Why I Don’t Trust the Homeschool Community to Self-Police

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 8, 2013.

When I was a young teen I made some new friends, a couple of homeschooled girls like me, both right around my own age. They were the oldest in a large homeschooling family that in some ways was very much like mine own. In other ways, though, their family was very different.

As far as I could see, unlike my mother their mother never lesson planned, never sat down with her children to work on multiplication tables, and never pulled out the science supplies and a biology book. Their mother was very involved and active in an all-consuming interest of her own, and the children were pretty much left to their own devices. The children had interests, but they never really had the tools they needed to carry those interests out, and they certainly never had the basic education in a range of subjects like math, English, and science that we so often take for granted. And while I won’t get into specifics, the repercussions of missed opportunities have followed my friends and their younger siblings into adulthood.

What’s most baffling is that no one said anything.

To my knowledge, the other homeschool parents (including my own) not only didn’t report this family or intervene and try to help, they never even said that what was going on was wrong. It’s true that someone might have said something that I didn’t hear, but I was pretty up on the homeschool community gossip (homeschool moms do talk, or at least they did in my community), and I knew well who was disapproved of for having the wrong religious doctrine or being too submissive or not submissive enough. I’m pretty sure I would have heard something.

Anyway, this is why, when homeschool parents inveigh against outside oversight and say that the homeschool community provides its own sort of internal accountability and self-policing, I want to bang my head into a wall. It doesn’t work. The culture of the homeschool community in which I grew up was such that I’m really having a hard time imagining anyone ever reporting anyone, or even simply calling them out for what they are doing.

Why is this? There is a range of factors.

There is the idea that family always knows whats best and that the family unit should be sovereign. If a family decides not to educate their kids, then, that’s their business. Inviting the government into a family’s affairs, or even questioning how they run their family, is a violation of that family’s autonomy.

There is the idea that even going completely uneducated is better than being sent to “government” schools. We saw this in HSLDA’s response to Josh Powell’s story, a story that in many ways mirrors that of the family I knew growing up—except that unlike my childhood friends, Josh ultimately fought his way into getting an education.

There is the idea that failure to educate is simply “unschooling,” and therefore a perfectly legitimate way of homeschooling. John Holt would probably be horrified to know that his ideas are today being used by some to justify robbing children of an education. But then, maybe he would have agreed with HSLDA and argued that even no education at all is better than “government” schools.

There is the idea that the importance of education is overrated.—that it is life experience, family living, and the passing on of religious values that matters. It doesn’t matter whether a child knows algebra or can write an essay, the argument goes. If they love Jesus and have a heart dedicated to serving others, that’s enough.

There is this idea that government involvement in anything ever is always a bad thing. The highest value is the individual freedom of every adult citizen. To get the government involved would put people under the thumb of bureaucrats intent on telling people what to do and result in corruption, child-snatching, and worse.

I don’t trust the homeschool community to police itself—I just don’t.

It’s worth noting that some of the ideas listed above aren’t isolated to the Christian homeschool community—they’re more endemic than that. In other words, it’s not like this problem can be solved by telling the homeschool community to self-police better—they don’t self-police because they can’t self-police given the nature of their beliefs. As long as these ideas remain knit through the homeschool community, I will be an advocate for outside oversight. To be less would be a betrayal.

Because here’s the thing—my friends’ mother wasn’t a bad person. She just needed to actually be required to educate her children and to be held accountable for doing so (this isn’t the first time I’ve written about this need for accountability). If she’d lived in a state with required subjects and periodic assessments to verify that instruction and learning were taking place, things would almost certainly have been different. She would have pulled things together, and while the education she provided her children might not have been perfect, it would have been something.

So… About That “Homeschooled Hero” George Washington

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

George Washington is the greatest homeschooler of all time.

Homeschool advocates love that sentence. It’s like the knife driven into the heart of public education, the garlic wielded against the vampiric detractors of homeschooling.

What a solid sentence. The syntax is perfect.

There’s just one problem with it: it simply isn’t true.

I honestly don’t know where the myth of George Washington as homeschooler originated. When Rob Shearer wrote about Washington back in 1998 for Practical Homeschooling, he never mentions Washington was homeschooled. He says that Washington was “one of the most important figures in American History.” So if he was homeschooled, that would seem like a good time to mention that fact. But he doesn’t.

