 87 percent of the nation’s school children are now attending schools that must teach Common Core, most major curriculum providers have shifted their products to match it. This includes Calvert School, Math-U-See, and Kahn Academy. Some curriculum companies, such as Saxon Math and Shirley Grammar’s publishers, have shifted their mainstream textbooks to match Common Core, but are also offering homeschool editions that have not changed. Still others, such as the Institute for Excellence in Writing, have relabeled their curriculum without changing it, or made no changes whatsoever. IEW founder Andrew Pudewa explained: “If we explain what we do in terms of the fuzzy vernacular of the Common Core initiative, homeschooling parents shouldn’t for one second think that it means that we have changed what we are actually doing.”
As for testing: 26 states and DC require homeschool families to administer standardized tests (usually the state test) and have their curriculum and learning plans reviewed by government officials, according to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. In many of these states, like Ohio and Florida, homeschool families can administer any nationally normed standardized they wish, such as the Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Both of those tests, however, are also aligned to Common Core, just like state tests soon will be.
Even if your state does not require homeschool families to administer standardized tests, your child has to meet Common Core standards if she or he wants to attend college. The SAT and ACT college entrance exams have announced they are also aligning to Common Core.
“Homeschoolers could also have trouble on the SAT if the test is fundamentally altered to reflect only one specific curriculum,” writes William Estrada in a Homeschool Legal Defense Association briefing on Common Core. “And our greatest worry is that if the CCSS [Common Core] is fully adopted by all states, policy makers down the road will attempt to change state legislation to require all students—including homeschool and private school students—to be taught and tested according to the CCSS.”
Usually, homeschool students perform better than public school students on standardized exams and tests focus on concrete knowledge such as solving for X or vocabulary, so the shift would be little to worry about right away, except that Common Core tests are expected to be different from pencil-and-paper, knowledge-based tests most families are used to. All Common Core state tests must be taken on a computer by 2018, and the computer tests are expected to have “performance tasks,” where rather than answering a multiple choice questions students must essentially play a short video game, or write a sentence or essay. Paper Common Core tests will be available until that school year.
The computerized tests will also be different for every student: Students who answer a question right get a harder question next time, and students who answer a question wrong get an easier next question. The idea is to pinpoint exactly what tasks students can perform rather than give a percentile range comparing that student to others of the same age and grade. The different, more complex testing format may mean some students test worse than others—even though they may have equal knowledge—because they are unused to the testing format. This is a common obstacle for homeschoolers, many of whom are not used to timed tests, for example. The shift in testing practices may also mean more families have to prep for tests so their children are comfortable with the test environment, which families may not feel is the best use of their school time.
The tests also will feed into student databases states are constructing right now. Several states, including Oklahoma and New York, are now including homeschool students in their student databases. The idea is to have a comprehensive look at each state’s population, and to track young people from “cradle to career,” as President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have said.
To get 2009 stimulus money, every state agreed to build a longitudinal student database that must be able to share its data with other states and the federal government. Federal guidelines on the sort of information these databases can track on individual children include Social Security numbers, hobbies, family religion, family income, family voting status, test scores, medical records, and more, according to a 2012 Pioneer Institute report and the National Center for Educational Statistics. The idea is to create a comprehensive dossier of each child in the state, which includes their records from social welfare agencies, healthcare professionals, the justice system, and so forth. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) reinterpreted federal student privacy laws to let any school district or state or federal education agency share student information with any individual or organization, without parent knowledge or consent. And the agreements states signed for stimulus money includes a requirement that schools even collect data on students who are not tested, such as homeschool students.
The several agreements the USDOE has signed with two organizations writing national Common Core tests insist that information these tests collect must be “student-level”—meaning these would not be anonymous aggregate records like what researchers need for trends, but tied to specific kids.
To any parent, this entire project is alarming. At the very least, it is a magnet for identity thieves, who love to steal children’s identities because the child often does not learn about the theft until adulthood. Identity thieves often target existing government databases, which can themselves be accidentally compromised such as in California last year, when payroll data for some 700,000 home-care providers was lost in the mail. In 2012 alone, millions of people’s identities were put at risk when thieves hacked various government and military databases.
There are some positive things about Common Core for public school students. For homeschool families, it largely represents an intrusion into their education freedoms.
Joy Pullmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, a state-focused, freedom-loving think tank. She is also a homeschool graduate and married mother of three small children the Pullmanns plan to homeschool. Visit her blog at 1trueword.com.
Educational Freedom Coalition, www.theeducationalfreedomcoalition.org: Lists several dozen popular homeschool and mainstream curriculum publishers on whether they have changed their curriculum to match Common Core.