Choose your risks

I admit – I was late to the party. Magazines go into my bag to be read while waiting in line to enter the grocery store. I happened to come across “The Risks of Homeschooling” last week. When I sent my daughter-in-law a link to the article, she mentioned the article had “rocked” the homeschooling community over the suggestion of a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. My grandchildren are second generation military Brats and homeschoolers. As military kids, my son and his wife had experienced the transient lifestyles dictated by their active duty Army fathers’ relocations. To minimize curricular disruptions, both children were home-schooled intermittently. My son is now active duty and his three children are subject to frequent moves. History repeats itself.

First things first. Let’s address editorial issues such as tone-deaf timing and a misspelling in the article’s print illustration (the online version has already corrected “Arithmatic”). The lede belongs to another age: “A rapidly increasing number of American families are opting out of sending their children to school, choosing instead to educate them at home.” Right now, a majority of parents are supervising schooling at home, wishing they had the option of sending their children to school. Among other things, COVID has had an outsized influence on school attendance…

My oldest grandchild and I began school the same year. Neither of us had to. Rachel’s program on Kodiak Island, Alaska was optional. School in Alaska isn’t required until age seven. Each state takes a different approach, but Alaska provides an optional homeschooling program called AK Teach: “Alaska actually has the least legal requirements for homeschooling of any state: you don’t even have to inform them that you are homeschooling! But if you want the support and the money, you have to do their paperwork etc.” Parents submit educational plans to a teacher, employed by the school district, who acts as a mentor and guide. While Rachel was in kindergarten, I was enrolled in “Religion, Education, and Democracy” at Harvard. My final paper was a meta-analysis of homeschooling, in which I also defined compulsory education as ensuring literacy in service to democracy.

Whether in an institution or at home, different types of schooling have advantages and disadvantages. “The Risks of Homeschooling” focuses on the negative possibilities of homeschooling. Elizabeth Bartholet, Harvard Law School professor and director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, emphasizes keeping children safe. She wants to protect children from possibly ignorant, potentially abusive parents, who are oblivious to how they are jeopardizing their children’s future. Her worldview seems fear-oriented, assuming parents are untrustworthy and a danger to children. Her solution is insistence that children attend schools with “mandated reporters” who can notify authorities about problems.

The article made assumptions without clarification or definition: “Homeschooling … not only violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.” What does ‘meaningful education’ look like? Are home educators more abusive parents? How does one “contribut[e] positively to a democratic society”? “The Risks of Homeschooling” perpetuates fallacies. As my daughter-in-law notes, “the sources cited are outdated, scant, and anecdotal. To claim that public school is ALWAYS less abusive than EVERY homeschool is naive. Think of all the bullying, sex, drugs, and shootings going on in public school.”

Clearly some parents are abusive, whether their children attend school or are home-educated. The article mentions Tara Westover’s book Educated, which highlights the horrors she experienced at home. J.D. Vance’s autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, provides a counterpoint perspective. Vance quotes a high school teacher: “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves. (Vance, 127)

Education is a balancing act, getting from the present now to an uncertain then, without knowing what then will look like or require. It includes explicit goals (acquiring literacy and knowledge) and implicit purposes (instilling civic values), which are more nuanced than prescriptive. How do we define literacy and ensure comprehension and critical thinking? How do students demonstrate democratic values? Children attend school to acquire baseline content, attaining the knowledge and vocabulary that contribute to a shared cultural context. Education is also about process, learning how to read and learning how to learn. Education includes both “the filling of a pail … [and] the lighting of a fire.”[1]

Embedded in school is a custodial aspect, allowing parents to rely on predictable child care, free or reduced-price meals, and protecting children from early entry into the workforce. School as baby sitter may be acceptable for elementary children, but makes less sense for older students. Certain aspects of the current model of public education are anachronistic, based on an outdated agrarian (and Christian holiday) calendar. The coronavirus has forced changes with how children are educated. Maybe COVID will precipitate a re-imagined educational system.

If “mainstream culture” of schools is working, “children … become active, productive participants in the larger society.” How is school working? If a goal of education is promoting citizenship, the percentage of adults who vote would be a simple metric for measuring its success; however, less than 60% of Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election. What does that say about “active, productive” participation? Additionally, fewer than three out of 10 Americans are eligible to serve in the military, a primary avenue of national service for young adults. The Army faces a recruiting shortfall of 80,000 new soldiers. Being overweight is the primary disqualifier, although other reasons include those who “lack a high school diploma or a GED, convicted felons, those taking prescription drugs for ADHD, with obesity as the predominant reason for failing to meet standards” according to the commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, who calls obesity “a national security issue.”[2] If the US expects young adults to validate citizenship by serving, and the public school system’s mission is to prepare students for democratic responsibilities, are public schools falling short? Are schools accountable for deficiencies like civic ignorance, illiteracy and lack of readiness to serve?

grandkids Kodiak c130

When parents evaluate educational possibilities, sometimes they determine that homeschooling best suits their needs. Many choose that option for the ability to modify what is learned and how it’s learned. When my son developed an interest in renewable energy as a 2nd grader, we were able to customize his curriculum. His early interests have matured along with him. As an adult, he drives an electric car and has installed solar systems on the family’s travel trailers. Besides catering to personalized interests, home school is more time efficient and flexible. Kindergarten work may take an hour at home instead of seven at school. When my son had a flight from Alaska to Hawaii, his commanding officer gave permission for families to fly on the military aircraft too. Many declined, because the school year had just started and parents didn’t want their children to miss school. Flying to Hawaii with your father at the controls or sitting in a classroom—which provides the more enriched curriculum and memorable experience?

During a visit to Kodiak Island, we happened to be outside when a bugle call heralded “Retreat.” Our 5-year-old granddaughter halted, knowing the bugle would be followed by the National Anthem. She told us to stop, having learned to stand respectfully as the “Star Spangled Banner” plays. Some might consider my granddaughter’s horizons constrained by home education. To me, that action spoke to a heightened awareness of civic responsibility and democratic values.

Thanks to Emily Grey for her insights.

© Joan S Grey, 15 MAY 2020 ∞
IndexCardCure™: We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are

[1] William Butler Yeats

[2] [ii] Accessed 11 Nov 2016.


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