In the May/June 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine, the article “The Risks of Homeschooling” appeared. While the article makes many of the trite stereotypical assertions that homeschoolers have long dealt with, a larger concern is that Harvard has scheduled an invitation-only conference in June 2020 called Homeschooling Summit: Problems, Politics, and Prospects for Reform. The professor quoted in the article, Elizabeth Bartholet, is one of the featured speakers at that conference. Although she will probably never see my email because some lowly grad student filters her inbox for her, I sent her the following commentary on the article.
Homeschooling families are not all right-wing, Christian fundamentalist who abuse their children because no one is looking over their shoulders on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, I know dozens of other homeschooling families and not one of them fits that description. But, I guess, we must all be in that generous 10% the article gave for homeschoolers who allow their children to participate in mainstream culture.
In contrast to the picture painted in the article “The Risks of Homeschooling”, I would like to offer a glimpse into the education happening in my home. My husband and I both have graduate degrees and are, therefore, quite capable of both reading and writing. Our family does not attend church of any kind because my husband and I were both born and raised in families with no religious affiliation. My two (yes, just two) children receive an age-appropriate education that covers not only the aforementioned reading and writing, but also real science (including the geological age of the earth, evolution, and dinosaurs). They are exposed to diverse perspectives on mythology, culture and history (including all those times when America wasn’t great for everyone). The children are not locked behind barred windows, as the illustration to the article showed. They are free to go outside (and to the bathroom) any time they want. Prior to COVID pausing the world, all of their education did not take place in our home, either. They went on several field trips every semester and were involved in music lessons, dance and sports, and classes that suit their interests. And when the world returns to normal, we will continue with those outside activities.
Prior to homeschooling, I was a high school math teacher in public and private schools. My older child attended school through 4th grade and was in daycare and preschool before that. I have now been homeschooling for 5 years, so I can offer a perspective from inside traditional educational institutions as a provider and a consumer and from inside the homeschooling community. With that experience, I would like to address several of the assertions that you are quoted with in the article.
“Homeschooling … violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’.”
If public schools are providing all students with “meaningful education”, their own metrics do not indicate that. According to the state assessment data for the 2018-2019 school year, none of the three schooling levels (elementary, middle, and high) in my county met the annual target in academic achievement. (Source: https://reportcard.msde.maryland.gov/Graphs/#/ReportCards/ReportCardSchool/1/E/1/03/XXXX)
“Even apparent requirements such as submitting curricula, or providing evidence that teaching and learning are taking place, she says, aren’t necessarily enforced.”
Maryland requires that homeschooling parents review at least once a year with their school district or a state-approved umbrella program. The overwhelming majority of the umbrellas are connected with churches and can require the teaching of religion and a signed statement of faith. As an atheist, I am essentially limited to reviewing with my school district. Umbrellas also charge a membership fee but the school district reviews cost me nothing but the taxes that I already pay.
During the reviews, which my county requires in the fall and spring, I have to show that I have provided regular, thorough instruction to my children in the 8 state-mandated subjects during the period preceding the review. Evidence can include student work, photos, reading lists, activity logs, lesson plans, etc.
Parents whose instructional materials fall short of the requirements are given 30 days to improve. If they still do not meet the requirements, or if they fail to attend reviews, the children must enroll in school. The full homeschool regulations for Maryland can be found here: http://www.dsd.state.md.us/comar/comarhtml/13a/13a.10.01.01.htm
“That means, effectively, that people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.”
Data on homeschooling families shows that a greater number of the parents have a bachelor’s degree or above than have a high school diploma or less. (Source: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_206.10.asp) While many states do not set education requirements for homeschooling parents, some do require parents to have a high school diploma or a certain minimum of college credits.
Not a single one of the homeschooling parents I personally know is illiterate. Most of the families have two college-educated parents. Commonly, the mothers studied education, taught for a few years, and then decided to take their children’s education into their own hands. However, I also know fathers who are the primary home educator, as well as parents who continue to work in a wide variety of careers while also educating their children at home.
“[O]ne benefit of sending children to school at age four or five is that teachers are ‘mandated reporters,’ required to alert authorities to evidence of child abuse or neglect.”
Schools are not immune to instances of abuse. Two of the schools where I have taught had instances of school personnel sexually abusing students. One homeschooling family I know began homeschooling because their child was sexually assaulted at school by other students and the school swept it under the rug.
The conditions in schools are neglectful as well. The instances of bullying in schools run rampant and school officials turn a blind eye because they just do not have the time and resources to deal with it. One school district near me cannot properly heat the schools in the winter due to lack of funding to fix the HVAC systems. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/us/baltimore-schools-winter-heating.html
“But surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families (by some estimates, up to 90 percent) are driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.”
I am interested to see what survey led to the conclusion. In a survey in 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016096rev.pdf) found that only 17% of homeschooling parents indicated religious education as their most important reason for homeschooling. That means, 83% of families have a different top motivation for homeschooling. The study showed that “concern about the environment of other schools, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” and “dissatisfaction with the academic instruction at other schools” were given as the primary reasons for homeschooling more frequently than religion.
My children, and the other homeschoolers they interact with, are not removed from mainstream culture. They participate in classes, field trips, sports practice, and music lessons outside of our home several times a week. While some of these activities take place during the weekday, and therefore, include only other homeschoolers; others happen on afternoons, evenings, and weekends and include families who choose public, private, and charter schools. They can have all of the same experiences, such as proms and graduations, as their schooled peers.
“[S]tate legislators have been hesitant to restrict the practice because of the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association, a conservative Christian homeschool advocacy group”
HSLDA does not speak for all homeschoolers. There is a large contingent of secular homeschoolers who cringe every time that association is mentioned. HSLDA uses fear-mongering to try to convince all homeschoolers that the government is out to get us and that, in return for an annual membership fee, they will protect our rights. Articles like “The Risks of Homeschooling” play right into their agenda.
“I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”
I completely agree! However, I see that is exactly the dynamic under which schools operate. There is one teacher in charge of a couple of dozen (or more) students. The kids better not talk back to the teacher or they get sent to the more powerful principal. Those teachers better get in line with the ideas that the principal has about how everything in the school should be run. Keeping in line with traditional gender roles, especially in elementary schools, often that principal is a man and the vast majority of teachers are women.