Record: Ama Mazama and Garvey Lundy, “African American Homeschooling and the Quest for a Quality Education” in Education and Urban Society 20, no. 10 (2013): 1-22. [Abstract here]
Summary: Mazama, a professor of African American studies at Temple University, and Lundy, a professor of social sciences at Montgomery County Community College, here present results from the largest survey yet attempted of African American homeschooling families, looking specifically at what motivates these families to choose homeschooling.
Mazama and Lundy interviewed a total of 74 homeschooling parents from seven cities (Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, Columbia and Florence, SC, and Bridgeport, DE), using a snowball sampling method and not a little active recruiting. Once found, Mazama and Lundy interviewed each parent for 1.5 to 2 hours, asking a series of open-ended questions and then coding the responses they got for commonalities. After this work was done the authors had three follow-up focus group meetings with 5 or 6 mothers from the Philadelphia area to discuss and hone their findings.
Demographically, Mazama and Lundy’s sample was much better educated and wealthier than national averages for African Americans. More than 80% of the mothers and over 60% of the fathers of these families had earned at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to a national average of 19.4%). 61% of these families make at least $50 thousand a year, with a full 25% making over $100 thousand. At the same time, a significant portion of the sample (15.6%) lives under the poverty line and has only a high school education (17.4%). Fully 91% of these families are two-parent homes, and most have multiple children (average is 3.2).
Why are these Black families choosing homeschooling? If asked in survey fashion the quantitative answers look very similar to what you find with white families who homeschool, with the exception that a substantial percentage of African Americans cite racism in the schools as a motivator. But when you dig deeper than a quantitative question can, you find a more complicated picture.
Mazama and Lundy’s interviews uncovered a complex motivation they term “educational protectionism,” which has both a curricular and a pedagogical component. Curricularly, African American homeschooling parents who ascribe to educational protectionism think that public schools have failed their children three ways. First, school’s adult-driven curriculum is boring. Second, this curriculum isn’t very intellectually challenging. Third, it’s narrow and rigid, lacking important subjects like foreign language, life skills, and, most notably, a robust engagement with African and African American history and culture. Parents find the add-ethnics-and-stir approach to Black history patronizing and inadequate. One parent memorably summarized the typical school approach:
You learn that there was this place in Africa called Timbuktu. Now there were slaves, and the slaves were treated poorly, and then came Abraham Lincoln, and then came Martin Luther King. And then there was the other guy called Malcolm X, and then, you know, now there’s Barak Obama. And that’s black history. (p. 13)
Pedagogically, Black parents are concerned most with the “lack of commitment to Black students’ academic development on the part of white teachers.” Black parents worry about the diminished expectations and tendency to over-interpret for special needs among white teachers (both trends well documented in the scholarly literature). They also do not approve of the obsessive emphasis on test scores and the rote, teacher-centered instruction such an emphasis encourages. Finally, parents felt that schools waste a lot of time doing mindless things like standing in line for the bathroom, going to and from various activities, and following the clock rather than student interest. All of these things together destroy a child’s desire to learn and develop self-efficacy, and these parents tend to think that this is deliberate. The entire purpose of school is, in the words of one parent, “creating a labor force for the corporations.” (p. 15)
All of these concerns combined explain why these African American families have turned to homeschooling. With homeschooling children are able to follow their own interests, freed from prescribed tests and times. They can emphasize black history as much as they want. They can produce “free and independent thinkers.” (p. 17)
This article joins with other articles by Mazama and Lundy, as well as other recent work by Fields-Smith and Kisura and Fields-Smith and Williams, which collectively have been providing us with a much more clear and nuanced look at African American homeschoolers. The picture that is emerging, and you see it clearly here, is that homeschooling is being used by professional, middle to upper-middle class families as a way to keep their children free of the stereotypes that continue to negatively impact a large portion of black children in the nation’s public schools. The two-parent family is an endangered species in many black neighborhoods, but not in this sample. Homeschooling thus could be seen as a tool of self-preservation for African American families besieged both by the larger majority culture’s public schools that are toxic to their children’s self esteem and by the breakdown of the family within many black communities. Mazama and Lundy’s data cannot tell us whether homeschooling among African Americans is growing or declining (though they state without evidence that it is growing), but their geographically diverse sample is the best yet compiled upon which to base the compelling generalizations they make about both demographics and motivation.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College