In my last post I reviewed the first two entries in this anthology. Today I will review chapters 3 and 4.
3. An excerpt from a longer piece by Michael H. Romanoswski originally published under the title “Revisiting the Common Myths about Homeschooling” in The Clearing House summarizes literature that exonerates homeschoolers from the charge of being antisocial. For whatever reason the editors of this anthology did not include Romanowski’s citations. In the anthologized section he uses two sources to defend homeschoolers against the charge that they are socially disengaged.
First Romanowski cites Brian Ray’s 2003 report Homeschooling Grows Up, which argued based on a survey of over 7,000 adults who had been homeschooled that homeschoolers are more involved in community and civic organizations and more politically engaged than the general population. Romanowski fails to mention, however, that this was a voluntary survey and the results do not control for such variables as social class, race, parent educational attainment, or in fact any variable at all. Thus the findings of Ray’s study are at best anecdotal. As with many of the studies conducted under the auspices of Ray’s National Home Education Research Institute, this study lacks the sort of controls that would allow it to qualify as legitimate social science. Not unlike the famous Rudner study of 1999 that found homeschoolers to outperform their public school peers on the Iowa Basic Skills Test (but did so using only a sample of students connected to Bob Jones University who volunteered for the project, many of whom took the test at home with their parents, and that did not control for key variables like family income and parent educational attainment), Ray’s study compiles the responses of adults who were in one way or another associated with the Home School Legal Defense Association (the parent organization that underwrites Ray’s institute). His study doesn’t tell us what adults who were homeschoolers are up to. It tells us what adults who, because of their affiliation with HSLDA or similar connections received word of his survey and decided to respond, are up to. Ray then compares the results of this selective sample with national norms without controling for any variables. Thus middle class white computer-savvy homeschoolers are compared to national averages including populations such as the urban and rural poor. It is not surprising that homeschoolers come out looking good.
The second source on which Romanowski draws for his claim that homeschooling makes good citizens is an unpublished paper presented by Gary Knowles in 1991 at a conference in New Zealand. Knowles is well known among homeschool researchers for an excellent article he co-wrote with Stacey Marlow and James Muchmore in 1992 titled “From Pedagogy to Ideology: Origins and Phases of Home Education in the United States, 1970-1990” and published in the American Journal of Education. As I have not seen the unpublished conference paper I cannot comment on Knowles’ methodology. Romanowski uses Knowles to argue that a large percentage (nearly two thirds of Knowles’ sample) of homeschooled children go on to become self-employed, evidence that homeschooling “develops an individual’s self-reliance and independence.”
In short, while Romanowski’s piece would not satisfy any rigorous social science researcher, one can at least say that for the individuals surveyed by his sources homeschooling did not impair their civic engagement. Homeschooling critics will not likely be satisfied with this argument, however, for the complaint is not that homeschoolers don’t vote or engage in politics. The complaint is that they are not exposed to diversity and hence tend toward political narrowness–they tend to parrot the views of their parents, even if they are very engaged in the political process. This leads us to the next chapter.
4. One of homeschooling’s most effective and outspoken critics is Rob Reich. His 2002 article “The Civic Perils of Homeschooling” published in Educational Leadership argued that homeschooling reflects a consumerist mentality toward education that evades the historic commitment of public education to the common good. He expanded this critique in his 2002 book Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Educationwhich took on not only homeschooling but other privatization trends and multiculturalism, arguing that education should not attempt to indoctrinate children into the group think of any religious, ethnic, or class bloc but should aim to foster individual autonomy.
The article in this anthology was originally published in another anthology (Homeschooling in Full View: A Reader2005). Again, the editor here has eliminated the references. Reich’s original title was “Why Homeschooling should be Regulated.” It should be regulated, argues Reich, for both theoretical and evidentiary reasons.
The theoretical argument goes like this. Is there ever any cause for government to infringe on the right of parents to have total control over the education of their children? Reich thinks there are two legitimate reasons government may do so. First is his “citizenship argument,” which holds that government has a right to ensure that all children learn what is necessary for productive participation in political and economic life. If parents are not providing such things as “basic literacy and numeracy,” the “ground rules” of citizenship, the rudiments of American history, and so forth, then government must intervene.
