The looming fight over homeschool regulation

When I started homeschooling in the early 1990’s, someone handed me a pamphlet titled Homeschooling Freedoms at Risk. It focused on the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), whose practices have included going into states and controlling outcomes of legislation and legal cases, scaring homeschoolers into thinking the state might take their kids away, claiming to represent all homeschoolers, and embracing a political agenda that reaches far beyond homeschooling.

Twenty five years later, HSLDA is still at it, and the backlash is here. This week Slate published an article titled The Frightening Power of the Home-Schooling Lobby. They’re talking about HSLDA.

Despite the fact that HSLDA represents only a small minority of America’s homeschoolers (just 15%), they are politically powerful, and groups like the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) are taking them on. As one of the 85 percent of homeschoolers who hasn’t joined HSLDA (and never will), I’ve been watching this conflict play out for a few years now.

CRHE was formed by grown homeschoolers (many from religious families) who take issue with the way they were brought up and educated. They believe that tighter regulation is necessary to prevent parents from using homeschooling as a front for child abuse, or educationally neglecting their children.

When I read the Slate article I had many reactions. First of all, I couldn’t believe how biased it was. They hit you over the head again and again with one slant—homeschooling is under-regulated (the article actually uses the word “shockingly”). Many of the photos depict sad, lonely, frightened, and perhaps even abused children. While every article I encounter about the positive aspects of homeschooling makes a point to portray the “other side” by interviewing experts who take issue with the merits of homeschooling, this interviewer made no effort to seek out anyone with substantive or thoughtful comments or information about the potential costs, risk/benefit analysis, or effectiveness of increased regulation of homeschooling. Instead, we hear from HSLDA, which is depicted as crazy, fanatical, and dangerous. While I’m not a fan of HSLDA, the portrayal in the article is a little over the top. “I’ve never seen a lobby more powerful and scary,” said one legislative aide. I have—it’s called the gun lobby. Nevertheless, homeschooling activists like Raymond Moore and Larry and Susan Kaseman have identified HSLDA as dangerous to homeschooling freedoms.

The Slate article starts with a horror story about an abused child that was already known to social services, but the idea that homeschooling is used as a front to abuse children is one of the primary reasons given for regulating it more strenuously. No evidence about how many people actually do use homeschooling to hide child abuse is offered, except for the mention of a 2014 study by a Wisconsin pediatrician who found that in an examination of 38 cases of severe child abuse, almost half of the kids were not enrolled in school. There is no link to the study, no information about its methods, how it was funded, or any other details that would allow us to evaluate its value.

The child abuse issue is a difficult and emotional one, but there’s no evidence to indicate that people who choose to homeschool are more likely to abuse their children, and encouraging the idea that homeschooling and child abuse are connected risks stigmatizing homeschoolers, who already face criticism for their choice from many sources. As I said in a former article I wrote on this subject, “Keeping homeschooling and child abuse separate does not deny that child abuse is a problem, it only denies that it’s not a problem particular to homeschooling. If child abuse is more prevalent in particular cultural pockets, then addressing the cultural issues that lead to it within those communities is appropriate, and absolutely necessary to solve the problem at its root, which increased homeschool regulation will never do.”

Another argument CRHE makes for increased regulation is educational neglect, the idea that even if kids aren’t being abused, they might not be getting a proper education. A former superintendent from Arkansas is quoted in the Slate article as saying that during his tenure he saw people who claimed to be homeschooling but really weren’t, whatever that means. Homeschooling is opting out of the system, and there’s no requirement that homeschoolers replicate a school environment. This superintendent might have been talking about me if he’d spent any time around my house and saw that my kids were mostly hanging out and playing rather than doing structured schoolwork.

The concept of educational neglect, and the threat of regulation to prevent it, presents particular problems for unschoolers, who don’t follow a conventional curriculum and who allow their children to take the lead in their learning. Still, some might say, they ought to be able to achieve minimum standards. Yes and no. Just because a child isn’t reading at age eight, for example, doesn’t mean they won’t be fluent by age ten.

All through the Slate article, the underlying implication is that schools would automatically serve children as well or even better than homeschooling. That illiterate children would automatically become literate in school. That abused children would automatically be identified, embraced, and rescued. That the state would undoubtedly fix whatever problems a homeschooled child might be facing.

Homeschooling doesn’t have a one hundred percent success rate, that’s true, but neither do schools. Every day, there are young adults graduating from our schools who can’t adequately read, write, or do basic math; who’ve lost their ability to think critically; who don’t know anything about civics or history or science. This is inevitably seen as the failure of the student (or parents who didn’t support the student enough), not the school, when the truth of the matter is that schools regularly fail children. Child abuse happens in schools, too, at the hands of bullies, and sometimes even by teachers and administrators.

