Friday, January 15, 2010

In Response to the Supposedly Scholarly Critique of Homeschooling...

Have you seen the utterly horrendous diatribe against homeschoolers that masquerades as scholarly critique in a public policy journal? If you haven’t, you have missed out on one of the most stereotype-laden, wholly unsupported by citations to authority, self contradictory, condescending, fear mongering rants I‘ve ever seen. Check it out for yourself, here: The Harm of Homeschooling.

According to its author, Robin West of the Georgetown University Law Center, homeschooling used to be illegal in all 50 states (legal citation, please? Oh, there isn’t one, since this is patently untrue!), except for circus freaks, child actors and special ed kids who apparently don’t matter anyway. Way to promote diversity and tolerance, lady! Oh wait, that’s what you accuse homeschoolers of attempting to destroy, because we are all raging religious fundamentalists (hereinafter ”fundies”) with an anti-secular, anti-diversity and anti-feminist agenda. Or else, we are secular, anti-schooling, overeducated and under-employed suburban divas with too much time on our hands, and we are setting women’s rights back by choosing to devote our energies to our families and children. (Beware feminists who want to take choices away from women, I always say.) Sentences later, she mocks unqualified, uncertified homeschooling parents. Which is it? Does mere consanguinity render us overeducated types unsuitable educators? Or does lack of a paper credential, possession of which clearly didn’t prevent the author of this piece from delivering herself of a of a rambling, bumbling and ignorant screed, render them thar hillbillies “on tarps in fields or parking lots”, and fundies living in quiverfull squalor in “trailer parks”, unfit? And who is this woman to judge?

As I see it, the public school system in this country can be likened to a leaky lifeboat, overcrowded, understaffed, its crew’s hands tied by administrative requirements that fail to take into account the very dire straits the boat now finds itself in, and lacking any useful navigational equipment (to ensure that it meets its stated goal of a free and appropriate education for all students, including the special needs and gifted and talented cohorts), as it paddles around in circles, with its occupants and the shipping line powers that be demanding more of the same failed strategies (just throw more money at it, test more, teach to the test, hold the bored and unmotivated kids hostage for longer hours or an extended school year) which brought it to its current predicament. Homeschoolers are those confident enough in their own swimming skills to strike out for shore, leaving seats in the rickety boat for those who cannot or will not (because of temperament, life circumstances, or an “I could never do that” attitude) do the same. When we give up our seats on the lifeboat, rather than being thanked for the additional resources available to those who remain (and to which our tax dollars contribute), we are often condemned as selfish louts who have “abandoned public education” because we do not stay aboard, emulating the little Dutch boy at the dyke, and attempting to hold back the waters of ignorance by jamming a finger into the gaping hole in the ship of state funded and controlled education. The little Dutch boy wasn’t being chased away, told his concerns were unfounded, or called a helicopter parent by a system that talks favorably about parent involvement, while doing everything it can to discourage the same. The “experts,” who sunk the ship and are in danger of foundering the lifeboat, want no interference from “non-expert” parents. Are we supposed to sit there until they drown our children’s chances for the future?

It’s funny, I almost never hear homeschoolers say that public school should be abrogated, or illegal, or that their chosen method of educating their kids is the one and only right way to do things. But I’m inundated with that particular hymn coming from the pro-school side, which strikes me as more than a tad fundamentalist in its zeal to promote itself as the One Right Way to Educate. Please note for the record : I believe there are schools out there that are not abject failures, and teachers who do not fit the wretched stereotyping of the author of the article I’m discussing here, but are instead wonderful and caring, and I think there are kids who are well suited to learning in a traditional school environment, and who thrive there. I do not subscribe to the one size fits all, government knows best school of thought underlying the article in question.

The author’s prejudices are on full display here, and she does not shrink from misrepresenting reality or the law to make her “points.”

She states:

First, courts, and particularly
the federal courts, have never granted the
existence of the “right to homeschool.”

Contrast her statement with this language from the United States Supreme Court, quoted on my blog’s sidebar (Should there be any doubt, the US Supreme Court, well, that’s federal, lady.):
The United States Supreme Court long ago recognized the "liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children, " holding that:

"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35 (1925). While not a direct holding that there is a constitutional right to homeschool, it is clear that, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the state is not the final arbiter of a child’s education, parents are.

