Russ Roberts

Hanushek on Test-based Accountability, Federal Funding, and School Finance

EconTalk Episode with Eric Hanushek
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the current state of education and education policy. Hanushek summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind and the current state of the charter school movement. Along the way, he and Roberts discuss the role of testing as a way of measuring achievement. The conversation concludes with a discussion of school finance, the role of the court system, and suggestions for improving finance to create better incentives.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: August 5, 2009.] Overview: What's been happening in the political economy economy of education, interface between the political process and the educational system? Big event: Federal involvement through No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which insisted that all states have test-based accountability for schools. Put into law a variety of things that had to be done if kids were failing in schools. Put in place something that had been done by the majority of states already, so a continuation. Puts a federal stamp on that, important because schooling has been a state policy, with a lot delegated to local districts. Federal government has traditionally put money into specialized programs--compensatory programs for disadvantaged kids and special education programs. With George Bush's first major legislation, more federal involvement. No Child Left Behind Act passed in January, 2002; still in effect. But he's not President anymore! Embedded in legislation with antecedent with Lyndon Johnson, 1965; specifies what happens in the future. Has to be reauthorized, but just keeps going if not reauthorized. What is the political prognosis for its staying? Likelihood of its staying with its current name is zero; but almost inconceivable that we will do away with test-based accountability. Parents like it; it's been a productive policy; and it fits in, so might have to have an assessment of schools on the basis of what kids learn. Ongoing act that describes how the federal government interacts with the rest of the school system, so the changes under Bush stay in place until revoked. What has been the research on the impact of the larger federal role on accountability at the state level? We know a little. Difficult to evaluate NCLB. When it went into effect, 47 states already had some form of test-based accountability, in practice. Hard to know what the control group is. Evidence from state actions in 1990s: states that had accountability did better on reading and math achievement tests. A little evidence that if you trace state performance before and after 2002, the increases in achievement were larger after than before 2002.
5:57Four school-age children and wife who is a math teacher; but as a teacher, doing well on achievement tests isn't what Russ thinks about. Idea of measuring achievement is difficult--what can be measured on a paper exam is limited. How well has that been done? How much do people teach to the tests; feedback so tests change? Two big issues of NCLB. Big issue is measuring learning gains and attributing it to schools; want to separate out the schools from parents from other kids from neighborhoods. Don't want to hold schools accountable for what the families are doing. Second issue is are the tests up to doing this? In many ways they aren't, but in other ways they are. NCLB has had a distinct focus on the bottom end, on proficiency; everybody should read and be numerate. But shouldn't ignore the other end of the distribution. Testing can accomplish this, but haven't put much effort into it. Graduate record exams, use adaptive testing: give kids a screening test, limited number of questions to determine level and then ask specific questions within the relevant range. Problem with current testing is that in order to keep from testing everybody every day, you have to sample and you have to have enough questions in the range you are interested in. Haven't worked very hard at that. In the current world, the test that is administered is a federal test that mainly is checking basic proficiency? Basically, but there are state tests, which has been one of the issues. Should individual states design their own tests and have their own standards? Gets into very emotional issues. Could do better. Two testing companies write the tests for fifty states. All have different titles. Evidence that they have a lot of similarities: fourth grade math in Florida looks a lot like fourth grade math in New York. Second question: mostly focus on proficiency; suburban schools argue that these tests are a waste of time. But suburban schools don't have to rely entirely on that. If they know everybody can have that, they ought to have other standards. Can eliminate the distortions by putting in their own policy.
