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Tom | January 24, 2010

A Dim View of Homeschooling


By Tom

Several years ago my principal and I spent a lunch hour on a home visit to see one of my students. He had been absent for a week, after telling us that he was going to be homeschooled.

This boy had come to me after a previous bout of homeschooling, essentially two years behind his peers, but was just beginning to make steady progress.

We were not happy to hear that he would be homeschooled, and feared for the worse. He lived with a single mom who lacked basic parenting skills and we were legitimately concerned that with her as his teacher he could essentially become a third grade drop-out. So we set out to change her mind.

My boss was the bad cop, explaining that her son would be racking up unexcused absences until the homeschooling paperwork cleared, which could lead to all sorts of trouble for her. I got to be good cop, telling her how much progress her son had made and how much the students and I missed him. We talked with mom at the doorway to their apartment, and before long her son came to into view and began chanting, "I wanna go back to school, I wanna go back to school."

We asked about her reasons. She explained that one of the other staff members had made an insulting remark to her son. My principal explained that it was unfortunate, but was something that could be resolved without resorting to such drastic measures. She appreciated the fact that we came out and in the end, common sense prevailed and she brought her son back to school. 

Discussing the visit on the drive back to school, we both had the strong feeling that the mom was just plain lonely. She wasn't working at the time, seemed depressed and wanted her son around to keep her company. The incident at school may or may not have happened in the manner that her son described it, but we suspected that she was using it as a way to justify having her son home with her for essentially selfish reasons. We could have been wrong, of course. Middle-aged married guys have been know to draw the wrong conclusion from time to time, even when they work together, and especially when it comes to understanding women. 

But if it was true, it wasn't the first time that we had a student pulled out of our school to keep a parent company. Either way, this much is clear: no good would have come from this boy being homeschooled.

So where does state law stand in regards to homeschooling? Well off to the side, actually. All a parent has to do is file an Intent to Homeschool and show that they've either taken 45 credits of college-level courses (in anything) or that they've taken an approved class on homeschooling. That's it. Homeschooled kids have to take periodic tests, but they don't necessarily have to pass them. With all the recent focus on school accountability, it seems odd that the state is so loose with homeschool oversight.

According to state law, the mother whose home we visited had the capacity and the right to homeschool her child.

Now I'm sure there are plenty of parents out there who are effectively homeschooling their children for all the right reasons. But this mother was not one of them. And what would have happened ten years down the road, when he was eighteen years old with a third grade education? 

I can't imagine, but I'd sure like to see someone in Olympia take a long, critical look at our state's homeschool law.


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You're a good sport, Karen. And in case it matters, my view of homeschooling is less dim. I truly enjoyed sparring with you and I hope to see you and your passionate views weighing in on other posts at our blog.

Well it is the best place to learn.

At home!

Tom, I think you just got schooled :-)

The specific challenge with what you are proposing is the who should or shouldn't homeschool is completely subjective. The markers society would use to make those decisions have been proven by the study I linked to as irrelevant in determining the success of homeschooling. Education, teacher training, race, socio-economic status, even library use does not have an impact on homeschooling.
There are wide variations in homeschooling styles. Who is going to determine if educational neglect is present in a situation where a child ives in a rich learning environment and yet may not be encouraged/required/forced to complete academic subjects on a regular basis? Just because something doesn't look like school doesn't mean it is educationally neglectful for that particular child.

There is also a political aspect that is introduced into this argument. The NEA passes a resolution annually calling for more oversight for homeschoolers, including following mandatory curriculum, mandatory assessments, licensed teachers etc despite evidence that homeschoolers as a group perform better than schools where all of those things are in place.

If your concern is children who are suffering neglect then there are already systems in place to assist families and children with that. If your concern is looking for educational neglect, the issue is far larger for school children than for homeschooled children.

I agree completely that empirical data is not always the best premise on which to base a law. Sometimes governments need to lead the way, but in most cases I think that is more relevant in situations of moving towards more equality and freedoms, (ie legalizing same sex marriage) rather than in restricting freedoms or imposing more government controls (as would be the case in calling for more oversight to homeschoolers). In the face of so much empircal evidence to the contrary, there needs to be a basis other than limited subjective and anecdotal evidence and political whim for establishing more government restriction and intrusion into personal decisions.

I'm curious. Would you also give CPS the right to end a schooling situation if the child's well being is in danger?


I actually agree with 100% of what you wrote. I don't think the government needs to tell homeschoolers what and how to teach. I agree that the magic of homeschooling comes from a loving parent tailoring instruction to meet the unique needs of their children.