Next, after blasting home educators of every stripe, she claims that she is only against “unregulated homeschooling”. She claims that, in its present form, all homeschooling is by and large unregulated, but then recognizes:

I do not mean to deny for a moment that homeschooling itself is
often—maybe usually—successful, when done
responsibly. Passionately involved and loving parents,
whether religious or not, can often better educate their
children in small tutorials at home, than can cashstrapped,
under-motivated, inadequately supported,
and overwhelmed public school teachers with too
many students in their classrooms. Results bear this
out, as homeschool advocates repeatedly point out
(and as critics virtually never deny): the homeschooled
children who are tested, or who take college boards,
whether or not religious, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps
not, do very well on standardized tests, and on
the average, they do better than their public school
counterparts (though it must be noted that the parents
and children who voluntarily subject themselves to
testing are the self-selected educational elite of the
homeschooling movement).

But then she goes on to argue that:

My target is not the practice
of homeschooling, whether religious or secular.
My target, rather, is unregulated homeschooling—the
total abdication of responsibility by the states for regulating
the practice. The right to unregulated homeschooling
visits quite concrete harms on the
homeschooled children themselves, the mothers who
are teaching them, and the often rural and isolated
communities in which they are raised and taught.

Where, if the outcome for homeschooled children is a better education (as measured by the very standardized tests which the educational powers that be hold up as the benchmark of success) than the public schools are managing, is this “concrete harm” she imagines? Can she not see that any benefit of a different method will be regulated out of existence if states decide that homeschooling must look like a clone of public school? And in what world is homeschooling unregulated, anyway? I doubt anyone from Pennsylvania or New York will agree with her characterization. Even in states that do not specifically regulate homeschooling, all parents are subject to educational neglect laws. The freedom to:

teach nothing but the Bible, and nothing but a
literal interpretation of that, and secular anti-schooling
parents can allow their children to skateboard, dance,
or play video games to their hearts’ content, free of
any dull training in reading and arithmetic

that this author posits as the terrifying and abusive reality of homeschooled families, is just absurd, although it should of course be noted that plenty of children do learn to read and do arithmetic without compulsory resort to her self described “dull training” and the drill and kill methodologies employed by public schools.

Just like the idiotic attack on home education presently being mounted in the UK by a government functionary who likens homeschooling parents to those suffering from Munchausen’s by Proxy, our author here holds up the bugaboo of abuse as a justification for involving the state in people’s home lives prophylactically, absent any cause to suspect abuse:

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

Are there really homeschooled children out there who are “completely isolated in homes?” If there are, that says more about the mental health situation in the particular family than their choice to homeschool.

If you look at statistics for abuse, poverty is one of the leading correlations to physical abuse. But you don’t see the Nanny State advocates declaiming that poor families must be subject to additional state scrutiny because of the specter of abuse. The hypothetical abuser argument gets reserved for the homeschoolers, because of the misguided perception that the kids are chained to the kitchen table doing workbooks (or else left to skateboard, obsessively game and generally run wild. Which is it, anyway? I’m confused.) We already have child abuse laws, and they are not used as prior restraints because some hypothetical harm is imagineable in any other situation. To claim homeschooling per se is an indicator of abuse is offensive and unsupportable by any credible evidence. If child welfare authorities are required to have probable cause to suspect abuse in order to intervene in any other context, why are homeschoolers not entitled to the same constitutional protections as every other citizen? Since when does educational choice equate with criminality of loss of liberty?

But wait! The author isn’t satisfied with government control of our children’s minds: It must also control their bodies, because the evil homeschoolers don’t vaccinate!

Second, there’s a public health risk. Children who
attend public schools are required to have immunizations.
Without the immunizations they will not be
allowed to begin classes. In only a few states have legislatures
written their homeschool statutes in such a
way as to require that homeschooled children be
immunized, and that the immunization be verified in
some way. Thus, deregulated homeschooling means
that homeschooled children are basically exempted
from immunization requirements. They are more susceptible
to the diseases against which immunization
provides some protection.

Yes, and they are also not confined to huge institutional germ factories day in and day out, hence their exposure and need for protection is actually lower than that of kids warehoused in schools. Not to mention, even school kids may go unvaccinated in states that allow philosophical, religious and medical exemptions to vaccination requirements. This straw man fails.

