Should homeschooling be regulated?

BlogHer Original Post

Earlier this week, Dr. Steven Parker asked a provocative question on the WebMD blog Healthy Children: Should homeschooling be illegal? Although the article title asks if homeschooling should be illegal, the real question he raises is if homeschooling should be regulated.

In his post, he delves into "this fascinating dispute," including a glance at the recent California Court of Appeals ruling on the legality of homeschooling in the state. He also draws on his own experience with parents who homeschool their children, as well as on cultural ideals regarding citizenship and knowledge. He writes,

On one hand, if parents are themselves talented and choose to homeschool for the "right" reasons (e.g., to instill a love of learning, to share the family experience, to promote emotional closeness. because they feel they can do a better job of it), I've seen homeschooling succeed magnificently.

On the other hand, if it's done for the "wrong" (at least in my biased opinion) reasons (e.g., because of paranoia about exposure to the real world, to limit the child's knowledge to a few narrow precepts, to avoid outside social interactions), then I've seen homeschooling stunt the socioemotional, academic, and intellectual growth of children who, in my opinion, desperately could have used a "parentectomy" during the day to allow them to transcend their parents' narrow views and ambitions.

After mulling over the issue, Parker concludes,

Tight regulations on home schooling - yes. Courses on how to teach for homeschooling parents - better still. An outright ban of homeschooling - not justified.

Denise Tanton at Flamingo House Happenings takes issue with Parker's anecdotal use of two very different families' homeschooling experiences and philosophies:

Really disappointed in Dr Parker. Could he be any more judgemental and condescending about his Christian home school patients?

Scott at All in the Fam is disappointed that Parker didn't consider the track record of many public schools. If, as is the case in many school districts, schools are failing our K-12 students (24% high school graduation rate in Detroit, anyone?), why should homeschooling parents be held to a higher standard?

Scott has a good point. But looking at it another way, should we let homeschoolers adopt a similarly low bar for achievement? Homeschoolers opt out of public schooling because they feel the public schools aren't doing a sufficiently good job of educating children. In that case, why should they be allowing themselves to adhere to the same standards as public schools? If anything, it makes sense that homeschoolers would organize into regional associations, with affiliations based on philosophical affinities, that themselves set standards for homeschooling. In the business world, industries frequently try to regulate themselves voluntarily in order to stave off state or federal regulation of their business. Is it time for homeschoolers to do the same?

Don't tell me that homeschooling isn't an industry. Whether or not individual parents actually purchase curriculum for their children from homeschool publishers or buy memberships to online homeschooling forums and other sites, or whether they take an even more DIY attitude to their children's education, homeschooling is a huge business in the United States. Dr. Parker's article mentions 1.1 million children are schooled at home each year. That's a lot of students.

Of course, the very philosophy behind some approaches to homeschooling would make parents hesitant to adopt regulations, even if voluntarily. If parents believe the state can't be trusted to educate their children, why would they trust other institutions (beyond maybe their church, if they're religiously-informed homeschoolers) to provide guidelines for schooling? Perhaps religious bodies might provide guidelines for homeschooling parents to ensure that their youngest parishioners are receiving the educations they need to function as 21st-century citizens. Any such steps would be in the interest of these religious bodies, for they could ensure that future members of their church/mosque/temple/meeting could be social leaders.

Sometimes this might mean that religious bodies recommend parents take courses of action that would not at first blush seem in line with a church's best interests or political stance. For example, in the U.S. I have met a surprising number of young women who are white, very conservative Christian Republications and who are not particularly enthusiastic about progressive philosophies on multicultural education, but who are learning Arabic. Why? Because they want to serve as U.S. envoys to Middle Eastern countries--where they would be positioned as well to proselytize. Christian homeschooling regulatory organizations might therefore recommend that parents expose their children to certain high-priority foreign languages.

Dana Hanley at Principled Discovery considers questions of regulation and government interference:

Unfortunately, there is at times a conflict between parental interests and governmental interests. But the real question is who we believe is better equipped to protect the interests of children. It disturbs me that in a free society, we so frequently tip the balance in favor of government rather than private citizens who have not done anything to arouse suspicion.

She asks when it comes to homeschooling, where should the burden of proof of an adequate education lie--with the government or with the parent? Her answer, as a homeschooler, is with the parent. I think that local governments and parents should work in tandem to ensure their children are receiving a well-rounded education and adequate exposure to mainstream society's ideas. Does that mean parents need to teach children that these ideas are good ones? No. But students need to be able to interact with others in their society, and understanding these ideas and their foundations is of paramount importance. It's the basis of civil discourse.

Hanley also considers Dr. Parker's example of a Christian family that homeschools their children, it seems, out of anxieties about the social values of the wider world:

How much different would life have been had these children been forced into school? This doctor seems to picture children “rescued” from their isolation and allowed to develop beyond the math needed to balance a check book. I envision twelve years of conflict between parental values and the demands of teachers. I imagine children apathetic about their studies and encouraged in that by their parents. I see a lot of teasing…a lot of social isolation. Not by choice, but rather by bullying. I see a somewhat extreme world view reinforced by negative experience.

I like that Hanley here takes a typical criticism of homeschooling--that it is socially isolating--and points out that kids feel socially isolated in school all the time. That was my experience for, oh, grades 5 through 10--basically all of puberty. (But that doesn't mean I would have benefited from homeschooling. Many young people, however, do flourish in alternative environments to the public school classroom.)

Over at Home Education Magazine, Valerie Bonham Moon brings up another point: that children's education isn't sealed off into a special section of a day; children learn all the time, during a variety of activities. If we're going to regulate homeschooling, she asks, then what counts as homeschooling? She writes,

What is reasonable is that all children whose education has been delegated to people paid at public expense be taught by credentialed teachers. People who are paid with public funds, who teach other people’s children, and who do so as a public service should be competent. The parents of the children pay to have this done (as do all of us).

The idea, though, that no child should “be taught” by anyone without a credential is un-doable. Taught what? Taught when? Does this rule out mom reading Hop on Pop to a child while pointing out how the words are pronounced? How about Aunt Susan teaching little Madison to knit and telling her how to increase and decrease stitches. Or maybe Uncle Rick explaining to Jordan that when the acidic vinegar saturates the alkaline baking soda that the chemical reaction causes the fizz? Maybe Grandpa Dave drove Angel and Kelly out to a national monument and described the event the monument commemorates. So far the grownups have “taught” the children something about reading, counting, science and history.

What are your thoughts? Should homeschooling be regulated? If so, how?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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