We both agree that the parent in question should not be homeschooling. So how do we, as a society, keep that from happening? I don’t favor creating an onerous set of hoops for homeschoolers to jump through. What I favor is something simple, such as giving Child Protective Services the authority to end a homeschooling situation if the child’s well-being is in danger.


Let me clarify something. I’ve spent the past 26 years teaching my students to understand and respect the scientific method and the value of empirical evidence. But I also teach civics. And one of the things we discuss is that laws are not always based on empirical evidence and data. Imagine a society without a law against burglary. Data would undoubtedly show that the vast majority of those citizens wouldn’t need the government to tell them not to take other people’s valuables. But they would probably still want a law in order to keep the few felons among them from invading their homes. Data is powerful, but it’s not always the best way to make law.

In answer to your question Tom
Tom, the problem with that is who decides what is the correct way to homeschool? There are many different homeschooling methods. Just because I choose to do it one way doesn't mean another way isn't equally correct or that the students will not be equally successful.

I know a few public school teachers who have chosen to homeschool their own children and they all say how much they enjoy the freedom from regulations and the chance to be creative homeschooling provides. There is no one right or standard way to homeschool and frankly I wouldn't want there to be. I choose to use different homeschooling methods with my boys as they both have different learning styles. I am very thankful I wasn't forced to do it such and such way because some bureaucrat thought it was the way it should be done. Or that I wasn't forced to teach such and such because some bureaucrat determined that is what a child a certain age should be learning.

The beauty of homeschooling is that homeschool parents can tailor what they teach to their uniquely individual child. It is a luxury that a public school teacher with 20+ students doesn't have. And it's a concept that bureaucrats find hard to grasp.

I didn't find your post insulting as I realized you were referencing ONE PARTICULAR PARENT, who we both agree shouldn't have been homeschooling. I do not believe more homeschool regulations are needed as there are already laws that protect children from educational neglect.

BTW I managed to homeschool successfully with no training and no license. It really isn't necessary Tom.

But Tom if direct government oversight and control isn't enough to make schools work then how can it help improve homeschooling which already outperforms public schooling? If, as you say, the state is ultimately responsible for the education of its citizens, why then should it devote limited resources overseeing and restricting the system that is outperforming its own schools?

I can't speak to the one particular case you highlighted, but if we are going to talk in generalities about the need for more homeschooling oversight then we need to look at the broader picture. You believe you "saved" this child and that your one piece of anecdotal information is enough of a basis for you to call for more oversight. However if you had read the study I linked to, you would know that statistically you have likely done this child an educational disservice and put him in a system whereby the challenges he faces could in fact hamper his educational development in ways that could have been mitigated at home.

From the study I linked to, here are the salient points:

"Poorly educated parents who choose to teach their children at home produce better academic results for their children than public schools do. One study we reviewed found that students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentage points higher than public school students from families with comparable education levels."

"Hepburn said evidence clearly demonstrates that home education may help reduce the negative effects of some background factors that many educators believe affects a child's ability to learn, such as low family income, low parental educational attainment, parents not having formal training as teachers, race or ethnicity of the student, gender of the student, not having a computer in the home, and infrequent usage of public libraries."

A far higher number of students (both percentage wise and in real terms) are at risk educationally within the government school system than with homeschooling. The government would have far greater impact if it focused on improving its own system. For cases of true neglect there are other systems in place to address and assist those families.

In general homeschoolers are not in favour of more government oversight if for no other reason than it is unnecessarily intrusive for a system that already does measurably better than the state system against which homeschooling would presumably be measured.

To turn your question around, are you as a teacher in favour of more government and parental oversight within your classroom if for no other reason than the lack of it associates you with a system that fails at least 30% of its population and therefore gives you a bad name? Are you willing to put up with that level of oversight so that the government and parents can weed out teachers who are teaching for the "wrong reasons" (with no regard to how subjective that is?) because it is best for all homeschoolers in your state?

Are you requred to adhere to advice and guidelines issued from parents who are not experts in the subject manner or in the educational philosophy that forms the basis for your teaching approach? No? Because in general, homeschoolers feel that oversight from an educational instituation like a school board would be the equivalent to that scenario. Teaching and/or facilitating the education for our own children is a very different educational paradigm than teaching a class of 25 diverse kids.

Did you research the educational outcomes for homeschoolers in states with more government oversight versus less? Is there a statistical difference on which you can base your conclusions?