I still believe that to address child abuse, improving social services agencies and aiming to change the particular culture that gave rise to the problems the adult homeschoolers of CRHE experienced would be a better approach than increased homeschooling regulation.  Or how about working to make corporal punishment illegal, which according to a recent NBC report, is technically legal in all 50 states and legal in schools in 19.  Instead, CRHE has chosen to take HSLDA on in the legal and political arena, and in the process they expect the rest of us to accept increased regulation, because why would anyone who cares about children disagree with it?

One reason is that so far, I’ve seen no evidence that increased regulation would be an effective solution. In fact, when one considers the much-publicized failures of social services agencies to protect children, and the failure of public schools to adequately educate so many students, there’s every reason to believe that it wouldn’t. What it would most certainly do is cost money and resources, and potentially make it more difficult for families to choose their own homeschooling methods.

Another reason might be that many school officials are not sympathetic to homeschooling. Most homeschoolers who’ve had to report to a school district have experienced at least one official who’d love to be able to make demands about how they homeschool, visit their homes to pass judgment on the homeschooling they’re already biased against, or withdraw their right to homeschool at all. The Slate article uses the word “mainstream” to describe homeschooling, but I hardly think that under three percent is mainstream. Can school officials who don’t accept homeschooling as a legitimate educational option fairly evaluate whether a family should or should not be able to homeschool?

In my state I reported to the school district annually, submitting an education plan and evaluation for my children. I didn’t find it onerous, but if I’d been forced to submit to standardized testing, or be initially evaluated by school officials or social workers, all under the threat that if my kids didn’t perform adequately the school would intervene, I might have. That kind of increased regulation could have substantially changed the way I homeschooled, which might be just what school officials (and CRHE) want.

If homeschooling were culturally accepted as just another way to educate kids, we might be able to start a fruitful discussion about what the appropriate role of the state should be in the process. Until then, I’m afraid we’re going to have to live with the power struggle between CRHE and HSLDA, however it plays out.

As elite as you want to be

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The Boston Magazine article has only been out for a few days, but it’s generating a lot of discussion, which I think is great.

The biggest complaint I’m hearing and reading about in comments addresses the use of the word elite. I understand the criticism. I cringed when I saw it, too, because when we decided to homeschool we certainly didn’t aim to make our living room into a yellow brick road to the Ivy League.

Today Kerry McDonald posted a nice piece on the subject, and yesterday Tracy Ventola discussed it. Both these pieces point out that many of the families interviewed in the article are unschoolers, including mine.

While I didn’t set out to get my kid into Harvard, I’m glad she’s there, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it was the most affordable choice of all her acceptances. Mainly, though, I’m happy Claire is at Harvard because it’s where she wants to be.

Claire spent her childhood reading, learning, engaging with the world, and pursuing her interests in the ways she chose to pursue them. That didn’t stop when she applied to college. My husband and I did our part for her application, which included working on the transcript, creating the school profile, writing the counselor recommendation, and filling out the FAFSA.

The rest was her baby, and this is what I want to stress. As much as I’d like to take credit, I didn’t get my daughter into Harvard. She got herself into Harvard.

Watching the process wasn’t a whole lot different than watching her become an accomplished jazz singer or land a position as a research assistant at a hospital, observing her younger sister nail an internship with a professional theater company, or seeing my son get himself volunteer jobs at the local science museum and Audubon sanctuary.

These are examples of a few of my kids’ chosen pursuits as teenagers. By that time, I was in the position to kick back and enjoy the ride, loving their excitement about learning and marveling at their willingness to put themselves out there.

The ride before that was pretty fun, too. Actually, the active engagement with the world my teenagers pursued was a natural extension of what they’d been doing all their lives. I can sum it up in a word: Play. That’s what they did most every day, and it’s pretty much what they still do.

Pattern blocks, legos, dolls, sand, mud, unicycles, basketballs, Magic cards, juggling clubs, dress up, and my daughters’ beloved Calico Critters were some of the most valued educational tools we possessed. There were also the fruits of their imaginations, the made-up worlds they spent hours in, the drawings and songs and plays they created, the time to be alone to daydream, to think, to be. In the sense that it involves spontaneity and agile minds, talk was play, too, and we all participated in that, discussing books we read, places we went, things we saw and heard, issues we wondered about.

Community was no small part of our unschooling. When kids wanted to do theater, a mom stepped up and created magical yearly productions. The first creative writing group I led happened because that same theater mom told me her son wanted to write, and she thought I might be the person to help out. Math sessions, literature groups, science clubs, camping trips, weekly square dances, park days and beach days and field trips galore–these all happened and more, all based on the interests, desires, and will of the people who organized them.

