Among the potentially useful bits of fallout of the Covid-19 hysteria is the renewed discussion of the merits of homeschooling. I write “potentially useful” because as usual, the wrong lessons are being derived from a politically useful crisis. A case in point is an article in the Arizona Law Review—Homeschooling: parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection—by one Elizabeth Bartholet, Professor of law at Harvard. One might think any such article would be a predictable diatribe by one of the self-imagined, self-righteous elite. You, gentle readers, be the judge:
This Article describes the rapidly growing homeschooling phenomenon and the threat it poses to children and society. Homeschooling activists have in recent decades largely succeeded in their deregulation campaign, overwhelming legislators with aggressive advocacy. As a result, parents can now keep their children at home in the name of homeschooling free from any real scrutiny as to whether or how they are educating their children. Many homeschool because they want to isolate their children from ideas and values central to our democracy, determined to keep their children from exposure to views that might enable autonomous choice about their future lives. Many promote racial segregation and female subservience. Many question science. Abusive parents can keep their children at home free from the risk that teachers will report them to child protection services. Some homeschool precisely for this reason. This Article calls for a radical transformation in the homeschooling regime and a related rethinking of child rights. It recommends a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.
And if one cannot divine Bartholet’s intent and mindset from that paragraph, this excerpt should eliminate any:
Homeschooling is a realm of near-absolute parental power. This power is inconsistent with important rights supposedly guaranteed to children under state constitutions and state legislation throughout the land. And it is inconsistent with a proper understanding of the human rights of children, one recognizing children as full human beings with interests entitled to the same value as adult interests.
Homeschooling parents can, under current law, deny their children any meaningful education and subject them to abuse and neglect free from the scrutiny that helps protect children in regular schools.
Parents are dangerous to children. Parents have no right to direct their child’s education. The state knows best and must suppress parent’s wrongthink.
I write as not only an educator of long practical experience, but as a former police officer that actually specialized in investigating child abuse and neglect. For cogent direct responses to Bartholet’s article, I recommend this article by Zachary D. Rogers, and this article (neither capitalized), by Kerry McDonald, which is a response to a companion article on the same subject appearing in Harvard Magazine.
This article will focus on thoughts about the value and reality of homeschooling compared to the benefits of traditional public education. For the purpose of full disclosure, I understand well that some people are hardly fit parents. Abuse and neglect do occur, but they generally occur entirely apart from the homeschooling debate. Homeschooling parents are no less capable of being investigated for abuse and neglect than any other. I have never found correlation or causation between homeschooling and abuse or neglect, neither as a matter of science, law or practical experience.
Why Homeschooling? Parents generally homeschool out of a sincere desire to provide the best possible educational opportunity for their children. This is sometimes done because they find public schooling amoral, even immoral. Some mistakenly believe the courts have utterly removed religion, including prayer, from the public schools. Go here for an article explaining the reality of the issue. Holding that belief, they seek more faith-based, even more narrowly sectarian, instruction. Some hold the public schools incompetent, run for the benefit of teacher’s unions and corrupt public officials. Others believe public schools to be hotbeds of D/S/C indoctrination instead of educational opportunities based on the best information in respective academic disciplines. The better informed find public schools no longer interested in schooling, but in producing data and serving as social experimentation laboratories for a variety of unproven and damaging educratic theories and processes. Some observe that not all teachers are uniformly excellent and dedicated, and seek to remove the human factor. In this, they actually mimic some educrats.
Some parents resort to homeschooling out of frustration. Their children are academically failing in the public schools, or for a variety of other reasons, don’t well fit a traditional school. Unfortunately, many kids that cannot bring themselves to focus on learning in the public school setting will scarcely do better in an unstructured setting, though some may.
Often, parents abandon public schools without a clear and convincing alternative. They may rely on various kinds of curricula based on little more than the recommendation of a pastor or friend. Virtually all Americans believe they know a very great deal about education because most have had the benefit of 12 years of public education. We all have intimate, lifelong exposure to plumbing, that that doesn’t mean we know much about plumbing, or electricity, or carpentry, or engineering or mechanics. Professional teaching is not easy, and everyone cannot do it. We’ve all had great teachers and mediocre teachers—you, I trust, get the point?