My guess would be the myth originated three years later with alternative education activist John Taylor Gatto, who is widely celebrated in homeschooling circles. In Gatto’s classic critique of American public education, the 2001 book The Underground History of American Education, he states:

“Washington had no schooling until he was eleven, no classroom confinement, no blackboards. He arrived at school already knowing how to read, write, and calculate about as well as the average college student today… Washington also studied geography and astronomy on his own…”

Gatto, however, never says Washington was “homeschooled.” Though he does point out that, “Washington attended school for exactly two years.” Which is not “exactly” true, but we will get to that in a bit. The point is, Gatto says that Washington mainly taught himself but also received formal education to complement that self-teaching.

Yet somehow Washington is today considered a classic example of homeschooling’s power. He is included in those many and sundry lists of “famous homeschoolers.” There’s even a website for “Famous Homeschoolers” (www.famoushomeschoolers.net) that includes him. (Does anyone fact check those lists, by the way? Because I swear 75% of the people listed in most of those do not qualify, just like George Washington.)

Just last week, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) dedicated the entirety of its Home School Heartbeat radio program to Washington.

Just last week, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) dedicated the entirety of its Home School Heartbeat radio program to Washington.
Just last week, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) dedicated the entirety of its Home School Heartbeat radio program to Washington.

The title of their week’s series was — surprise! — “Homeschooled Leader: George Washington.” The series’ description says, “The father of our country was a surveyor, general, president—and homeschooler.”

HSLDA’s Mike Smith gushed throughout the week about Washington and his homeschooling and how wonderfully it shaped him and his legacy for the U.S. (emphasis added):

“Who was America’s greatest homeschooler? Some say it was George Washington… America owes its very existence to one of the greatest homeschoolers of all time… Like most frontier families at this time, homeschooling was the most viable option for a child’s education… This homeschooler and statesman transformed the world, setting the course for freedom and away from tyranny… Americans owe their freedom to the efforts of our Founding Fathers and to this man who diligently studied and learned the truths of life at home.”

Just one small problem: George Washington is neither an example of homeschooling nor an example of education done well.

To some extent, deciding whether someone was/is homeschooled or not is complicated. There are so many different forms of home education these days. So let’s go ahead and set some arbitrary definitions. For “homeschooling,” we will use “to teach school subjects to one’s children at home.” And for “homeschooled” we will use a definition that HSLDA could agree with — the definition that HSLDA’s research buddy Brian Ray used earlier this year: “one should consider a person to be ‘homeschooled’ if the majority of his school years were in homeschooling.”

So let’s look at George Washington.

There isn’t a lot of information about Washington’s early life. Any legitimate account of his early life and education will admit this. So here are a few different accounts of what we do know:

George Washington’s education resulted from a process of close study and imitation of the Virginia elite… Born into mid-level gentry status, Washington seized opportunities to fill in gaps in his formal education… A formal education alone could not have imparted him with such admirable self-control. Washington’s social education enabled him to maintain a delicate balance between ambition and modesty throughout his life. (Source)

In the normal course of events, George Washington would have become an Oxford don and followed the profession of his English father… He received the least formal schooling of any of the Founding Fathers and remained self-conscious about this lack all his life… George Washington did not sit down and write of his childhood, as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did… He seems to have been ashamed of his impoverished childhood and his poor education… He apparently began to learn to read, write, and keep sums from a tutor, a convict… By the time his brother Lawrence returned in his red-and-blue uniform, George was already crossing the river each morning to the log schoolhouse in Fredericksburg… In all, George Washington received between seven and eight years of schooling. For nearly four years, he took the ferry each morning to Fredericksburg. (Source)

Between seven and eight years of schooling. Four under the tutelage of a convict and four at a public log school. This is a very different story than Gatto’s “two years” fable. And what schooling Washington got was scarce, so scarce that Gatto saying Washington’s lack of formal education was somehow positive is an insult to Washington’s experience. Why? Because Washington did not consider his lack of formal education to be positive:

Washington had only limited formal schooling. In later life, he felt somewhat self-conscious about what he considered his ‘defective education.’ Spurred by this sense of deficiency, he developed a lifelong habit of reading… Despite this effort, he remained unsure of his learning.” (Source)

So self-conscious was he of his lack of education, and so defective did he consider the little bit of education that he received, that Washington went out of his way to educate his stepson, Jack Custis. He hired a private tutor for both Jack and his sister Patsy for over six years. He sent Jack to boarding school in Maryland. After boarding school Washington sent Jack to New York for college. And note, Wasington “left the direction of Jack’s schooling to these instructors.”

