Friday, October 22, 2010

Homeschooling: Not endangering public education, and maybe not anybody else

Some say that homeschooling, on the increase nationwide, is a threat to free public education. I am confident that homeschooling presents less of a destabilizing threat to school systems as a whole than it does to individual children and their families who choose to homeschool. Within the population of families who choose to homeschool, there is sufficient diversity of motives for initiating homeschooling and support for the curriculum that it is probably impossible to judge the efficacy of “homeschooling” as an entity; each situation is different enough to merit individual scrutiny.

Having come to New York only after a childhood and adolescence in rural south-central Ohio (“Heard of the Bible Belt? Welcome to the Buckle!”), I have some experience on both sides of the homeschooling question. As a student of some of the most poverty-stricken rural public schools of the State of Ohio and the daughter of the freshman English teacher in the high school I attended, I observed first-hand as local families protested that local public schools do not meet their needs at all (Old Order Mennonite; Amish) or may be sufficient for college-preparation but do so only while also corrupting their youth terribly (conservative protestant Christianity). Many of these families elected to have their children stop school attendance altogether after middle school (through religious exception), or to continue middle and high school through homeschooling.

My parents’ college friends remained in the university town where they all met in southwest Ohio. A couple who was very close to them had a daughter six months older than me who is absolutely brilliant, funny, well-rounded, and a great mother: however, with a baby on the way of the last year of high school, college did not seem to be the next step for her. When I left to come to college in New York, she began parenting. That son, born into a highly-educated extended family and to a mother who herself did not attend college, rapidly showed himself to be the type of student that each teacher would successively either LOVE or DETEST. He is exceptional in every way: gifted intellectually, emotionally, mechanically, athletically. Small problem. He lives in Southwest Ohio. That’s something like the South Bronx of the Midwest. After a ruinous year of kindergarten in the public schools, the family realized that the public school system grade 4 or 5 would be more appropriate for him, but the children would be way too big. So they scraped together some money for the City's Christian Academy. That didn’t work out so well, either, as the liberal elite “farmers” (retired engineer, retired paralegal, all the various children and grandchildren) did not exactly share the values required for the City Christian Academy crowd. Next step? Homeschooling. My childhood friend, still not a college credit to her name, is by far a better natural talent at education, motherhood, and curriculum planning for her children than anything available to her, for her tax dollars or for hard-earned tuition. The children are thriving, and “peg” the top of the norms each year on the CTBS tests, required by the State of Ohio of the homeschooled students. Her motives are pure – a higher quality of education, without the knife-fights and drugs. The educators are “highly qualified,” despite what NCLB criteria they may lack: she has a retired engineer, a retired paralegal, herself, and her sister-in-law, an accountant, as day-to-day faculty, and my own sister (once-biologist-turned-truck-driver) as occasional faculty.

As a professional educator, I have also encountered home instruction scenarios in which the student is excluded from school education. Sometimes this is a school decision (for example, following expulsion), and the school provides home tutoring as compensatory education. I have also worked in homes providing instruction when students have had hospital stays and are not yet cleared to return to school. These are not properly classified as “homeschooling” as the families have not elected to run the curriculum themselves, and professional educators are being provided at public expense. In these situations, the learners themselves typically complain that they are “losing all their friends” and that they no longer “feel normal.” This can be heart-wrenching.

As disturbing as the children’s complaints are, short-term exclusions from school, whether for medical or discipline reasons, are not nearly so tragic as homeschooling situations in which the children and the person responsible for the instruction do not assent to or be prepared to provide the homeschooling. As a behavior consultant, I have from time to time had calls from concerned friends and even service providers regarding home schooling situations in which it appears that one parent (in most cases the father, but sometimes the mother) wishes for the children to be homeschooled, while the other parent prefers public or private education at a school. It appears that in this type of situation, the questions may be more serious than quality of instruction provided. Because one of the functions of a modern school is social connection among learners, it is conceivable that children who are homeschooled may have fewer opportunities to connect with sympathetic adults, and if there are questions that concern them, they may have fewer ways to reach out for help in coping with life’s problems.

Finally, a concern about detecting problems in time to correct them: Since compulsory school attendance only specifies that some schooling will be provided, and homeschooling can count as attendance, there may be very little cause for intervention unless or until a serious problem is detected. Given the baseline rate of learning and emotional troubles among children in general, it seems that one of the biggest consequences for children leaving the public schools would be that they will usually miss all screening efforts to find and treat learning disabilities, emotional troubles, or even medical issues routinely tested for in public schools. Leaving these challenges undetected and untreated while in the hands of untrained and possibly unhappy teachers may mean preventable damage coming to individual children.


  1. "they will usually miss all screening efforts to find and treat learning disabilities, emotional troubles, or even medical issues routinely tested for in public schools." Isn't this alone a demolition of home schooling?

  2. Dear Stourley K,

    You have asked a "depends who's asking" question. As a professional educator and a person interested in public health and welfare, I would tend in most cases to answer in the affirmative. Not so for adherents to the fundamentals of homeschooling-as-solution-to-society's ills, for whom "protecting" their children from State "invasions of privacy" is chalked up in the "pro" column, not the "con."

    Strict Constitutionalists, when irritated by taxation and by what they consider humanistic invasion of their First Amendment rights, eagerly remind educators and politicians that while education may be a national interest, it's not a federal mandate, but a responsibility of each State.

    State-by-state compulsory attendance laws usually dictate that free public schools will be available, and that children will attend school for some number of days per year, for some number of years. Whether families choose to make use of the free public education system or not (e.g., pay for parochial or private schools, home school, etc) is generally up to them, as long as the children are taught. How well and by whom is also left to local jurisdictions to decide.

    It seems to me that many if not most who undertake home schooling will do so with great care and caution for their children's health, welfare, and academic development. However, who will hear or see or be there for the few who don't?