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. Family love
is intense, and we need it to survive and thrive. It is
also deeply contingent on the existence and nature of
the family ties. Children are loved in a family because
they are the children of the parents in the family. The
“unconditional love” they receive is anything but
unconditional: it is conditioned on the fact that they are
their parents’ children. School—either public or private—
ideally provides a welcome respite. A child is
regarded and respected at school not because she is her
parent’s child, but because she is a student: she is valued
for traits and for a status, in other words, that are
independent of her status as the parent’s genetic or
adoptive offspring. The ideal teacher cares about the
child as an individual, a learner, an actively curious
person—she doesn’t care about the child because the
child is hers. The child is regarded with respect equally
to all the children in the class. In these ways, the school
classroom, ideally, and the relations within it, is a
model of some core aspects of citizenship.

So conditional love (assuming that is what the student receives, rather than being patronized and forced to conform) of a governmental authority figure is superior to the unconditional (oh, sorry, genetically motivated) love of a parent? The same teachers that she describes above as “cashstrapped, under-motivated, inadequately supported, and overwhelmed public school teachers with too many students in their classrooms” are a greater boon to a child’s self esteem than a loving and involved parent? This is nonsensical, and it fallaciously assumes that homeschooled children have no access to interaction with supportive adults who value them, other than the parents who presumably keep them imprisoned at home. This woman has no concept of what homeschooling actually looks like, or how involved homeschooled children are in their communities. Or does she? Because with the next stroke of her pen, she condemns homeschoolers for their noxious political engagement. (How they manage all that while never leaving the house and while lacking the benefits of some school created safe harbor for growing self esteem makes you wonder, doesn’t it?)

Fourth, there are political harms. Fundamentalist
Protestant adults who were homeschooled over the last
thirty years are not politically disengaged, far from it.

And because she dislikes the politics of one segment of an extremely non-homogenous sector of society, it is appropriate to restrict the freedoms of us all? If the political flavors were reversed, that would smell like McCarthyism, wouldn’t it?

The remaining three sorts of harms—ethical, educational,
and economic—are much discussed in critical
literature both on homeschooling and on child-raising
in devout households, and I won’t belabor them here
other than to note them 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

We nonconformist, authority questioning, educational do-it-yourselfers are, in this woman’s mind, authoritarian bastions of conformity, I guess. Maybe this applies to some percentage of her bogeyman fundie homeschoolers, but to homeschoolers in general? Nonsense. Yes, those people whose kids are out there skateboarding and playing World of Warcraft all day are ethically stunting them with their rigid authoritarianism…

The educational harm is the most immediate, direct
risk of unregulated homeschooling. It is also the only
one in this litany of possible risks adamantly denied by
homeschooling advocates. There is indeed no credible
evidence that homeschoolers as a group do worse on
standardized tests, but contrary to their claims, there is
also no credible evidence that they do better. … Nevertheless, it is
clear from both anecdotal accounts, memoirs, and trial
transcripts that some homeschoolers are suffering educational
harm which would be avoided or minimized,
were they either in public school or were their homeschool
subjected to decent regulation.

And some public school children are shuffled through the system and graduate unable to read or do basic math. A woeful percentage drop out. Colleges are recruiting homeschoolers, because they are self directed learners, while at the same time, they are running remedial classes for far too large a percentage of their incoming public schooled students. There are always anecdotes to refute anecdotes, and the very existence of trial transcripts indicates that the child welfare system has in fact functioned in identifying children who are being educationally neglected. What would happen if the schools were subject to equivalent scrutiny? How many more kids are suffering worse fates under the state’s tutelage? And when will the Nanny Staters recognize the fundamental fallacy underlying their quest to render non-abusive individuals accountable to them? The state is accountable to its citizenry. Schools are responsible for demonstrating that they are performing, because they are creatures of the state, funded by tax dollars, and are responsible to the public. Families are not required to jump the same hoops because they are not publicly funded state institutions. And what is decent regulation anyway? With all the regulations imposed upon them, the public schools are still failing. Regulation is not a guarantee of quality, just a full employment act for bureaucrats.

Some children are less educated than they
would be, were homeschools either regulated or
banned. Also sacrificed is their exposure to diverse
ideas, cultures, and ways of being.

Some public schooled students are less educated than they would be if their parents were in a position to be able to homeschool. As for diversity, this assumes that the school that a homeschooled child would otherwise attend is more diverse than the opportunities he is exposed to out in the world at large while being homeschooled. That is far from a safe assumption.

