An Argument Against Homeschooling

A couple of our friends, some of Paige's cousins, and even a colleague who teaches with me at the high school are all seriously considering homeschooling their children. At the risk of offending, please allow me to offer some arguments against, which some parents might have overlooked.

Homeschooling has some advantages, and I'm willing to recognize those. It offers parents a dramatic level of control over their childrens' education. For those concerned about political or religious bias in education, it allows parents to control the spin (or maintain the illusion that they could possibly present the content with no spin at all). At its best, it can allow a child to learn at a far more accelerated pace, and could personalize that education to best meet the individual child's learning styles as determined by the person who knows him or her the best. It seems like the perfect solution in so many ways. But it isn't. Let me tell you.

I see homeschooled kids come through my classroom when their parents decide they need to begin attending public high school, and they are lacking in remarkable ways. And if you think those are just the bad parents who failed their children in some way, saw the error of their ways and put the child in public school, and therefore represent a flawed sample from which to judge homeschooling in general, let me assure you: These are some of the better homeschooling parents I've come across.

I attended a small, denominationally affiliated Christian school for my undergrad education, so we had a disproportionately high number of homeschooled students there, and these students exhibited many of the same characteristics as their ninth and tenth grade counterparts, often to more extreme degrees. And these parents weren't the worst of the homeschooling bunch, either.

The worst homeschooling parents, in my experience, are those who allow their children to attend public schools but provide very little at-home support for their kids. Then, when these kids struggle, these public-school parents join the ranks of the homeschooling parents because they've come to believe the schools failed in some way, only to provide their kids with little or no instruction at all once the kid is removed from public schools. Once I came across one of my former students sitting in her front yard as I walked home from school, and I asked her why I no longer saw her at school, because I knew she hadn't graduated.

"I'm being homeschooled now," she told me. As it was then the end of the school day I knew it was entirely possible she'd spent the day hard at work participating in the same kinds of activities as her public school peers, but seeing her sitting there, alone, lounging in the grass, I couldn't help but be skeptical, and I let that image burn into my memory. The next year she returned to school, and we could all tell she hadn't received any instruction and was now a full year behind her peers; more than a full year since she'd dropped out because she'd been struggling in the first place. The existence of homeschooling as an option created a circumstance where her mother could abuse the avenue in order to neglect her child's education. To me, every homeschooling parent has an obligation to uphold the institution of homeschooling to a higher degree than merely providing something comparable to the public schools, in order to balance out the parents who use homeschooling as a means to neglect their children. If homeschooling, as an institution, isn't going to be a burden on society, parents who make the choice can't settle for just-as-good-as-public-schools. They have to commit to being better.

I don't expect that anyone who is thoughtfully considering homeschooling their child before kindergarten would become one of these negligent parents, but there are a handful of concerns even the best parents should bear in mind.

First and foremost: Education. I’m not talking about your level of education. You may have a B.A. or a Masters or a Ph.D. But have you studied education itself? We teachers sit around and badmouth our educational programs, complaining about the amount of jargon that’s thrown at us, but jargon is shorthand for real concepts, and we may have heads filled with educational buzzwords, but those are connected to strategies we wouldn’t know otherwise. You can read (obviously. You’re reading this) but that doesn’t mean you know more than one way to teach someone to read. You know the strategy that worked for you. Often students struggle in a particular subject or a particular class because they have a teacher like me who just can’t figure out why they can’t understand the information in the way that made the most sense for me. I do my best to try to figure out some other strategies, but one of the strengths of public education (or private, large school education) is that if I can’t figure out a way to reach a student, the next teacher might. Think back to a particular teacher who taught you in a subject in a way that just didn’t work for you. Now concede the possibility that you just might be that teacher for your child, at least in one academic subject. If you are your child’s only teacher, they’ll have the experience you had, only for their entire education.

