Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?

No doubt the teacher unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every reformer might reply, "Been there, done that." Teacher compensation has soared in recent decades while for most of that same time almost every indicator of student performance has fallen.

Other responses that arise in answer to this question include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the-blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past few decades is that all these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or show only a weak connection at best. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement.

When parents take a personal interest in the education of their children, several things tend to happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump entirely in someone else’s lap. Passion for learning is usually instilled in the child whose parents are involved, a passion that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as knowledge is accumulated and put to use. Time spent in the books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down.

American parents once took far more interest in the education of their children than they do today. Many American parents have largely abdicated their educational responsibilities in favor of the compulsory public school system. According to a 1996 report from Temple University in Pennsylvania, about one-sixth of all students believe their parents don’t care whether they earn good grades and nearly one-third say their parents have no idea how they are doing in school.

Amid the sorry state of American education today are heroes who are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers—parents who sacrifice time and income to teach their children themselves. Homeschooling is, needless to say, the ultimate in parental involvement.

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone, and no one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools—nonpublic and public—that do a better job than some parents lacking skills and patience could do for their own children. But the fact is that homeschooling is working—and working surprisingly well—for the growing number of parents and children who choose it. That fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize.

While about 46 million children attend public schools and more than 5 million attend private schools, an estimated 1.2 million children are educated in home schools nationwide. That’s a comparatively small number, but it’s up from a mere 15,000 in the early 1980s. In fact, home school enrollment has been growing by an astounding 25 percent annually for several years. In Michigan today, about 56,000 students are homeschooled.

The homeschool track record compares favorably with that of traditional schools. While the national average score on the ACT test is 21, it’s 22.5 for homeschooled students. In Michigan, homeschoolers score an average of 23.1 on the ACT, compared to 21.3 for all other students.

A 1990 report by the National Home Education Research Institute showed that home-schooled children score in the 80th percentile or higher, meaning that they scored better than 80 percent of other students in math, reading, science, language, and social studies. Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities including Harvard and Yale accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with rare exceptions) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults.

Parents homeschool for many reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others flee unsafe public schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy, "feel-good" or politically correct dogma. Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else.

Americans regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education than anyone can count and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool heroes in our midst is both long overdue and highly instructive.