11:26Crudest way you would measure the proportion of total spending coming from the federal government would be dollars; has that increased significantly? What about regulations? On the dollar front, what proportion? Right now, about 9% comes from federal dollars; that's up from 6 or 7% ten years ago; increase with Bush administration. Was there state crowding out--money freed up so that states reduced their spending on schools? Have to discount the current period of fiscal turmoil. In general states have been spending more, increased about 15-20 years ago. About half of funding comes from the states; 10% from the federal government, and 40% local. Everybody has been increasing up to the recent turmoil. Federal contribution--expenditure--is relatively small. So a state could say it won't take the money. Is that legal? Yes; there were states that threatened; but giving up 10% of funding is more than they want to do. It's a big number, $50-$60 billion total for the nation.
13:56Innovation in recent years--charter schools. What magnitude of that and home schooling? Handle roughly the same number of kids--2-3% in each, not a big proportion. Private schools are 10%. Charter schools are publically funded private schools. They have a charter or set of rules that allow them to do things differently than local public schools or schools in the state. Regulated by the state separately; rules behind them differ. If they do well, they continue their charter; if they do badly they don't. Alternative to regular school system. What do they do differently? Some are similar to public schools, but not subject to unionization or rules about who has to be hired as teachers. KIP schools--Knowledge is Power schools--have taken disadvantaged black kids in center cities and shown they can get improved learning. Sometimes emphasize the social aspects of going to school, make sure kids understand the rules for behavior; no graffiti; longer school days, sometimes Saturday programs; longer school years; get a group of teachers that are very committed and willing to talk to kids and their parents at all hours. Could a public school do those things--have extended hours; certainly can take graffiti down? Depends how you define can and cannot do. Some things are violations of union contracts, like taking phone calls at night, etc. Big city contracts are very detailed. At least at their startup KIP schools are able to find people willing to do these things. Might have some unionized KIP schools. Other variations? Specialized programs, arts, mathematics, college prep, Chinese immersion. Other schools could do these things but may not be able to find the staff. Some cities have enormous charter school presence, others virtually zero. Is that because of different state regulations? Very entrepreneurial opportunity for an educator. State regulations: 9-10 states don't allow them; other states have caps on the total number or regulations on whether there can be chains of public schools. Surprising to people has been that charter schools tend to serve disadvantaged kids; initial worry was that they would be in suburbs and take the cream of the crop. What charter schools do is serve those who haven't had much choice traditionally. Any evidence they are doing a good job? People like to go there. Standard measures; wife, Maggie Raymond, just completed major study of charter schools; finds there are a group that are doing amazingly well. There is a group that is indistinguishable from other schools; and there is a group larger than those doing well that are doing very badly. Open question: is parental choice sufficient to squeeze out that bottom end or should we go back to a regulatory system? Parents can take kids out of charter schools. Large turnover of kids in charter schools. These evaluations are on the kinds of tests we were doing before; could be that schools that are labeled bad in terms of these proficiency tests are doing other things that parents like. Providing more safety for kids. Are some highly oversubscribed? Yes, particularly in big central cities.
24:01Home schooling: extraordinary phenomenon. Is it effective? Really good at producing spelling bee champions. Good development of the brain? Spell checkers, roots of words, Latin. Records were so bad that didn't know how many kids were in home schools. Records getting better. U.S.A. Today might identify kids sometimes who are exceptionally good or exceptionally poorly educated, but don't know much about them. How did this phenomenon come about? Seems like the most inefficient way to teach kids. Parents are working; and most parents would have a hard time teaching the entire secondary school curriculum. But classroom schooling is also inefficient--time spent teaching kids how to behave. Kids don't really learn a lot. Could teach in 2-4 hours what the kids might learn in school; but not all parents have Ph.D.s Hayekian phenomenon of array of materials for home schooling. Will we see the promise of technology come through