Another consideration: Experience. Every time I teach a lesson I think to myself, how could I do that better next time? And almost every day I think of some little tweak that will make my classes better. They estimate that it takes a teacher seven years to reach the level of expertise desired for the profession. At the end of our careers we tend to trail off in energy, due to burn-out or the simple, inescapable biology of old age. In between, we’re at our best because we’ve had a chance to refine our practice and get really good at what we do. I’ve been teaching for a while now (three years as an Ed. Asst., one as a student teacher and sub, five years in my own room) and I don’t feel like I’m where I want to be as a professional, but I’m a lot better than I was my first year. In fact, part way through my second semester of teaching Creative Writing, when I’d run across someone who took it the previous semester, I’d apologize. I’d done my best to create the course for them, but I learned so much during that semester which I simply couldn’t foresee on my own, and the folks who take it from me now are getting a much better teacher. Over the course of your child’s education in the public schools, they will have some first-years teachers who bring a lot of energy and new ideas to the classroom, but also lack experience. They’ll also have some teachers who have plenty of experience, but may be burned-out. And, let’s be honest, they will have some teachers who just aren’t very good at it. But over the course of your child’s thirteen years before college, they won’t have any one of these every year. If you homeschool, at the very least they’ll have an inexperienced teacher every year. Just when you have a year of first grade teaching under your belt, you’ll be an inexperienced second grade teacher. And your child may have a teacher who finds that he or she also stinks at it. By then end, you might even be all three, the perfect storm; an inexperienced, unqualified burn-out.

Public education gets attacked often in the media because we have these bad teachers in our midst, but these criticisms generally don’t stand up to real scrutiny. Look at the literacy rate in the U.S. against other industrialized countries, and you’ll be appalled. But look at the growth in literacy by percentage of population over the last hundred years, and you’ll realize our public schools are pretty amazing. We’re frequently compared to businesses, but it’s a false comparison. Businesses get to choose what raw materials come in, in order to control the quality of the products that they produce. We don’t have that luxury. And yet, when you adjust our outputs for things like socio-economics, we’re doing remarkably well. The schools in some countries may be better, but their kids are richer, have socialized medicine, have a shared culture and language, have enough to eat every day, etc., etc. A fairer criticism is that we pay our teachers poorly, commensurate to their education and our expectations of them as professionals. That’s true, and I’m not just saying that because I want a holiday bonus. If we know that teachers are at their best seven years in, we should do what it takes to retain them. The problem is that we want to hold on to the good ones and get rid of the bad ones, but it’s very hard to judge which teachers are best. Test scores can’t do this, because different teachers teach radically different groups of kids, and individual teachers get different groups each year. More subjective methods can’t weed out bad teachers because, well, they’re too subjective. One administrator may think I’m great and the next may think I stink, and both for reasons unrelated to my classroom performance. We, as citizens, don’t want to invest in education if some of the money will go into the hands of the bad teachers, but we, as teachers, don’t want to give up any protections if we’re not going to see some serious investments in education. It’s a stalemate, but we overheat the rhetoric on both sides by trying to make our cases at the expense of public education as an institution. The folks who want more accountability say the schools stink because they want to get rid of teachers. The folks who want higher teacher pay say the schools stink because they want to show the need to recruit the best. But the fact is, the schools don’t stink. As a parent, you really are the one who benefits from the stalemate the most (though as a citizen you suffer), because schools keep chugging along on what conservative columnist David Brooks calls the “Missionary Model”. Your child’s teachers will be there, working as hard as they can in that classroom, not because they are being well paid, but because they care about students. This model might not be sustainable, as Brooks warns, but in the short run it means your child gets a professional teaching them who doesn’t expect to be paid professional wages. When considering whether or not to homeschool, don’t forget the gift-horse you’re looking in the mouth.

Now, for some parents, the greatest motivation to consider homeschooling is religious. They want to make sure that religious instruction is tied into every portion of their child’s education. Undergirding this concern is a fundamental belief that religious neutrality does not exist; that teaching a child without formal religious instruction is tantamount to evangelical atheism. In some cases, this is simply untrue, and that’s a reason not to homseschool. But in some cases it might be true, and that’s still a reason not to homeschool.

At the lower grade levels, the basics of any subject will not be fundamentally altered by incorporating religious instruction. The times tables are the same for Hindus, Christians, Atheists, and Mormons. Unless you want to teach your children hard-core young-Earth creationism, the sciences won’t be affected, either, and if you want to go that route don’t waste their time with any science at all. And don’t buy the “Intelligent Design” cop-out. That hyper-qualified bastard child of Creationism isn’t about science, really. It doesn’t actually make any scientific claims, but explains what we don’t know by defending the possibility that an intelligent space alien or magical unicorn had a hand in creation (think I’m exaggerating? Look it up. That’s what its foremost proponents argued for in court in its defense). Die-hard Creationism throws all science out the window. If you want to keep your child home to teach them that, fine, but be consistent and tell them your cell phone is powered by the beating of angels’ wings and the microwave oven heats food because magical fairies get very angry when they are trapped inside. Barring this kind of instruction, there’s very little that your religious bent will change in the actual content of your child’s education in the early grades.

