This post reviews Gregory and Martine Millman, Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey(New York: Penguin, 2008).
Gregory Millman, economics journalist and author of several books on monetary policy, and his wife Martine Millman here produce a beautiful book that is part memoir, part how-to guide, and part research review on select homeschooling topics. For this review I will stress the research component of the book.
The Millmans began homeschooling their six children after frustrating experiences with public and Catholic schools in the struggling town of Plainfield, New Jersey. They began homeschooling in 1993 and have now sent three of their children off to highly selective universities. Given their writing skills, their many years of experience, and their atypical (for homeschoolers) perspective as moderate Roman Catholics, the memoir sections of the book are a delight to read and full of fascinating details and insights into all sorts of things. The Millmans tend toward a more unstructured approach to learning, which they call “improvisational,” comparing the daily life of the Millman home to jazz music. The text produced here reads much the same way. It is full of interesting digressions, rather like jazz solos. And like the solos, for the Millmans “digression sometimes seems the whole point of it.”
But here I’d like to talk instead about the book’s value for homeschooling research. First, the Millmans (Gregory usually, who seems to have written most of the book) rely more than most advocacy books do on a serious research base to make their negative claims about public education. Peppered throughout the book are quotations by such authorities as Herbert Kliebard, Pat Graham, Diane Ravitch, and Ted Sizer, all of whose historical works on public education are cited to bolster the Millmans’ case that public schools tend to stifle creativity and produce conformity even as they sort students for the workforce by race and class, censor what they learn to please various special interests, and construct their curriculum more as a compromise between various adult factions than out of concern for the needs of children.
Secondly, the Millmans rely on homeschooling research to make homeschooling look good. Unfortunately, despite their profession of skepticism about media, government institutions, and other forms of human organization and communication, they never once question the sources they are relying on to report homeschooling success. In chapter after chapter they rely on the infamous Rudner study [for a critique click here] to prove that homeschoolers flourish academically. Another topic they discuss in many chapters is the socialization question, and here they cite again and again Richard G. Medlin’s “Home Schooling and the Question of Socialization,” published in 2000 in a special issue of the Peabody Journal of Education devoted to homeschooling. This article was a review of the literature on the socialization question as of 2000. In the review, Medlin was clear that most of the literature on homeschooling and socialization was of limited value given the the data on which it was based–samples were self-selecting and non-representative. Uncontrolled comparisons between these samples and schooled students are highly suspect. Despite his own caveats, Medlin went on to make some assertions that have been repeated over and over in homeschooling circles. Most egregiously, his article is often cited as proving that homeschoolers are better socialized than public schooled children. Yet if one reads his article carefully he makes clear that the idea of comparing the socialization of the two populations is fraught with theoretical difficulties. The best part of the article describes the vast social networks most homeschoolers experience, noting that while the level of racial and ideological diversity within these groups might not be profound, homeschooled children interact much more than schooled children with people of different ages. Medlin, a psychology professor at Stetson University, has written several more recent articles about homeschooling and socialization, most of them for Brian Ray’s Home School Researcher, that continue to describe the complex world of associations, clubs, and organizations to which many homeschoolers belong. I say all of this only to point out that I wish the Millmans had approached the homeschooling literature with the same critical standard they apply to the other topics they cover.
Finally, and most importantly, the Millmans offer here some original research on two topics: New Jersey homeschooling history and attitudes of college admissions officers toward homeschooled applicants. I’ll take each in turn.
Historians and organization theorists will be very interested in the Millmans’ chapter on Homeschool Groups. It begins by connecting homeschooling to the “emergence” scholarship of John H. Holland, explaining that homeschooling is an unplanned and uncontrolled system of networks built “from the bottom up by thousands upon thousands of individuals making free choices about education” who nevertheless coalesce into “educational communtities that are as stable and distinctive” as the city neighborhoods studied by Jane Jacobs or the leaderless ant colonies studied by Deborah Gordon. The Millmans also draw on the “social capital” framework of Robert Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone. They explain how homeschool groups provide rich social bonds of connectivity and reciprocity for their members.
After laying out this context, the Millmans then narrate the history of some of New Jersey’s most important homeschooling groups. Details I’ve read nowhere else are provided for Nancy Plent’s founding of the Unschoolers Network in coordination with John Holt in the late 1970s, one of the most important organizations of its kind up until the early 2000s, when it sort of fizzled (its website hasn’t been updated since 2004). The Millmans also describe the much larger and tightly organized Friendship Learning Center, an exclusively Protestant organization. Their discussion here is nuanced and tries to avoid pejorative comments, but those familiar with the bad blood that often exists between conservative Protestant homeschoolers and more liberal homeschoolers can read between the lines. The point the Millmans conclude with, though, is that despite ideological differences, when threats to homeschooler freedoms appear, as they did in 2004 in the New Jersey State Legislature, homeschoolers quickly put aside differences and rally to the cause with shows of such overwhelming force that regulators quickly back down.
A second and even more interesting topic this book addresses with some original research is college admissions. So far three of the Millmans’ children have gone off to various colleges–to Clark University, Brown, and St. Johns respectively. On campus visits to these and many other schools, the Millman parents carefully and formally interviewed various admissions staff about college policies and attitudes toward homeschooled applicants. Several scholarly articles have been written on this topic (I reviewed one here), but they are all based on short responses to survey forms. The Millmans here provide a much more subtle qualitative account, reporting not only formal policy but such things as body language and vocal inflections that paint a slightly more pessimistic picture of college admissions than that usually reported in survey-based scholarship. While they found more prejudice and stereotypical attitudes than they would wish, they conclude that homeschoolers can be very successful in the college application process if they understand what admissions officers are looking for (one of the things being a clear signal that the applicant is not a close-minded religious bigot, one of the stereotypes they found many admission officers continue to hold about homeschoolers). They also found that highly selective private colleges were typically more open to homeschoolers and their policies more flexible than larger public universities, many of which have elaborate and inflexible application requirements, especially if one is seeking academic scholarships. As with many of their other chapters, the research is mixed in with the memoir and how-to elements of the book, but anyone doing research on college admissions and homeschooling shouldn’t pass up the revealing data this chapter contains.