in schools, based on the amazing curricula available online. Moe and Chubb, futurist look at schools and technology; make point that new technology could revolutionize the politics of schools because it's hard to unionize a dispersed engine that is providing education, if the politics don't block the technology. Upcoming battle. EconTalk: one way people learn is by listening and talking about stuff; trying to ask questions on listeners' behalves. Very expensive in time and money to do classroom learning. Taking a kid and putting him in a closet with a machine is not appealing; but there are technology uses that are not used. Bad math teachers, expensive math teachers, drilling kids in math by machine. Possible that not much of school has to do with education; social aspects are equal or more important than the educational component. Part of the way American society works is a common view of society that comes through schools and interaction with others. Prior podcast--a well-educated workforce makes a big difference in terms of the functioning of the U.S. economy. Done better in Finland. Might care less about that if we had a different form of socialization or learning.
32:39Issue raised in last podcast: role of the courts in deciding school funding. What have the courts been doing or what advocates have been trying to get the courts to do in the last few decades? Court houses are right in the middle--hence book title. Starting about 1970, there were people who wanted to get the courts involved in the distribution of funding across local districts. Equity--some districts, because we raise money locally where different districts have different capacity, there are wide variations in school funding. A large number of equity cases, beginning in California with a case called Serrano v. Priest, that worked to equalize funding across districts. State constitutions required states to fund schools. After 20 years of these cases, almost every state had addressed the issue, in some cases deciding the state was doing okay and in others that it wasn't. Started to wind down. Advocates of schools and school funding turned to a different view: state constitutions generally require more funding for schools to make them adequate, and brought in evidence that some kids weren't learning, so it must be insufficient resources. Traditionally deciding how much should be appropriated for schools was done by the legislatures. Shocking in a democracy that the courts were used for this. Huge effect; large number of states have had to increase their funding and under court control. New Jersey: overseen by the courts today. The courts have almost said that they'll get out of this, but till last spring there were 31 districts, Abbot districts, that were given essentially unlimited spending capacity. Just had to come into the court and say they needed more money for X. Wouldn't the legislatures rise up in arms because it's not money they can control? In NJ, legislature screwed down on the non-Abbott districts. How did you become an Abbott district? Had to have a large concentration of poor kids; also had to demonstrate that you've done badly in the past. So, if you do badly enough in achievement, we'll give you funds; flip side is that if you do better, we'll take away those funds. Not good incentives. Flurry of activity in 1970s, increased again in the 1990s. Is it slowing down? In the last few years, maybe some evidence the courts are more reluctant. In recent book, looked at some of the large court cases--New Jersey, Wyoming, Kentucky, adequacy cases, ruled inadequate, based on achievement scores but in NJ just poor kids not graduating from high school. In book, looked to see if there was improvement. Nobody bothered to look. In the large court cases, very little evidence that the kids did any better relative to other states where there were no such cases. Performance did seem to improve in Massachusetts after major court case, but they put in a lot of other structural changes. More money in a better system has a better effect; but most courts weren't monitoring how the money was spent or if there was improvement. Only monitoring how much was spent; now spend more.
41:35In three of the major states, no major improvement, but it is hard to measure improvement. How reliable is your assessment--understanding that it's yours? What questions are left unanswered? Simple analysis; looked at performance on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or the nation's report card. Set of standard tests in reading and math given every two or four years since 1990. Looked at the growth in performance at different levels in each of these states compared to the growth in the nation as a whole. Some normal activity going on; most states had some increases in spending. Wyoming is a top-five spending state in the nation on a per pupil basis; happened after this court case, 1996. Previously were right around the middle, a little above the national average. Told in a court case to be visionary and unsurpassed. If 50 courts say that, it creates quite a race. Want every child to be above average, not just the children of Lake Wobegon. Could have big changes in the populations of some states. If you disaggregate by race, find the same story. Black kids in these states didn't do as well as the nation in general even though they were always identified as the recipients. Depressing. Courts are not well suited to making these kinds of policies. Legislatures haven't done a particularly good job in the past. Simple answer: funding and other policies have to pay attention to what kids learn, to outcomes of schooling and not just inputs or spending per pupil.