While I chose homeschooling because I thought it would be best for my kids, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I wanted it, too. The lifestyle, which I’ve written about in the past and called slow homeschooling, was my choice for my life.

So if playing their way through childhood, loving learning, appreciating people and the world around them, and pursuing what they care about makes my kids elite, so be it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

‘Normal’ is as normal does

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Today was an emotional day. We moved my third child, Claire, into her dorm at Harvard, with lots of excitement, hugs, and (for me) bittersweet moments. Then there was the matter of the current issue of Boston Magazine, which hit newsstands today.

Claire is on the cover. She wasn’t interviewed for the lengthy article by Bridget Samburg (I was), but the editors apparently thought her face coupled with the line Homeschool got me into Harvard was just right. That, and a subhead with the line, Is this the new model for creating elite kids?

Well, anything to sell magazines, I get that. I was taken aback by the question, though. Am I proud of Claire for getting into Harvard? Quite proud, but that was never the goal of our homeschooling, and I’m just as proud of my other children, none of whom got into (or applied) to Harvard (see my thoughts on whether kids have to go to college here and some thoughts on homeschooling and Harvard here).

My eldest, Justine, spends her days as a behavior specialist, working to improve the lives of mentally challenged adults, people who are segregated from mainstream society but are no different than the rest of us in their need for love and human contact. Eric, my second child, quit college and is living his dream as a folk musician, not an easy path as any artist knows. Abigail, my youngest, is still in the process of figuring out whether or where she wants to go to college, but in the meantime, she has plenty to keep her busy, including the theater company she started.

Like all parents, I’m proud of my kids for their accomplishments, but the greatest portion of my pride doesn’t come from there. Its wellspring is much deeper, having to do with who my kids are as people, their values, their kindness, their curiosity, and their courage. Those are the things we wanted to nurture when we started homeschooling, the things any parent wants when they make choices about how to raise and educate their children.

But are they normal? Samburg asks that question in the article: “But are the kids happy and normal, or introverted and antisocial?” When she interviews the president of the Boston Teachers Union, he speaks of a “social cost” to homeschooling. Maybe he’s talking about the hit public schools take as a result of homeschooling, but more likely he’s focusing on the oh-so-common criticism of homeschooling centered around socialization.

I’ve been homeschooling for a very long time (the article even calls me a “pioneer”), but this concern about socialization has never changed. People worry that homeschoolers are going to be unsocialized weirdos, but what does that even mean? Why are we so obsessed with this idea of “normal,” anyway?

Sometimes, I think our insistence on “normal” amounts to nothing more than intolerance. I’ve known so many homeschooled kids who left school because in that environment they were put down and sometimes bullied, often because they were different. I have seen kids recover, blossom, and thrive when taken out of school. Are they socially awkward? Sometimes, but aren’t we all. Are they weird? Yeah, that too, sometimes.

Claire was considered weird for a good part of her adolescence because she loves jazz. She listened obsessively to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and other great jazz musicians. She didn’t listen to pop music and knew very little about it. Eric as a teenager was in love with animals, especially mustelids. He hung out with middle-aged folks and senior citizens on the weekends, birding. These were and are by no means their only interests, but you get the picture. By society’s standards of what a normal teenager is, they were weird, and people sometimes said so. Who cares? They were and are happy, caring, contributing citizens of the world, and isn’t that what parents want, anyway?

Not conforming to mainstream stereotypes is one way to be weird, but what about social awkwardness? Do homeschoolers stutter, twitch, talk too loud or too soft, wear unusual clothing? Can homeschoolers follow rules, behave at the dinner table, have conversations with other people? These are the kinds of questions that homeschoolers face all the time. It’s pretty tiresome, actually.

I get the concern, but let’s get over it. Let’s stop worrying about whether people are “normal” and start practicing tolerance of other people’s choices and uniqueness. After all, to quote the mom in one of my favorite internet memes when her daughter asks her what normal is: “It’s just a setting on the dryer, honey.”

Leave school, learn more

This week I read an NPR piece about 17-year-old Nick Bain’s experiment in self-directed learning. Once he realized that learning only constituted a few hours of his entire school day, he decided to quit for the last trimester of his junior year.

While the results of his personal study don’t prove anything, his anecdotal experience was highly meaningful for him and is fascinating to read about.

I’ve known several teenagers who’ve left school to homeschool, but that’s not how Bain defined what he did. He took no time for what’s known as deschooling, a period for resting, regrouping, and self-exploration. His intention was to cover the same academic ground he would have covered in school. In fact, he went beyond that, taking a total of seven courses (instead of four) including calculus, AP physics, and advanced French.

Even with that heavy load of coursework, he was able to find time for self-designed study, working with local scientists on a climate change project and building a model aircraft.