Would you accept conclusions from your students based on limited anecdotal experience when there is verifiable, scalable data or other broader evidence that shows that conclusion has not been thought through? If not, then why should readers accept your assertions without question?

With all due respect to your point that your comments are not a criticism of homeschooling in general, your post was entitled "A Dim View of Homeschooling" and related one incident that happened years ago on which you base a call for tighter homeschooling laws and oversight for all homeschoolers in general. I find it deeply ironic that as a teacher, you are concerned about the ability of homeschooling parents to educate our children when you have demonstrated very little critical thinking or research skills in establishing your opinion which as far as I can tell is based on a biased sample of one experience and little else.

In response to Karen and Sandra, let me just point out that my post was not meant to criticize homeschooling in general, but was in response to one particular situation in which a student was being homeschooled by an incompetent and depressed parent because she didn't want to be alone. She admitted as much when she first brought him to our school, after failing miserably to homeschool him the first time around.

My post calls for closer scrutiny by the state over homeschooling, something with which I would think the homeschooling community would be in agreement; if for no other reason than the lack thereof gives the rest of you a bad name. And believe me; you would not want to be in any way associated with the homeschooling parent I wrote about.

In a state where you need training and a license before you can cut someone else's hair, there should be something in place to make sure you know what you're doing before you teach a child. Even if it's your own child.

Our nation has a long history of tweaking laws in response to isolated incidents. I'm fully aware that there is a large body of evidence that supports the continuation of homeschooling. Unfortunately, there is also anecdotal evidence that some of our children are not being educated at home. Since the state is ultimately responsible for the education of it's citizens, the state should ensure that homeschooling is done correctly.

I fully appreciate and celebrate a parent's right to homeschool her child. But at the same time, I think we need to acknowledge every child's right to a decent education. And if a homeschooling parent isn't providing that, then the state should step in.

If, after this clarification, you still find my post insulting, I sincerely apologize. It was truly not meant to be. I honestly have nothing but admiration and respect for the millions of parents who successfully homeschool their children.

As a homeschooler one of the things I teach my kids is critical thinking skills. We were just talking about how anecdotal evidence, when left unchecked as yours clearly is, often leads to assumptions which are both uneducated and potentially damaging. If you were one of my children I would suggest putting some time and energy into educating yourself before making proclimations about what others should or shouldn't be doing. Because you haven't done the research yourself, I suggest starting with this summary of a study and meta analysis (with annotations) which shows that homeschoolers as a group tend to perform better than their public schooled peers, that the educational and socioeconomic factors which affect (and in some cases determine) student achievement in public schools are actually mitigated and overcome by homeschooling, that homeschooled children are more social mature/heathy and civically engaged than their public schooled counterparts.
(Download the whole study - it's worth the read if you are at all interested in education.)

If you really want to blow your mind pick up a copy of John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down. In case you aren't familiar John Taylor Gatto was New York City teacher of the year three times and he quit teaching after being named New York State Teacher of the Year.

Here's a taste:

As a homeschooler I facilitate learning for a gifted 11 year old who was recently dicussing Fenyman's lectures with a physics prof we know and who is currently reading the biography of Olaudah Equiano. I also teach my a dyslexic 8 year old for whom I have taken a number of courses on teaching students with dyslexia and who gets 30-60 minutes of intensive one on one tutoring each day and twice a week with a specialist who says that her greatest gift is that she will never know that she should be considered behind or slow or incapable. I also have a 7 boy year old who would undoubted be labelled ADHD in the school system who really just needs time to climb trees, investigate the local river, play lego and spend afternoons playing games with his grandparents while they tell him stories about immigrating to this country. My youngest is a 6 year old who would likely sale through school but she'll get a far better, broader, richer education at home with her siblings that she could possibly get in a school. I know more about education philosphies and strategies for facilitating education (rather than schooling) than my sister the teacher who spends the bulk of her time in classroom management mode.

The thing is I am not unique. Homeschoolers who take on the responsibility of their children's education are deeply committed to ensuring their children become well educated, well rounded, well read and well socialized members of our society. Regardless of homeschooling style, the educational or income levels of the parents or their political or religious persuasion research shows that home educated children will do better at home than in school and will do better in essentially all measurable areas that kids in school.

IF you want to see a homeschooled sucess story they are all around you in your community. If you are looking for an example of education failing a child then you need to look no further than your own back yard. The North American education system has a drop out rate that is approximately 30%.

Educators can't have it both ways and say that the only way for education to truly succeed is with the dedication of engaged parents on one hand and then deride the efforts and value of those parents who choose to become primarily responsible for their children's education.

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