45:43What would be a better system? Two overarching ideas: shouldn't try to separate finance from policy. Courts: "We're just talking about how your raise money and how much you raise, not how you use it." Bad idea; end up with Abbott districts providing incentives to do badly or not well. Policies and finance have to reward good performance. Have to have accountability system; as a base case want to make sure schools have sufficient and equitable resources, kids more difficult to educate should get more base resources; once you've provided base resources, should give more to teachers and administrators who do better. Also: to make this effective, have to have more local control and decision-making, including giving parents choices. Parents pay nothing out of pocket, which has an impact on their level of involvement. California has full state funding; local districts have no choice in how much to spend on their schools. Leads parents to withdraw--cannot reward or punish local school districts for bad decisions. California measured by NAEP is 47th in performance. Difficult political dilemma. Could get government out, maybe let dollars follow students, not schools. Like point that we want more local control; but local money is about 40% of the total, and remainder is compensatory. How do we get to where good schools get rewarded? Since the 1920s almost every state has tried to make up for districts that do not have much capacity; ameliorates some of the differences in tax bases. How do we get to a system that rewards this? Have to capitalize on the fact that everyone thinks we have a schooling problem and that we have to deal with it; and on international level our kids don't do as well. Have to convince legislatures that simple economic incentives work just as well for schools as in the rest of the economy. Argument for vouchers, Milton Friedman's basic idea was that there is no reason the central government has to produce education; might want to worry about funding. Could introduce more choice and some market-like incentives. World Bank haven't been successful either. Hard but you can do some gross things. Performance pay for teachers and administrators--don't want to set salaries in state capitals, want to set that locally. California state legislature has a pot of money and could go to state districts and let some things be decided locally, with some parameters, without specifying how you do it. That experiment is starting: Federal Stimulus money to education has $4.35 billion that gives discretion to the Secretary of Education in Washington to dispense it. He has announced that he will give it to states that show they are doing things that are good policies. Has said he won't give it to states that can't track performance, nor to states that restrict charter schools, will give to states that experiment with ways to keep good teachers and get rid of bad teachers. President has said this; and both have said it to the National Education Association--NEA. Bully pulpit.
57:24Recent court case dealing with this funding issue more skeptically. Federal court case, Flores, English-Language Learners (ELL) in Florida. Federal Statute: schools have to pay attention to English-Language Learners. Arizona under federal court order to put more money into ELL programs; changed programs changed and performance results and asked to not be supervised and told the court would rather keep supervising it. Spring 2009, went to Supreme court; 5-4 majority of the court finally said that it was important to pay more attention to performance and not to money being put in; cited book even though it had come out only two weeks beforehand. Money is not a good index of what the schools are doing. Federal court case has influence.
1:00:03Political economy question: should take advantage of the fact that everybody agrees that we have a school problem in the United States. Issues come and go--focused on health care, energy, etc. but not much focus on education. How much potential is there for change now? Trace consistent interest since at least 1983. President labeled $100 billion of stimulus package as being for education--because he knew it would sell.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
ThomasL writes:

I thought I'd comment on what, I thought at least, seemed a slight antipathy of Mr Hanushek to home schooling.

I have some experience with this personally, as I attended at different times the entire range of public-, private-, and home-school.

I would say your estimate, Mr Roberts, on time wasted in standard schools is spot on. I did as much or more school work in 2-4h a day when home-schooling as I did in a full day either public or private school. That left a lot of time to do things with the family (shopping, mostly, as my mom was the one home ;)), church, other friends that home-schooled, etc.

I played sports through local school programs for a few years as well, and attended chemistry labs at a local college which offered them one day a week for home-schooling students. I don't think I missed out on anything significant after the switch, and I had more free time and tremendous liberty and input with the curriculum. With English classes, I had a particularly free hand and ended up reading almost everything by Austen, Eliot, Chesterton, Hardy, Conrad, and a selection of Dickens, Tolstoy, et al during high school. I think the experience I had surpassed reading the Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, each drawn out over months.

Mr Hanushek, in my opinion, strongly overrates the difficulty of instruction and arrives at the conclusion that only professional teachers, presumably with expertise in a specific discipline, can accomplish it.

I'll reply by quotation of one Dr Johnson to Boswell, ca 1766:

People have now-a-days, said he, got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chemistry by lectures. -- You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!

That quote is particularly apropos, as I first read it years ago in "A Guide to Old English", a text which I selected and studied myself for home schooling. At the time I knew no one--and still have never met a single other living soul--that could read Old English. Naturally, I had no schooled teacher in it, but I studied it the last year of home-schooling and translated "The Dream of the Rood" as a kind of final school project. A few copies were even printed for a local book store. I admit I wouldn't want to test my school era knowledge of the language extensively now, but I don't suppose that is too different from others that studied languages in high school. (In my case, OE was one of four, and I wouldn't want to try my hand at any of them now.)

I think, if I had attended an exceptionally fine private school, I could have learned much more than I did home-schooling. I am even more certainly convinced that attending the average private schools in the area or any of the public schools I would have learned much less. I also would not have as close a relationship to my family as we maintain now, which has been a lasting benefit.

I believe Mr Hanushek also undercuts his position by placing emphasis on technological improvements. Ever increasing technology would tend to standardize teaching practices, leaving the teacher as little more than a technician in charge of the equipment. Surely the equipment might be used just as well at home. I'll draw on one more experience and say I did take statistics on my PC my last year, which I'm sure was somewhat ahead of the public school adoption rate. I think it cost my parents something less than $100, even a decade ago.

I instinctively reject the centralized and institutionalized view of teaching in favor of the individualistic. In most families and most cases, I think the parents know more about their child and how their child learns than any teacher. Most criticisms of home-schooling in response to such an assertion seem to focus on exceptional cases: "Maybe the child is learning nothing at all." A statement which is roughly analogous to: "Maybe the parent doesn't care for their child." In context the latter can be rewritten yet again as, "Maybe the public school teacher cares more for their child than they do."

This seems to decline toward a view where every public school teacher is Mr Chips and every parent is only slightly more attentive than if the child were being raised by wolves. I don't hold to that view.

Adam writes:

I'd also like to make a comment about homeschooling (though not nearly as involved as ThomasL's).

My cousins were homeschooled for a few years, and I learned something quite interesting. Much of the schooling did not, in fact, take place at home. There were special classes set up with homeschool children in mind that parents could send their kids to.

My Aunt and Uncle did do a fair amount of instruction themselves, but they also paid to send their kids to a few of these classes. So what we call "homeschooling" can also end up being simply an education that is much more customized by the parents. And paying for a few specific classes is much less expensive than paying the tuition to go to a full-blown private school.

Just thought I'd share that. Great conversation, really enjoyed it.

Floccina writes:

It seems to me that in total the research on schooling and funding shows that there is little to be gained on a large scale by trying to teach children more or trying to make children smarter.

Also it seems to me that schools have a split goal one is to grade people as a service to employers and to the overall society. Split goal often create problems, IMO the grading function of schools often squeezes out learning. An example of this would be that everyone (even manual labors, cooks, consumers etc) could gain the simple principles of physics and that principles of physics could be fun and easy to teach and to learn but in order to make physics classes rigorous we teach it quantitatively with lots of math making inaccessible to many that could benefit from the simple principles.

So why not focus more on WHAT we teach rather than trying to make people smarter as measured by some tests that we do not even know if they test anything important (I am thinking mostly about those international test score comparisons that the USA does so badly on).

Also I think a separation of testing and teaching might be good because the teacher should be completely on the child’s side. The teacher’s goal should be effective at teaching. Today IMO teachers often cultivate a reputation for rigor.

pwnguin writes:

On the subject of funding, I can only draw on my local experience. I don't live in NJ or CA, but we did have some intrigue in KS. I have the fortune of living in a well-to-do suburb in Kansas, renowned for activist school boards, Republican politicians and a recent school funding fight.

Johnson County citizens highly favor public education, and consistently pass taxes, bond sale, etc, to support it via referendum, often by margins as large as constitution amendments. It's a funny way to buy the education you want, but it gets the job done. The urban core of KC is divided between KS and MO, and is not a part of Johnson County. They took the repeated tax hikes to make up for state funding losses as a sign of inadequate funding. And a trick the urban core can't pull off because so much of the metro's shopping is in the suburbs.