At first, Bain undertook a school-like schedule, approaching his subjects in designated blocks of time. Eventually, he figured out that devoting long periods of time to one thing was more conducive to learning than chopping up his day for the sake of covering several subjects.

Although Bain spent enough time outside of school to figure out that its design isn’t the most learner-friendly, for a period of time he felt more stress, not less. As he wrote in his journal, “Thought flexibility would make things less of a strain, but actually causes more of a strain. Constantly thinking: Is what I’m doing right now the best possible use of my time, and that seems to make me highly inefficient, actually…Realizing that I don’t ever feel finished with something, that there is always something I can be doing.”

Eventually he relaxed, felt less anxious, and reclaimed his intrinsic motivation for learning. During his experiment, he was able to cover the academic ground he would have covered in school, as well as pursue topics he cared about that he probably wouldn’t have been able to study in school.

Still, he decided to return. Why? Social reasons, it seems. He refers to the “…huge benefits to learning with people…”, but any homeschooler knows that learning outside of school doesn’t have to be solitary. Bain either didn’t figure that out, or he just wanted to be with his peers all day, which is, in my experience, the number one reason homeschooled teens decide to return to school. It has nothing to do with education. Even Bain, in his short experiment, realized learning has a greater chance of flourishing outside school walls.

Bain also acknowledged the role teachers play as “curators of the best material.” He may be lucky enough to attend a school where this is the case, but for many students, that simply isn’t reality. Teachers aren’t the only potential educational curators, of course. Homeschooling parents have been curating their kids’ educations for years, but it’s also true that homeschoolers, having been spared a lifetime of experts defining their abilities and telling them what to learn and when to learn it, can feel more confident and comfortable about deciding for themselves what’s best for them.

I’m glad that Bain had the vision and courage to pursue his experiment. Perhaps it will spur him to learn more about alternative education, including homeschooling, which was not even mentioned in the NPR piece. Still, it is exactly what Bain was doing for the period he left school, and it was life-changing. He wrote in his journal, “...I have never been so enthralled by learning, ever. I wish only that I could do it for years and years.

Homeschoolers know, of course, that it can be done for years and years–a lifetime, in fact. It’s powerful to realize, though, what a profound effect just a few months out of the system can have.

Back to homeschool

It’s the middle of August, and summer is winding down. September looms, and with it the beginning of the school year. Just what does “back to school” mean for homeschoolers?

There isn’t one answer to that question. All homeschooling families are different. And one of the great benefits of homeschooling is that we’re not bound to academic calendars that rule the lives of families with kids in school.

That’s how I envisioned it, anyway. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. My kids may not be heading to school every morning come September, but what we call our “year” will start. It’s time to gear up for dance classes, orchestra, chorus, and writing group. It’s time to decide whether we’re going to add any of the other amazing offerings available to us – nature classes or math club. Or perhaps this year my daughter will take her first community college class. We’ll see.

I’m not complaining. Even in this lifestyle centered around the “academic” year, we have lots of freedom to choose, room to explore, and flexibility in our lives and our learning. Besides, there doesn’t seem to be a way around it. The groups and activities my kids want to be involved in abide by the school calendar. Summer is vacation time. That’s just one of the rhythms of the world in which we live.

I can’t help but think about that idyllic vision so many homeschoolers start with, though. The one where learning happens all the time, and life simply flows from one season to another without arbitrary cutoffs for what happens when.

When my kids were little, life was more like that. Days were spent at the library, museums, the park, the beach, sledding, or just at home playing – whatever was appropriate and felt right in the moment. Life was rich, filled with happiness, learning, and authenticity. There was no big gear up in August, no trying to figure out just what we’re going to do this year to facilitate rewarding and satisfying lives for everyone.

These days, life is still full, but in a different way. Older kids develop interests and drives that need to be nurtured. We’re still learning 365 days a year, but in order to participate in the social, academic, cultural, and artistic activities my kids choose, we inevitably fall into the conventional “back to school” pattern.

I guess that’s not so bad, especially when all the things we’re looking forward to beginning or resuming in September are fun and exciting. But sometimes homeschoolers get so drawn into mining available resources for opportunities that they forget that lazy summer days provide benefits no class or program can. It’s the unscheduled moments that help our kids learn introspection and how to fill their own time. It’s solitude that allows people to know themselves and recharge their batteries for interaction and participation in the larger world.

In the sometimes frantic “back to school” rush, we homeschoolers have the luxury of taking a deep breath, stepping back, and remembering some of the reasons we chose to homeschool in the first place. As September approaches and you need to decide how to commence your homeschooling year, let that sink in and guide your family’s choices for a productive fall and beyond.

This article first appeared at www.ahem.info