This cannot be overstated: George Washington was embarrassed by his lack of education. Self-conscious. Ashamed. You can see how this influenced him in his advocacy for public education near the end of his life:

As George Washington ended his term as the first president of the United States, he left with a few parting words. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 delineated many of the recommendations Washington had for the future of his country. Amongst these suggestions was a public education system. (Source)

In this address Washington said,

Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. The more homogeneous our Citizens can be made in these particulars, the greater will be our prospect of permanent Union; and a primary object of such a National Institution should be, the education of our Youth in the science of Government. (Source)

So let’s get this straight: Washington’s dad bought a full-time tutor for him. Washington also attended an institutional school for at least 50% of his education. And somehow he was homeschooled? Since when was homeschooling considered 50% being tutored by a convict and 50% attending a public school?

This fails both the definition of “homeschooling” and the definition of “homeschooled.”

Even if you still consider Washington to be homeschooled, there’s the more important aspect of this story: George Washington had the least formal education of the Founding Fathers and considered that a bad thing. He considered his lack of more formal education to be defective to the point that it obviously haunted him for his entire life. This spurred him to push for public education for his own relatives and the brand new United States of America.

That’s a “homeschooled” hero?

Look, I don’t mind if people create lists of famous homeschoolers. It’s a testimony to the fact that homeschooling can be awesome and has been awesome and that education should be democratic and flexible and tailored to every individual.  But if you’re going to create a list of famous homeschoolers, I have two very simple rules:

(1) Make sure the people were actually homeschooled.

(2) Make sure the people don’t consider their education defective.

Including George Washington violates both of those rules.

Of course, if George Washington were alive today and said his “homeschooling” (if you still want to consider it that) was lacking and defective and he wished he could have gone to that log school more, we already know from Josh Powell’s situation how HSLDA would respond. It would be something like, “Buck up, kiddo! Log schools crush creativity! Be glad you got taught by that convict at home!”

Where Is Your Sense of Compassion, HSDLA?

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on July 31, 2013.

*****

Josh Powell wanted to go to school so badly that he pleaded with local officials to let him enroll. He didn’t know exactly what students were learning at Buckingham County High School, in rural central Virginia, but he had the sense that he was missing something fundamental.

By the time he was 16, he had never written an essay. He didn’t know South Africa was a country. He couldn’t solve basic algebra problems.

So starts a recent Washington Post article about Virginia’s religious exemption.

Powell was taught at home, his parents using a religious exemption that allows families to entirely opt out of public education, a Virginia law that is unlike any other in the country. That means that not only are their children excused from attending school — as those educated under the state’s home-school statute are — but they also are exempt from all government oversight.

School officials don’t ever ask them for transcripts, test scores or proof of education of any kind: Parents have total control.

. . .

Josh Powell eventually found a way to get several years of remedial classes and other courses at a community college.

Now he’s studying at Georgetown University.

. . .

Josh Powell, now 21, wonders how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn’t spent so much time and effort catching up.

“I think people should definitely have the freedom to home-school as long as it’s being done well and observed,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for there not to be accountability.”

Most of all, he worries about his siblings: There are 11. One, old enough to be well into middle school, can’t read, Josh Powell said.

Now he’s trying to get his brothers and sisters into school, to ensure that they don’t have to work as hard as he did to catch up — or get left behind.

Go read the whole thing—the article is excellent. The long and short of it is that Josh’s parents used Virginia’s religious exemption clause to get out of any requirement to teach him anything, and then proceeded to give him what he knew was a substandard education, despite his desire to learn more than they were teaching him. In the end, Josh overcame all of that and managed to obtain remedial classes at a community college (without his parents’ help, I should add) and then gain admission to Georgetown. And now, he wants to see the law changed so that other children will not find themselves in his situation.

What I want to turn to now is HSLDA’s response. Before I do that, I should mention that the article includes a quote from Michael Farris. It’s not long:

The law is completely clear, said Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who has claimed the exemption for his family. It doesn’t make sense to have the public school system regulate home schools, he said, because he thinks home schools are far more successful.

As to whether there could be children getting an inadequate education, he said: “Well sure, it’s possible. But there are whole public school districts that are slipping through the cracks.”

Dear Mr. Farris: What you said is called “tu quoque.” It is a logical fallacy. You are a lawyer, you should know that.

Now with that out of the way, what I really want to look at is the official response HSLDA issued the day after the Washington Post article came out.

“Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn!” The Washington Post’s recent article about Virginia’s religious exemption statute includes this fascinating quote from Josh Powell, the young man who never attended public school because his parents obtained an exemption on religious grounds.

