Get ready for the fireworks. Brace yourself for the coming war. With the final results of the 73rd annual National Spelling Bee in, the din from the public education establishment will soon be deafening.
This year the all three top places were won by children who were home-schooled. The big winner, George Abraham Thampy, is only 12-years-old.
For public school officials, this is the biggest embarrassment since … well, since the first home-schooler won, scorching the competition in 1997.
Spelling bees, of course, are passe. For many of today's educators, such tests represent everything wrong with what parents want. For one thing, kids compete. By themselves. They memorize terms and learn facts. They work hard at it.
That's why the education establishment — with it's soft, fuzzy, comfy-warm-blanket theories of learning — will doubtless rain contempt on the techniques used by these hard-working kids. They've been laying the foundation for quite some time now.
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, adopted a resolution 12 years ago denouncing home schools, saying they can't provide the "comprehensive education" that public schools give. The NEA wants only licensed, dues-paying teachers to be allowed to run home schools.
And President Clinton has gotten in on the act, naturally. During his recent "reform" tour, he delivered this sucker punch:
If you're going to [operate a home school], your children have to prove that they're learning on a regular basis, and if they don't prove that they're learning then they have to go into a school — either into a parochial or private school or a public school.
Hardly anyone — except the President, evidently — believes that children schooled at home aren't learning. George Thampy didn't spend a year drilling on spelling alone. In fact, a week before taking the grand prize for his spelling prowess, he placed third in the National Geographic Society Geography Bee.
And anyone who heard these young people grilled could see in a minute they were well-spoken and well-educated kids — far beyond the ability of their public school peers down the street in Washington, D.C. In the second-highest funded schools in the nation, kids beat the odds if they graduate high school able to read at all.
For most of the media and the education establishment, home-schoolers are best ignored. But the continued success of these students is a reminder that education begins in the home. So expect a backlash soon.
Professional educators, school psychologists, and teacher unions resent the input of parents. They think they know better than parents. After years of increasing funding and more cataclysmic school failures, the logical step would be to implement challenging curricula and teaching methods that work.
But the public schools are unable and unwilling to change.
Perhaps what galls the education orthodoxy is that home-schooling parents didn't need education degrees based on fads and smarmthink to prepare their kids for success. They did it the old-fashioned way: by challenging, instructing, and building on prior knowledge.
Unlike the education establishment, these parents instill skills and knowledge in their children. They don't package self-esteem courses under the mantra of "teaching kids to think" — which is shorthand for letting kids loose to reinvent mathematics and reading, and then acting surprised when they can't beat students from Third World nations in international competition.
What's remarkable is that with the all wreckage of public education strewn before them, more parents don't school their kids at home. That's the paradox of American education over the last 30 years.
Most Americans appreciate, as the nation's Founders did, that education serves a public purpose. On nearly every poll of voter priorities, education ranks at or near the top. People are unwilling to abandon the public schools, nor should they. However, many parents trust the public schools to find the cure for what ails them. They still don't think their local school or its curricula is the problem. Any sense of misgiving is still felt in the gut, not in the head.
But this may be changing.
As accountability becomes more and more the watchword of politicians and reformers, the pressure mounts. Like the old Soviet Union, the freedom of information unleashed by glasnost is making the real state of affairs all too clear. The demand for perestroika, a radical restructuring, is only a matter of time.
With home-schoolers like George Thampy, we are learning once again that when Americans take responsibility for their own lives anything is possible. For the Jurassic world of education politics, however, such successes are an indictment of old ideas and faulty practices.