At the higher levels, it actually might start to make a difference, and that’s a reason not to homeschool, too. By the time your child is in high school, a particular teacher’s take on, say, Old Man and the Sea, will certainly be colored by their religious beliefs. That’s because the book itself was colored by the author’s religious beliefs. As was everything by Shakespeare. And the writer of your child’s History textbook. But your child needs to learn how to interact with beliefs that are different than you own, not only to formulate and independent opinion, which is important, but also to isolate subtle bias. Unless you want to add Oscar-caliber acting to your resume, you can’t teach this through formal instruction by yourself. Students need to get to know many different teachers so they can come to identify the way different people spin information.

Now, you may be thinking that your religious education will affect the moral instruction your child receives throughout school. This doesn’t fit with my experience at all. When did you first learn swear words when you were a kid? When did you first say them openly and comfortably in front of your parents? I’ll bet there’s a distance between those experiences. That’s because you learned that different rules apply in front of your parents. Everybody learns this, and it’s healthy. It helps us learn that different behaviors are appropriate with different company. This year, in my class, we did an activity where students were supposed to come up with examples of homonyms. Guess which kid shouted out “Pussy and pussy!” and “Cock and cock!” Yep. The formerly-homeschooled kid. Because he’s trying to figure out boundaries other kids already know. I’m sure he wouldn’t have said those things in front of his parents, but now he has to figure out what will impress his friends, and what the consequences will be from the teacher. He couldn’t learn that at home. And don’t get me started on the formerly-homeschooled friend I had in college, who tried to catch up with his peers by attempting to out-do everyone with his drunken antics. Sheltering people from moral dilemmas does not make them more moral; it makes them less capable of analyzing moral complexities that have been postponed, because now they lack the experience to make those judgments. Your kid will be exposed to things that frighten you in the public schools. It’s better for your child to be exposed to those things incrementally, rather than thrown into a world full of those moral dilemmas without the proper preparation when they are old enough to be expected to know how to handle them.

This brings us to the most important reason not to homeschool your child: Social Development. You’re probably thinking you can get your child involved in play groups, sports teams, Sunday school, and a host of other social activities. I know these groups have become highly evolved within the homeschooling movement, because there's been a recognition that the isolation of homeschooling damaged children. The assumption is that these new social developments within homeschooling will prepare children for the real world in the same way school does. Wrong. Being on a sports team prepares you to be on a sports team. Sunday school teaches you how to act in Sunday school. But, as an adult, the shared experience which provides all the other employees in the office with their social attitudes came not from Sunday school or tee-ball, but from school. Social psychologists say the most important predictor of success in the adult world is emotional intelligence, the ability to interact with others on an emotional level. This can’t be taught through direct instruction, by me, by you, by any adult. It’s learned through peer interaction, especially when adults aren’t around. When is it appropriate to propose a new, made-up rule in a game of kickball or four square? How many rules can one propose before being dismissed as annoying? And how does one tease to let someone know they are part of group, as opposed to the kind of teasing that lets someone know one wants to exclude them from a group? And how does one flirt? Who will teach your child to flirt? If you say you’ll do it, that’s just gross. They will learn that on the playground, or on the school bus. Consider the other places where they’ll have to learn it if they’re homeschooled. Movies? The Internet?

Just about everybody thinks their child is of above-average intelligence, and, statistically, around half of us are correct. We worry that the public schools will not be up to the task of educating our little geniuses. But intelligence is more than the ability to perform difficult mathematical calculations in our heads or count toothpicks when a box is spilled. In our house we have a term for people who lack emotional intelligence. We call them “Sotards”. It’s short for Socially Retarded. This isn’t a knock on the mentally retarded. It uses the term "retarded" in its literal sense; to be slowed or impeded in growth. Just as the socially adept weren’t born that way, sotards aren’t born; they’re made. Those who choose to homeschool their children need to make that decision conscious of the fact that they may be raising the next generation of sotards, and that they were the ones responsible for retarding their children’s development.