The article criticizes the law that allows the exemption and lobbies for its change. But let’s slow down and think this through.

How many public school teachers ever hear their students say, “Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn”? Very few. Because sadly, public schools crush many kids’ desire to ever learn again. And this has been documented.

The largest study comparing homeschool students to others (by Dr. Lawrence M. Rudner, University of Maryland) amazingly revealed that homeschool 8th grade students score the same as 12th grade public school students!

Why do homeschool students score an almost unbelievable four grade levels ahead of others by 8th grade? It’s very simple. It’s not that homeschool kids or their parents have higher IQs—I suspect they don’t. It’s simply that homeschools don’t crush a kid’s inborn desire to learn.

What is HSLDA’s evidence that public schools crush children’s “inborn desire to learn” while homeschooling doesn’t? The Rudner study.

Let’s review, shall we?

Somehow I feel like we’ve been over this before. (Also, if you haven’t, you should read this excellent article as well.) What did Rudner’s study say and how does he feel about the way HSLDA uses it?

Rudner’s study was funded and sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Assocation.  It analyzed the test results of more than 20,000 home schooled students using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and it was interpreted by many to find that the average home schooled student outperformed his or her public school peer.  But Rudner’s study reaches no such conclusion, and Rudner himself issued multiple cautionary notes in the report, including the following: “Because this was not a controlled experiment, the study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools and the results must be interpreted with caution.” Rudner used a select and unrepresentative sample, culling all of his participants from families who had purchased curricular and assessment materials from Bob Jones University.  Because Bob Jones University is an evangelical Christian university (a university which gained a national reputation in the 1980s for its policy of forbidding interracial dating), the sample of participating families in Rudner’s study is highly skewed toward Christian home schoolers.  Extrapolations from this data to the entire population of home schoolers are consequently highly unreliable.  Moreover, all the participants in Rudner’s study had volunteered their participation.  According to Rudner, more than 39,000 contracted to take the Iowa Basic Skills Test through Bob Jones, but only 20,760 agreed to participate in his study.  This further biases Rudner’s sample, for parents who doubt the capacity of their child to do well on the test are precisely the parents we might expect not to volunteer their participation.  A careful social scientific comparison of test score data would also try to take account of the problem that public school students take the Iowa Basic Skills Test in a controlled environment; many in Rudner’s study tested their own children.

Rudner himself has been frustrated by the misrepresentation of his work. In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, which published a pioneering week-long investigative series of articles on home schooling in 2004, Rudner claimed that his only conclusion was that if a home schooling parent “is willing to put the time and energy and effort into it – and you have to be a rare person who is willing to do this – then in all likelihood you’re going to have enormous success.”  Rudner also said, “I made the case in the paper that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in the public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well.”

In other words, the Rudner study doesn’t say what HSLDA says it says, and Rudner himself is frustrated about how HSLDA is misusing and misinterpreting his study. In other words, HSLDA’s supposed “proof” that public school stifles a child’s “inborn desire to learn” while homeschooling does not is proof of no such thing.

Back to HSLDA’s response to the Washington Post article:

When he hit community college, Josh attended remedial classes designed to serve public high school graduates, then zoomed ahead. Now he attends one of the nation’s top 25 universities, earning good grades while working part time and carrying a heavy academic load. Not too bad for a kid who thought he had a bad secondary education!

If Josh had attended public schools, he would have statistically had a 1-in-5 chance of growing into an illiterate adult. The National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that 21.7% of adults in Josh’s native Buckingham County are illiterate. This is the wreckage of thousands of young people whose desire to learn has been crushed in the public schools.

I wonder if any of the other kids in Josh’s remedial classes went on to attend one of the nation’s top 25 universities. I doubt it.

Maybe Josh didn’t learn that South Africa was a country while he was being homeschooled. But he arrived at the gates of young adulthood with his inborn desire to learn fully intact, and that has served him very well indeed. The Virginia religious exemption statute deserves its place of respect.

The HSLDA response is, in essence, “your bad homeschool experience is nothing to complain about, because you could have a fate worse than receiving an incompetent homeschool education while begging to learn—you could go to public school!” Is HSLDA completely incapable of saying “we’re sorry your situation was so bad, we feel that it is a terrible thing for any child to slip through the cracks”? Are they incapable of hearing “that hurt me” and responding with “we’re sorry”?

All I have to say is this: Where is your sense of compassion, HSLDA?