Finally, the economic harms. The average homeschooling
family may have a higher income than the
average non-homeschooler, as was recently reported
by USA Today. The radically fundamentalist “movement”
family, however, is considerably poorer than
the population, and it is the participants in these
movements—the so-called “patriarchy movement”
and its “quiverfull” branch and related groups —
that are the hardcore of the homeschooling movement.

So, forget that you are talking about a small minority of homeschoolers, let’s tar everybody with the same brush, despite acknowledging the fallacy. There are plenty of families living in poverty who don’t homeschool. Is the government being invited into their business as well? Of course not. And the author falls back on homeschooling as the thing to regulate, because she knows that arguing that the government should regulate desperately poor quiverfull fundies because they are fundies is absolutely destined to fail. Rather than enforce existing child welfare laws insofar as people may actually be living with their children “on tarps in fields and parking lots”, let’s just sacrifice the rights and liberties of all homeschooling families because the author doesn’t like those rightwing fundies with the herds of children.

Nevertheless, the author concedes:

Even given these potential harms, there remain good
reasons to permit homeschooling, in plenty of circumstances.

She seems unable to accept that both the US Supreme Court and the states have all recognized the right of parents to educate their children, and would like to cast it as a privilege for which permission is required instead, but she is ignoring both history and legal reality to do so.

Parents, both religious and secular, often justifiably
wish to shield their children from public
schools. Public schools too often ill serve children
who are at risk of bullying, or who are hurt by the
overly sexualized culture of middle and high schools
in many parts of the country, or who have special
abilities or needs, or simply idiosyncratic learning
styles or habits. Many of these children can best or
even only be educated by those who know them best.
The children well served by homeschooling might
outnumber the children who are badly victimized by
the practice. The lessons given homeschooled children
by those who homeschool responsibly are also
often of very high quality. The gains to these children
may be such as simply to outweigh the lack of socialization,
diversity, training for citizenship and so on,
for those who do so badly. Because of the lack of
notice, testing, and review of homeschoolers, it’s hard
to know. But the evaluative question, for practical purposes,
at this point is largely moot. Homeschooling is
now such an entrenched practice, recriminalization is
not a viable option in any event.

It’s hard to know, says she. Who has the right to know, I ask. Homeschoolers are private citizens, not government agents. Under what twisted version of reality and law does she think private citizens are answerable to government in the absence of abuse or criminal behavior? It doesn’t work that way, despite all the Nanny Staters’ rhetorical prestidigitations.

However, even if we assume that the benefits of
homeschooling when done well are quite substantial,
and even if the harms of public school when done
poorly are equally so, nothing follows regarding the
wisdom of deregulating homeschooling.

Homeschooling hasn’t been deregulated. It has been codified and subjected to regulations in many states, and there is a colorable argument that all such regulation is unconstitutional. That’s for the courts to decide when presented with a test case… But the reality is, homeschooling has always been out there, and until fairly recently, was not regulated anywhere. In trying to reframe reality into a “deregulation” context, the author invokes the bugaboo of all recent failed deregulation schemes. But unlike the banking industry, homeschooling is not an area previously highly regulated and then set free to implode based on corporate greed. It is a historic right, a fundamental liberty, which people like the author would squeeze into a straight jacket so that it can be brought down to the least common denominator culture of our public education system. The very benefits she concedes in the paragraph below will be eliminated when homeschoolers are required to teach to the test and drill and kill in order to satisfy her vaunted bureaucracy. That is a bogeyman worth fighting.

Special needs kids, vulnerable or sensitive children,
parents of children who are for very good reason fearful of bullies,
children and parents who rightly or wrongly are
repelled by the sexual and misogynist propaganda that
proliferates in middle and high school culture, parents
of kids who are preternaturally curious and gifted kids
themselves, children of the over-educated and underemployed
suburban mothers who simply would prefer
to do this work themselves than delegate it to the
state, all of these children and parents would not be
hurt, and would likely be helped, by reasonable state
regulation. Annual standardized testing is not the bane
of all existence it is often made out to be, and it would
give rightly proud parents and children alike a
record—and evidence—of their accomplishments. It
would also make clear where they had slipped, and
where there is need for correction.