Second is his more controversial “freedom argument” which holds that one of the chief aims of liberal democracy is to safeguard the sanctity of individual beliefs. In the United States everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe apart from any forced coercion, and Reich wants this right to extend to children as well. Reich wants to ensure “that children acquire the capacity to lead the lives they wish, to believe what they want to, and to be free, when they become adults, from the domination of other people and institutions (from their own parents as well as from the state).” Homeschooling’s ability to sequester children from all encounters with difference has the potential to create “ethically servile” people who are “unable to imagine other ways of living” than those enforced on them by parents.
Reich also offers an evidence-based reason for regulating homeschooling. We need to regulate homeschooling, says Reich, becuase unregulated homeschooling leaves us in the dark as to its effectiveness. Maybe homeschooling is doing a wonderful job, maybe not. We just don’t know, for many homeschoolers are not held accountable. The few studies that have been done on homeschooler achievement (like the Rudner study, which Reich discusses in some detail) have been based on very biased sample data. Reich wants some objective, reliable data on what homeschoolers can do, and the only way to get it is to compel all homeschoolers to be regulated somehow.
But how? Reich ends by proposing three regulations on homeschooling that he believes will provide the nation with the evidence it needs to hold homeschoolers accountable and will safeguard both the individual rights of homeschooled children and their preparation for civic life. First, all parents who homeschool must register with a public official: “The state needs to be able to distinguish between truants and home-schooled students.” Second, parents must demonstrate that their curriculum meets certain minimal standards, including an exposure to ideas other than those in which the parents believe. Third, homeschooled children must be tested “periodically on some kind of basic skills exam.” Should a child repeatedly fail to make progress, the child’s homeschooling privileges can be revoked, though Reich concludes by speculating that this would not likely happen in very many cases. But it would provide the nation with objective knowledge about homeschooling and would protect children from the small minority of homeschooling parents who are not doing a good job.
I have three points to make about Reich’s argument. First, all sides of any policy debate would do well to learn from Reich’s methodology. His arguments here as elsewhere are always measured and charitable. He listens to his opponents and takes their comments seriously. His more recent writings on homeschooling have softened a bit compared to those of the early 2000s, largely because he has spent a good bit of time talking with homeschoolers and has grown more respectful of their efforts.
Second, as a researcher on homeschooling I tend to agree with Reich that some sort of minimalist accountability platform would be helpful. The question I am asked most often is “how many homeschoolers are there in the United States,” and I always have to answer that with a long-winded discourse that boils down to, “nobody knows.” It would be nice to know and to have basic demographic and achievement data. Furthermore, if, as I suspect, homeschoolers would tend to perform well on whatever normed test they were required by law to take, it would only add to homeschooling’s prestige.
Having said that, Reich’s argument in my opinion fails in one crucial respect. The notion of “autonomy” has a long history going back at least to Kant, and it has been criticized heavily in recent decades for its false view of human nature. As has been pointed out thousands of times by communitarians, feminists, and many others, autonomy falsely separates the individual from the context within which that individual exists. Who can separate the self from the myriad social influences that have made us who we are and continue to shape us? We are contextual beings.
Reich seems to fear homeschooling for its ability to turn the family into a sort of totalizing, concentration-camp type of existence for kids. But could not this critique be extended to any and every social setting? Reich’s own preference for autonomy, for example. Where did he get that idea? From within himself? Or was he brainwashed into it by virtue of being born into the liberal democracy and social context that has made up his life? Is there much difference between a homeschooling parent who wants to ensure that her kids believe what she does about Genesis and a public school system that wants to be sure its charges believe what it does about natural selection? We’re all in the indoctrination business, whether it be the principles of fundamentalist Protestantism, Enlightenment liberalism, or what-have-you.
In closing one might also note that many homeschoolers, especially unschoolers, have every bit as high a view of childhood autonomy as does Reich, and this is precisely why they are opposed to government regulations. Government curricular or testing mandates impose external requirements on children, forcing them to channel their education in certain directions. For an unschooler, if a child wishes to spend an entire year learning to decipher Mayan inscriptions or developing a bee colony and selling beeswax candles or whatever, he or she can do so. But if the government imposes content requirements and mandates tests, this self-directed learning is shunted. Reich’s appeal to autonomy turns out to be a pretty good argument against regulation.