It's not that state representatives from outside the KC area cut funding out of free market ideology. Johnson County votes Republican as well, after all. The free market for education could be a total failure and these rural political districts wouldn't care, because the significant cluster of people in a rural district is a retirement community. Any tax increase is Godless communism, that Real Americans don't want (but keep your hands off my Medicare!).

The court is a strange place to get the legislation you need. Do I side with the urban core's desire for strong state funding, or do I support the tax hike? I'd like both, but for reasons mentioned above, it can't happen without begrudging legislative cooperation.

Jim Mc writes:

Another comment on homeschooling.

I too appreciate ThomasL's detailed comments above and am glad he took the time to make them. One of the first comments in the podcast about homeschooling was that it is certainly not an efficient way to provide education. Well, maybe not in teaching the masses, but it is very efficient for teaching small groups of students. The teacher can have an individual approach to fit the learning style, and as mentioned, there are less disciplinary problems to handle.

My family embraced homeschooling while we lived in Dubai for a couple of years. My wife is from Europe and does not have a formal degree in education and actually never made it to university. She taught our boys for two years using a combination of the many excellent curricula that are available. Extracurricular activities such as art, sport, and music were taken outside of the home, so the boys received a well rounded education.

When we moved to Bangkok and the boys reentered a traditional, private school they were able to skip a grade due to entrance test results. In addition, while it is anecdotal, I have heard that the Ivy League schools encourage the admission of home schooled children due to being exceptionally well balanced.

In addition to being an excellent schooling option, homeschooling provides a freedom of scheduling a family's life that traditional schools cannot touch. I was disappointed that your discussion appeared to be vague and somewhat negative toward the homeschooling approach.

James Gambrell writes:

I'm not sure why people are so hooked on the idea of face-to-face learning. Most educators, like Dr. Hanushek, seem convinced that kids need face-to-face verbal interaction with a teacher in order to learn most of what we want to teach them in school. Most parents also seem to want their children's education to be embedded in a social context.

I have always felt that the social context of school is mostly a distraction and an obstacle to learning in the classroom. One advantage of homeschooling is actually the isolated location of the student at home. How is a child supposed to get through the classics while surrounded by other children 8 hours a day? Most kids are so focused on socializing at school that they perceive the education being thrown at them as nothing more than a distraction to their real goals: making friends and having fun.

This goes doubly for blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities who face strong peer pressure against learning, looking smart, or "acting white". Why anyone would put large unmanageable groups of these children together in a room and then try to teach them anything is beyond me.

It seems obvious to me that the best way to learn just about anything is to sit down with a well written book, top quality video/audio recording (such as Econtalk), or well designed computer tutor/game and absorb the material someplace free of distractions. The only exception to this is the teaching of skills that are essentially social in nature, such as public speaking, teamwork, foreign language, etc; and even these subjects have many aspects that can be taught individually first.

All this makes it very hard to justify the public school system as anything other than free day care. I would strongly consider homeschooling my children unless the local public school is really top notch.

Bob Calder writes:

I have seldom seen so many people mistake anecdotal observation in a way that admits so litle human variability.

Russ, you guys didn't talk about the lack of sensitivity of standardized tests.

Finally, why did you support central planning over local control? Does a marginally valid charter school theory trump something as abvious as that?

Russ Roberts writes:

Bob Calder,

Not sure what you mean by the lack of sensitivity of standardized tests.

I do not advocate/support central planning over local control. I think the current school system is a tragedy and would prefer a world of schooling without any government at all.

Diana Weatherby writes:

Homeschooling may be the next step in the evolution of educating the next generation. The cost of transferring information has been reduced so that bringing information straight into the home is viable. Although homeschooling has been done throughout the ages it was very limited in scope. Often you learned your father's trade. Now children have a wealth of information and opportunities relatively inexpensively.

