Sunday, March 9, 2008

Homeschooling a crime?

(Substantively cross-posted on BMG.) Please note the update below the line...

Almost missed this decision in California that basically dictates that parents and family "home-schooling" their child must have qualification similar to professional teachers. Given the small number of family that home school their children who actually possess such qualifications, this raises the specter that this decision would essentially ban home-schooling. I wouldn't be surprised to see this overturned on appeal as it is such a shift in policy, but if this ruling stands, we could see some changed ahead.

I'm also surprised I haven't heard more about this because home-schooling is climbing up the list of issues for the Christian Right. You see, the Christian Right has figured out that they do not have the legal or social means to insulate their child from fact if s/he goes to public school. The creationist/intelligent design effort fails every time it goes to court, and little Josiah or Eve always seems to learn things about this carnal world, make friends, and *gasp* want to be part of it. So, you see more and more self-declared Christians taking out their children to keep them thoroughly insulated from the outside world. I heard a complete radio show (I think it might have been the 700 Club?) on this last month driving around Vermont.

And where the Christian Right goes, Republicans hurry to follow. Ron Paul wants tax credits for home schoolers. Sam Brownback catered to them in his aborted campaign. John McCain, in typical wishy-washy dog-whistle style, sneaks it in, too under "Education":

John McCain will fight for the ability of all students to have access to all schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes.

I'd be curious what McCain's idea of "demonstrated excellence" is as applied to home schools.

Mind you, there are plenty of reasons people home school their children outside of religious sterilization. In 2003, we're talking over a million home-schooled children. If a student has an attested medical issue, then the district does pay for tutors to come to the home. However, I do know of students whose families claim issues that are not documented, and thus home school the child. Similarly, undocumented psychological issues may be claimed as well -- a child who is an ongoing disruption to the process has sometimes been pulled by parents "tired of dealing with it". I am aware of two children who are supposedly home schooled who aren't learning a darn thing -- the family just couldn't be bothered to discipline their child to act in a way necessary in public, so they took their child out of the system. There are other families who feel that their child will receive a better education at home than they would in a public school.

Not impossible. And that better education doesn't even require the qualifications the California court is requiring. Much of my training is set to deal with issues that a home schooling family will not face:

  • Managing curriculum (home-schoolers don't really have a set curriculum...more on that later)
  • Managing discipline (not enough of my training, but would hope a family can discipline their own child, see caveat above)
  • Differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences (trying to simultaneously service diverse learning styles and skill levels...not an issue in a class of 2 or 3 students).

So, much of my training isn't on how to teach, but rather how to teach in a public school. Much of that would be wasted on home-schoolers. However, not all of it. How to "frame" learning -- putting lessons within a wider context -- is a difficult skill for professionals; I can't imagine how amateurs do it. Nor can I imagine decently teaching all subjects: it would be a mistake for me to teach math at a 7th grade level or beyond. Of course, I can do that math, but I can't explain it in a fashion that is accessible to a 12 year old.

Although I think this ruling goes too far, I would welcome a closer look at home schoolers. I don't know what happens in a typical home schooling environment. I know the old saw that "we're going food shopping so she can learn about math" is often implemented fatuously: you don't "learn math" by doing two minutes of addition during 90 minutes of errands. We all hear the apocrypha that a certain ten examples prove that home schooling works. I'm frankly tired of hearing how many home-schooled children win spelling bees. This isn't due to superior education: those home schooled children get drilled on word lists for hours, while in public schools we're teaching them what the words mean and how to use them.

At the end of the day, my concerns about home-schooled children are rooted in my own experiences with them. When I learn that a student is about to come into my class who has been home schooled, I can expect at least three of these will be true:

  • The student will be polite and friendly to adults;
  • The student will struggle with peer relations (which about half the time results in active or pre-emptive bullying);
  • The student's fundamental skills in reading/writing will be 12-24 months behind grade level;
  • The student will be unaware and unprepared for the curriculum. I don't necessarily expect home schoolers to follow the district curriculum, but if a student makes it to eighth grade without knowing anything about ancient Greece, her family has failed her.

So while this ruling probably does go too far, the idea of a license to home school does appeal to me. Passing the teacher's test, then a bout 1 semester's worth of courses on introductory education would be well spent. We wouldn't have to worry about the courses designed for public school teachers, but courses on methods of learning, putting lessons in context, would be good. Where the money would come from for such a regulatory process is a question for another time.


Well, this post got an even deeper response to my reminiscing about the wily James Traficant here and at BMG. Well, going off some of the responses, I'd like to add the following:

This was a personal reflection on a trend occasioned by this court case. Frankly, I didn't necessarily object to home schooling. Of course there are many successful cases of home schooling...those are the ones that I likely never see. However, I do see the results of families who think home schooling is an easy way out, discover otherwise, and thus send their student back into my classroom. I mentioned my experience with home schooled students entering/re-entering the public system. I also noted that I thought the ruling went too far, but it isn't too far to ask that people teaching children to be somehow qualified.

If those qualifications are so easy to get, then I can't imagine the objection.

What I didn't imagine were some the numbers in a 2006 federal DOE report.

Turns out that 30% of home schooling happens due to the family's desire to install "religious or moral instruction" while another 31% was due to "the environment of public schools" which includes "negative peer pressure". These are the top two answers, and far higher than I expected. Though these answers are not identical, I think there is significant enough overlap to state that 1 of 3 students are home schooled for reasons clearly outside of reason for education. The fact that about 350,000 Americans are getting the education they are from people who do not place the quality of that education atop the list is surprising to me. I knew that home-schooling was often a response of "Christian" families who fear exposing their child to the real world, but I didn't realize that was true to such an extent!

So far, the data sources I can find on eventual success outcomes for homeschooled students come from advocacy groups, which I tend to view with a jaundiced eye (for example, there's this argument that plumps for home-schooling, but a quick look at the site tells you what flavor of home-schooling they want.) This unsourced report marks a slight uptick in SAT and ACT scores for home-schooled students, but nothing that indicates if this study controlled for parents' education, income, and other relevant factors. This Globe story is typical...vague generalities punctured by specific examples. I'm hoping for better than that.

What's coming out is that often home schooling is simply good schooling. The difference is that home schoolers don't have ignorant "reformers" breathing down their necks, so they have the freedom to do what they -- and most public school teachers -- know is the right way to do it.

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