Sunday, December 27, 2009

The "Harms" of Homeschooling?

The article, “The Harms of Homeschooling” by Robin L. West is full of discrepancies. The author can’t seem to make up her mind about which generalization she prefers in any one of her many characterizations of homeschoolers. Are we uneducated automatons for the religious right, or over-educated (is there really such a thing?!) suburban housewives? Are our children completely isolated in our homes or an unvaccinated health risk to the community? Are we passionately involved and loving parents, relentlessly authoritarian, abusive, or negligently letting our children skateboard or game their life away? The only thing she seems to be sure of is that we are all mothers, however inaccurate that may be.

Ms. West’s second to last sentence, “Deregulation, however, serves no one’s interests and harms many” seems completely unfounded, given the rest her article. She has no clear evidence of any of the claims she makes, many of them gross exaggerations and characterizations.

It could be that she has taken too much stock in all the HSLDA propaganda, especially their claims at the numbers of homeschoolers they serve.

Her “Harms of Unregulated Homeschooling” are as follows, with my opinion after each:

“First, children who are homeschooled with no state regulation are at greater risk for unreported and unnoticed physical abuse, when they are completely isolated in homes. As the trial judge in In re Rachel noted, “95% of referrals for child abuse come from public school teachers or officials.”

Homeschooling is done, for the most part, by parents who enjoy being with their children. If you don’t enjoy being with your children, the easiest thing to do to get them out of your hair for 7 plus hours each day is to send them off to school. I don’t doubt that 95% of referrals for child abuse come from public school teachers or officials. But it doesn’t logically follow that the other 5% are homeschooled children, as I think the author seems to be trying to infer. Or that there is a large number of families homeschooling to cover up abuse – it’s just not logical.

“Second, there’s a public health risk… deregulated homeschooling means that homeschooled children are basically exempted from immunization requirements.”

This disregards the fact that parents of schooled children can opt out of required immunizations for medical or religious reasons. This also assumes that just because homeschooled children aren’t required to be immunized, their parents don’t think there are good reasons to do so. It’s probable that a larger percentage of homeschooled children are unvaccinated, but it is not accurate to state that all schooled children are vaccinated and all homeschooled children are not. From anecdotal evidence within my circle of acquaintances, more homeschooled children are also home-birthed, breastfed for an extended time, and in general have parents who make informed, albeit alternative, choices. I’m sure there is also a larger percentage of homeschooled children who never, or rarely get sick, due to increased nutrition, adequate sleep, and a stress-free lifestyle.

“Third, public and private schools provide for many children, I suspect, although I have yet to see studies of this, a safe haven in which they are both regarded and respected independently and individually.”

I’m sure this is an accurate statement, and would concede that for many children, whose home lives are less than happy, school is, indeed, a safe haven. In fact, I’ve known some homeschooling families whose children would be better off going to school than being subjected to an unhappy parent barking orders at them all day. However, that applies to less than 1% of all homeschoolers I’ve known.

For the vast majority of school children, school is a stress-filled environment that is not ideal for learning. Many schools are full of bullies (both aggressive and subtle), unhappy and stressed out teachers, noise, and crowds. The author describes for us (several times) the ideal teacher. Unfortunately, not enough children receive the benefit of the ideal teacher. I’ve met some of these wondrous creatures, and, if every school child in the country were under the care of an ideal teacher their entire school career, I’m sure we would see the homeschooling numbers drop significantly. But the sad reality is that ideal teachers are few and far between.

“Fourth, there are political harms. Fundamentalist Protestant adults who were homeschooled over the last thirty years are not politically disengaged, far from it. They vote in far higher percentages than the rest of the population… Their capacity for political action is palpable and admirable, although doubly constrained: it is triggered by a call for action by church leaders, and in substance, it is limited to political action the aim of which is to undermine, limit, or destroy state functions that interfere with family and parental rights.”

It seems oddly sad to me that a law professor would be complaining about citizens exercising their right to vote. It is sadder yet that she would consider this a “harm of homeschooling”. If the purpose of education is to produce citizens, (see Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education from the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project), then how can voting numbers be a harm of homeschooling. I can understand Ms. West’s concern about the number of “religious right” voters who are directed by church leaders rather than their own informed decision, as I share that concern. But I don’t for a minute believe that this is a harm of homeschooling. I believe this is a failure of the left to mobilize an apathetic electorate. Not that I can back this up with anything other than my own knowledge of hundreds of homeschooling families, but left and right, homeschoolers vote. Far and away, homeschoolers are the most politically active people I’ve ever known. It may be true that some of the HSLDA members are mobilized as Ms. West states, by their church leaders, but the homeschoolers I know consider the issues carefully, talk about them with their children and have their children participate, to the extent allowed, in the election process.

I actually find it encouraging, if it is true, that these politically engaged people are acting to protect family and parental rights. I’d be even happier if they were also acting to protect the rights of gays, minorities, children, and everyone else, but I can’t have it all…

The fifth harm is ethical. Ms. West’s argument here is that “Child-raising that is relentlessly authoritarian risks instilling what developmental psychologists call “ethical servility”: a failure to mature morally beyond the recognition of duties of obedience.”