The elementary teacher and to a lesser extent secondary school teacher often just transfer information from a text or program to the students. Since it does not take much skill to follow a program or relay information in a text they are starting to be replaced with texts or computer programs that unskilled parents can easily handle. The value of classroom time may not be worth the cost at least for the elementary and possibly the secondary school years. This would be obvious if people had to pay the cost of their child’s education.

In speaking of efficiency I will admit that homeschooling seems more inefficient then teaching large groups of children. There are many factors that must be included in the comparison. Curriculum are often produced for large numbers of children even if sold individually. The child’s time is not wasted nearly as much as in a public school. There are less administrative costs. Probably the most important is that many homeschooling parents make it their first task to teach their children to teach themselves. This not only frees up the parent but makes the child more productive both in their childhood and as adults in a constantly changing world.

Tony G writes:

(Just returned from vacation and am catching up on EconTalk.)

A few observations on homeschooling to add to the already fine comments made (hat tip to ThomasL and Adam).

The typical view of homeschooling is mom or dad with a couple kids in a garage. However, more and more homeschoolers are moving into co-ops wherein fairly large number of students meet two or three times a week in some location (often a large church). I had the privilege of substitute teaching for one of these co-ops several times and the first time I walked into the co-op it basically resembled a jr and sr high school. I would estimate that the co-op (hosted by a "mega-church" in the area) had about 150 students in attendance that day, ranging from about 6th grade to 12th. The co-op had students attend classes throughout the day in different rooms, just as any high school would do. They even had a lunch period (based on age) and a phys ed class (where they were playing vollyball). The students met on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week, and the classes effectively lasted a full school day (9 - 3). I taught (at various times) economics, civics and history to a class of about 30-35 high-school aged students. I know of a couple other co-ops that operate similarly in the area, but with fewer students.

As far as efficiency go, there are very low start up costs for this co-op (comparatively) since they are using church facilities and all they have to do is locate and hire some folks to teach different topics. (As a substitute, the guy I taught for bought me a great steak dinner.) It allows individual parents who do volunteer to teach to specialize in what they know (comparative advantage). And from my perceptions, the students in the classes I taught were more prepared than many college students at a premier state university. In essence, I think the folks at this co-op were getting a better education than some private schools for a fraction of the cost (ignoring the transaction and opportunity costs of the parents).

That brings up a really interesting political economy question. Many of these homeschool co-ops are basically becoming unregulated institutional schools that run parallel to public, charter and private schools. Seriously, it would not be too much of a stretch to turn the co-op I taught at into a private school. At a minimum, these "quasi-institutional" homeschool co-ops are starting to pull students out of the public school (and probably private school) pool.

I know for a fact (based on my own research) that school districts (administrators and unions) are really starting to worry about this and are taking explicit actions to block the "brain drain" to homeschool co-ops. CA recently tried to license homeschool teachers (which would include parents in addition to volunteers). They are also trying to make it difficult for churches to host these co-ops (though that would be revealing too much of my research-in-progress).

Tony G writes:

I would also say that it would be an interesting dissertation or research project to examine how individual homeschoolers pool their resources and the various efficiencies (and inefficiencies) in the process.

The results could be very instructive for (public and private) schools in specific, and voluntary organizations more generally.

Just a dissertation idea for any entrepreneurial grad student.

John Notgrass writes:

My educational experience also was varied. I attended two private schools, two public schools, and I was homeschooled during two separate periods. I now work in a homeschool curriculum publishing business. I interact with parents around the country (and a few in other countries) who have chosen to train their children at home.

I say train rather than teach, because that is the motivation of the majority of homeschooling parents in my experience. They do not want simply to fill their children with information nor simply to prepare them for a job (e.g., school-to-work). They want to train their children to be mature, responsible adults who will contribute something positive to society. And these parents recognize that child training is full-time responsibility.

My wife (who was also homeschooled) and I recently learned that we are expecting our first child. We are eager to pass on the heritage we have received from our parents to our child.

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