“There are some row boats. The boats are either doubles with 2 oars, or quads with 4 oars. There are 260 oars and 100 row boats. How many doubles and how many quads are there?”
That’s a question from my son’s third grade Dimensions Math book, a product of Singapore Math. It’s labeled a “challenge” problem, and it’s pretty hard. Many adults would struggle to find the answer (try it!).
Because we’d done comparable problems before, my son was able to hit on a strategy: guess and check. What happens if you try 50 doubles and 50 quads?
Once he got the answer, I showed him the algebraic way. Could he do the next problem using simple algebra? No. That wasn’t the point. The point was to “front load” some of those more-advanced concepts so they’re easier down the road. One reason I love Dimensions Math is they do a lot of such front loading.
During the pandemic, when a lot of students were stuck in chaotic remote learning, my homeschooled kid succeeded academically. If anything he moved ahead academically because we weren’t attending as many social events. He’s a solid year ahead in math.
Don’t confuse remote learning through public schools with homeschooling! While homeschoolers often incorporate online classes, those classes are chosen and usually occasional. Some homeschoolers do rely heavily on online materials, and some people say they “homeschool” when they attend a public or private school remotely. We’ve used some online materials and watched educational videos, but we haven’t tried any remote classes yet. So there’s a lot of variation. That’s the point!
I don’t wish to suggest that my son is typical of homeschooling. In my experience, there is no “typical” when it comes to homeschooling. Approaches range from hands-off “unschooling” to highly structured classical education. And different kids have different interests and different strengths.
I push math because my son loves science. Any career in science or tech requires a strong math background. But mostly our days are unstructured and filled with social outings or personal projects. Although we have not always had an easy time striking the right balance, we’ve found an approach that generally works well for us.
I do think my kid is typical of homeschooled kids in that the pandemic didn’t hurt him academically. I am not saying that all homeschooling families weathered the crisis without problems, only that homeschooling families in most cases probably were better positioned to meet the challenges of schooling.
NAEP test results look bleak
Many students were not as fortunate. Results are in from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and they are bleak. Colorado Public Radio reports, “Colorado mirrored many states across the nation, where test scores plummeted between 2019 and 2022, erasing many years of progress.”
It would be a mistake to presume that worse outcomes on the test depended solely or even mainly on how public schools responded to the pandemic. Adults in some families got very sick or even died, so we would expect academics to suffer downstream. Many families faced financial pressures or marital stress, and such problems also tend to affect children’s academic performance.
Although some families homeschool with single parents or with both parents working full-time, more common is a stable two-parent household in which at least one parent devotes substantial time to homeschooling. So a big reason my son did well academically is that my wife and I have a solid marriage and my wife has a good job (whereas I decided to be a writer). We have the flexibility and resources to homeschool, while many families do not.
Still, it’s reasonable to think that closing schools during the pandemic and switching to remote learning hurt academic performance. A new academic report, the Education Recovery Scorecard (also reviewed by Chalkbeat), bears that out.
“Within states, achievement losses were larger in districts that spent more time in remote instruction during 2020-21,” the report finds.
But that is not the whole story. The report continues: “However, school closures do not appear to be the primary factor driving achievement losses. Achievement losses varied widely among districts that spent the same share of 2020-21 in remote learning. Just as California, a state with long school closures, had losses smaller than Maine (a state with low rates of school closures), many districts which spent much of the year in remote learning had smaller losses than districts which were in person. Moreover, even in districts which were not remote for any of the year, scores in math and reading declined substantially (by one-third and one-fifth of a grade level, on average).”
Individuals are not averages. Some students, schools, and districts bucked the trends. The report notes that “2.5 percent of students were in districts where math achievement rose.”
We would expect students in low-income districts to have (on average) more problems other than with schooling. The report finds, “The losses were larger in higher poverty districts. In math, the quarter of districts with the highest share of students receiving federal lunch subsidies (with more than 69 percent of students receiving lunch subsidies) lost the equivalent of .66 grade levels, while low poverty districts (those with fewer than 39 percent of students receiving federal subsidies) lost .45 grade levels. The same was true in reading, although the differences were smaller: .31 grade levels in high poverty schools versus .25 grade levels in low poverty schools. However, there was considerable variation in the magnitude of losses among districts with similar poverty rates.”
Regardless, academic performance even before the pandemic was not that great in Colorado schools. As I reviewed, over the pandemic “scores [from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success] mostly went from bad to worse—and at extraordinary expense to taxpayers.”
The NAEP sets three bars of achievement: basic, proficient, and advanced. This year, 75% of Colorado fourth graders reached the basic level in math, 36% proficient, and only 8% advanced. In reading the numbers are 68%, 38%, and 11%. Among eighth graders, only 63% reached the basic level in math, while 73% did so in reading.
True, Colorado students score even with or ahead of students nationally, depending on the category. On the down side, a substantial fraction of students cannot display a basic level of competency in reading or math, and most students lack proficiency. (Someone could debate the merits of those rankings. See also my previous discussion of the NAEP.)
The Heritage Foundation asks us to “blame teachers unions” for declining test scores. That’s simplistic. However, there clearly is something to the concern that government-run schools, partly because of the teachers’ unions, have become sclerotic and often ill-equipped to meet their students’ needs.
My family has found a viable path forward through homeschooling. Although that’s not the path most families want to take, I hope that schools can embrace more of the parental choice, flexibility, dynamism, and individual fit that make homeschooling work for us.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.