This is assuming that the vast majority of homeschooling parents are patriarchal, heavy-handed, authoritarians, however, this is so far from the truth as to be laughable. Yes, there are a lot of Christian homeschoolers, but the picture Ms. West paints of the typical homeschooler is one I have yet to meet, and I’ve been homeschooling for 11 years in three states and attended numerous local, state, national and international homeschooling events. In that time I’ve met well over 500 homeschooling families and not one of them conforms to the author’s stereotypes. This is not to say that the “relentlessly authoritarian” homeschooler does not exist, but it is far from an over-arching harm of homeschooling.

The healthiest parent/child relationships I know of are homeschoolers. That’s not to say that families whose children are in school don’t have healthy, close relationships, some do. But it is in the homeschooling families where there is a true partnership between parent and child, where the children aren’t treated as children in the typical sense, but as people who sometimes need extra help but also people who know themselves best and what is best for them.

The sixth harm she lists is educational. She gives us the public school as the measure of success, yet the overall success of public school students is nothing any homeschooler I know would wish to mimic. Schools are doing a notoriously poor job of educating our populace, because they were designed to do so. (See the “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto). As many people do, she is confusing the memorization of facts with an education. The majority of homeschoolers want their children to be able to learn on their own and think for themselves. Our test preparation for the standardized tests goes something like, “don’t think about the fact that several of the answers can be correct, or that the actual answer isn’t one of the four choices, just select the one you think a narrow-minded person would think is correct.” The fact that so many people tout the standardized tests as something of value for homeschoolers is laughable. In no way do those test show us the gaps in our children’s educations, we place no stock in the results. We are with our children, exploring the world with them (yes, most of us do leave the house, in fact, most of us are rarely home!), and helping them learn to learn and keep the love of learning they are born with.

I find it funny that she also comments about parents who let their child skateboard or play video games all day. I would love for her to have a real conversation with any one of the fabulous unschooled youth who have been allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want. I think it would blow her mind just how articulate and engaged these kids are!

Her final harm is economic. Here’s where I certainly am at a loss to follow her logic. She starts off by stating that “the average homeschooling family may have a higher income than the average non-homeschooler, as was recently reported by USA Today.” Then goes on to talk about the “radically fundamentalist” families and concludes with, “These families are not living in romantic, rural, self-sufficient
farmhouses; they are in trailer parks, 1,000- square-foot homes, houses owned by relatives, and some, on tarps in fields or parking lots. Their lack of job skills, passed from one generation to the next, depresses the community’s overall economic health and their state’s tax base.

From what I know of averages, for the average homeschooling family to have a higher income than the average non-homeschooler, it would have to mean that there are very, very few trailer park homeschoolers as a percentage of the whole. When you consider that almost all homeschooling families are single income families, logic would dictate that the trailer park homeschoolers are so small in number as to not be a threat at all. Certainly a higher percentage of non-homeschoolers are double income families, so the economic threat that Ms. West alludes to doesn’t seem to actually be there.

Other bloggers have addressed the inaccuracies in her claims regarding the legality of homeschooling, and done so far better than I ever could here and here.

Throughout the entire article there is a complete lack of citations, footnotes, or other research references. This seems odd to me for a periodical published by a large university. In the article the author is presenting as scholarly fact her unfounded and unresearched opinions of homeschoolers and is trying to get the reader to come to an emotional decision about homeschooling and its need for regulation without actually showing that regulation works (there are plenty of states that regulate homeschoolers, so the data supporting it shouldn’t be that hard to come by if it does work). She seems to have a desire to stereotype homeschoolers as a scary, conservative, politically active, uneducated, unskilled threat to the American way of life. This is so far from any homeschooler I know.

The homeschoolers I know are diverse politically (just from our bumper stickers alone: Ron Paul, Obama, Bush, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Gay Rights are equal rights, One man + one woman = marriage, etc. – and that’s just in Corvallis!), religiously (Baptist, Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Atheist, agnostic, pagan, etc.), in our homeschooling style (school at home, eclectic, unschooling, etc.), in our parenting beliefs (attachment parenting, chore charts, consensual, benevolent dictator, democratic, etc.), ethnically, racially, family structure, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Mostly, we homeschool so that we can provide the best education for our children. We are, for the most part, well educated ourselves and eager to learn alongside our children. We see life as a learning experience and don’t try to separate it out into set aside hours as schools do. It would be impossible to regulate such an education without diluting it and causing a loss of richness. Homeschooled kids are not burnt out. I know very, very few homeschoolers who don’t like to read. They learn to read when they are ready, be that four, six, ten or 12. By the time they are 15, you can’t tell who learned at four and who learned at 12. But with schooled kids, you can tell at 15 who was ready to read at six and who should have been allowed to wait until they were 12, because the ones who should have been allowed to wait hate to read and don’t unless they are required to.

Deregulation of homeschooling benefits us all by providing the world with people who are still curious and eager to learn. Homeschooling is regulated in many states in this country, and there is no difference between the outcomes of homeschooled kids in regulated states vs. unregulated states. We can spend our tax money on things that actually make a difference – there is no need to spend it on regulating homeschoolers!