I do not, for a moment, argue that public schools are the only possible alternative, and that every parent whose faith in such schools is lacking is in any way negligent or evil. One factor that Ms. Bartholet avoids is the law also traditionally holds parental rights in high regard. Removing children from their parents is a difficult and demanding process, as it should and must be if our society is to survive. It should also be observed that those that want to “fundamentally transform” our representative republic uniformly believe children must be politically indoctrinated (the “1619 Project” being a case in point), using the public schools as the primary vehicle, from as young an age as possible.
I’ll not go into depth here about the benefits of public education. In making this observation, understand I am speaking about schools that actually hold school. Schools where adults are unquestionably in charge, where principals unfailingly, fairly and lawfully enforce discipline and maintain an academic environment conducive to learning, where they ensure teachers have what they need to effectively teach, and where excellence and dedication is expected from all teachers, who teach the best and most professional materials available in their disciplines without political bias.
But understand this above all: the most the greatest, most inspiring teacher in the world can do is to provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources can manage. Taking advantage of that opportunity is up to the student and their parents.
Some people at any age are academically oriented. They enjoy learning, and make rapid progress. They are self-motivated and bring out the best in any teacher. They expect nothing less than an “A” average and do what is necessary to earn it. More are average learners, sometimes indifferent, sometimes interested, they are the kids that will earn a steady “C.” eventually leaving school functionally literate and reasonably capable of earning a living. Others inhabit the space between the excellent, average, and the perpetually disengaged and failing, and they benefit or lose accordingly.
Some argue the failure of any student is the fault of the schools, of the teachers. If the particular school is failing in its obligation to provide the aforementioned professional learning opportunity, this may be so to some degree, but ultimately, each student must reliably and continually do their lessons in order to build the neural connections that enable and define learning and intellectual growth. It is their responsibility, no one else’s. They are not computers able to download and forevermore access information. They build their own brains, or they do not.
Any decision to homeschool should be based on real, not imagined, facts. Some schools are hotbeds of Leftist indoctrination, but most aren’t. Some schools are full of incompetent teachers. Most aren’t. Some schools are actually physically dangerous to students and staff, but most aren’t. American public education has its problems, I write about them weekly, but most schools remain places where honest, dedicated people do their best to provide the best educational opportunity possible. If a given family is unlucky enough to live in one of those places where holding school is not possible, home schooling may be the only rational alternative, but not unless there are good, specific reasons for it.
Let us say those good reasons exist. What then? Few parents are qualified to prepare and teach a competent, comprehensive curriculum for their children. For all the generalizations about the wretched quality of teacher education, for most teachers, it actually serves useful purposes. Keep in mind, gentle readers, I don’t think myself perfectly qualified to teach a full homeschool curriculum. I’m an accomplished teacher, but I know little about the techniques of teaching elementary aged children. I would certainly struggle to teach mathematics at beyond an elementary school level, though with concerted study, I could learn.
In some communities, parents band together in a sort of informal school, using parents with expertise in various disciplines. This may work. Others may rely on commercial curricula, including online curricula. Latin ought to be a part of any competent curriculum, and in this case “caveat emptor”—“let the buyer beware”—applies. There are many resources available, but one would be wise to carefully review them prior to making a homeschooling decision. Make sure the alternative is better than public schooling before embracing it.
I’ll note to be cautious about all-online curricula. Direct adult supervision and guidance are vital for all children. Turning kids over to the tender mercies of a computer fosters neither understanding nor intellectual growth. Computers and the Internet are tools, not mentors. We learn, circa 2020, just as we did in the time of Socrates: through repetitive, correct practice and reinforcement and human interaction.
I have taught many homeschooled kids that returned to the public schools. Many were well behaved, intellectually curious, and academically capable. While they may have had some small informational deficits here and there, their intellectual abilities more than compensated. I have taught others who profited little from their homeschooling experience, and everything in between. This—human nature—should surprise no one.
The point, gentle readers, is this is not a simple issue. These are momentous decisions, never to be taken lightly and without substantial research and reasonable certainty. There are some schools and school districts from which I would recommend any student flee as from a pestilence. Most however, serve their charges well.
Let us not, motivated by a pestilence, make hasty decisions. The stakes are genuinely, individually and societally, high.