Homeschoolers, who are not overburdened with a chaotic roomfull of kids they hardly know, are perfectly capable of assessing their own children’s progress without the state’s stamp of approval, or a standardized test, the efficacy of which as an assessment tool is questioned even by the institutional educational establishment. Even the NEA states that such tests are not an effective measure of a student’s knowledge. See, e.g., Fact Sheet on NEA's views regarding multiple measures for educators. (“Standardized tests are imperfect measures that assess student's memorization skills, rather than the ability to think critically and demonstrate 21st century skills.”)

As the political philosopher and homeschool critic
Robert Reich has persuasively argued, curricular
review would give the state a way to ensure that the
academic content is such as to protect the children’s
interest in both acquiring the necessary skills for active,
autonomous, and responsible citizenship in adulthood,
and in being exposed to diverse and more liberal ways
of life.Mandatory testing would give the states, and the
parents, a way to ensure that the students are performing
at a level consistent with their own abilities, and
consistent with the abilities and performance of their
public and private schooled peers. It would give the
parents and the state a way to ensure that the children
who should be college bound are being prepared for
that path, or at least, it would ensure that the parents
are aware of their children’s capacity for college level

It sounds relatively benign, if misguided, until you get to this:

Periodic visits would open the door to college
and career counseling, of benefit to both the children
and their parents. They would give the state a window
into the quality of home life, and a way to monitor signs
of abuse as well as immunizations. The sanction for failure
to comply with minimal curriculum, content, visitation,
and testing requirements would simply be
enrollment in a certified private or public school. The
benefits of homeschooling are now protected through
legalization of the practice. Deregulation, however,
serves no one’s interests and harms many. Many of the
most serious harms could be prevented through its
responsible regulation.

Last time I checked, we still had a Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures in the privacy of our homes. The government is not making “periodic visits” to my house unless it makes a showing of probable cause, thank you very much! The government does not own me, or my child, and no homeschooler I know will ever consent to the abrogation of our parental and constitutional rights. We have become a nation of sheep, afraid of our neighbors, thinking that the government is going to save us from imagined evils, when the author and her Nanny State colleagues are setting us up for tyranny by a government with unfettered power to invade our families, our privacy, and trample our freedoms. While the assumptions, skewed interpretation of history, questionable legal analysis and stereotyping going on in this article are so absurd as to be amusing, the threat that such thinking presents to our liberty, not just as homeschoolers, but as Americans, is frightening.

Clothe an elitist and discriminatory agenda as an attack on those crazy nonconformist homeschoolers, imply that there is a thread of racism or sexism involved, invoke the specter of abuse, and the Constitution disappears? What offends me most is that this screed originates from a law school, where apparently its author learned to value her own fears, assumptions, elitism, and politics over the law. And that is a particularly scary commentary on institutional education, as far as I am concerned.

~Chele, retired lawyer, homeschooling mother, tilter at windmills, and, if Ms. West, the author of the above-referenced anti-homeschooling diatribe masquerading as a journal article, is to be believed, anti-feminist, over-educated, bored suburban housewife.


jugglingpaynes said...

I don't know. I kind of like the image of secular, anti-schooling, overeducated and under-employed suburban diva. :o)

I started reading it and got bored. She desperately needed an editor and you are right, she needed to decide what exactly she was against and then start criticizing, because she came across as very flip-floppy.

Oh, fix your link to the original article. I was able to find it, but it didn't go directly there.

Hope to see you next week!
Peace and Laughter,

Vicki said...


Reference to 'Homeschoolers are those confident enough in their own swimming skills to strike out for shore'...I'm one of those who were NOT confident enough so I tried public, then gifted, then private schools before finally giving up on the system, knowing that no matter HOW I homeschooled, I could NEVER be the complete failure that the above mentioned systems were.

My son passed his college entrance by the age of ten, under complete radical unschooling methods... in other words, giving him the means to learn at his own pace and complete freedom to do so.

Don't even get me started on how the 'system' sucked the joy of life from him. I sent them a joyful little boy..they sent me back a shell of a crushed child.

If there was any mistake I ever made, it was in thinking that the 'system' had any right to ever come near my child.

Through unconditional love and radical unschooling, he has forgotten most of what he suffered at their hands. He is back to the joyous human being, filled with big dreams and goals.

Vicki ~` full-time professionally employed, working mom who found another and better way.

Vicki said...

I made a link to your post! I hope you don't mind, if you do, just let me know and I'll take it down.


Alasandra said...

Loved your critique.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Wonderful critique of a deeply flawed paper. I am stunned that such a poorly written argument passed for scholarly work.