Homeschooling has been in the news this week. The California State Supreme Court issued a ruling that seemed to require a crackdown on homeschooling in that state, but then their state education superintendent announced that there would be no change in their policy. Ms. Cornelius expressed her concern about the laxity of standards for homeschoolers, and I can see where she's coming from because in Minnesota, we aren't exactly rigid about it. Since I recently wrote a post saying that education shouldn't be compulsory, however, I can't very well take a stand against weak standards for homeschoolers. In the book I wrote, I had a section dealing with homeschooling, I hope nobody minds too much if I do a little plagiarizing from that now.
Homeschooling has gotten a great amount of favorable press, and more and more people are choosing this option for their children. Reports tell about how well many homeschooled kids do on ACTs and SATs, and when homeschoolers do things like winning national spelling bees, they get a lot of attention. With public education being portrayed as a disaster in the media, homeschooling must look very attractive to a lot of parents.
I should begin by saying that I do have a prejudice against homeschooling. Our school distict has lost a lot of kids to homeschooling over the past several years, and because of that we've lost some very good young teachers who ended up being cut. That would be bad enough in itself, but in Warroad, many of the homeschoolers belong to the "God is not allowed in public schools" crowd. If you want to send this fairly level-headed person into an absolute rage, all you have to do is say that.
We have two kinds of homeschoolers in Warroad, and those students in one of them definitely won't be winning any spelling bees or dazzling us with their college entrance exam scores. A typical example is a boy I had at the beginning of a recent school year. He showed up the first day, missed the next two, then showed up again, then missed, and so on. I can't remember all of his excuses, but I do remember one was the ever-popular, "My grandfather's sick." Who knows? Maybe he was. But why a high school student would have to miss eight days for Grandpa's illness is beyond me. In any case, after about three weeks, our school secretary showed me a note from his mother: "I will be homeschooling my son for his last two cources." (Her spelling, not mine.) Her son's last two "cources" were the American history class that I teach and--you guessed it--English.
I am all for homeschooling this type of student. Unless he was suddenly transformed, he wasn't going to contribute anything positive to his classes, and he had the definite potential for dragging another student or two down with him. I think our school actually owes that mother a big thank you.
There are other homeschoolers in our district, though, who will do well on college entrance exams. I have no doubt that, with an intelligent parent, a child can get a great education at home. There are valid questions about what a homeschooler misses socially, but from the point of view of a student's academic development, having an individually tailored curriculum could certainly be an advantage.
My biggest concern with homeschooling, as far as motivated students are concerned, is not what they are missing out on, but what our schools are missing out on by not having them with us. We need those kids! A few years back I had one such student in my economics and sociology classes. He had been homeschooled for most of his life, but he took some classes at our high school. He was a great kid who was very bright, and there could be no doubt that his parents had done a fantastic job. He was a very mild mannered young man, but he took part in our discussions--almost reluctantly, it seemed--and he always had something intelligent to say. My economics and sociology classes were better because of him. I don't know what he missed by not taking all his classes in our schools, but I know that we missed him. I would have loved to have had him in one of my American history classes two years before, and the other students would have loved having him, too. Had he been in one of those classes, that class would have been better, and the students in that class would have learned more. He is now the student body president at the University of North Dakota.
It would be hard to criticize parents who homeschool their children in a school district where it was impossible to get a good education, but that has not been the case in Warroad. We have a school where students can get a good education, because we still have enough kids from families with parents who care about education and who still trust us enough to send us their kids. But if a school like ours loses enough of those kids--as the media, many experts, and politicians seem to be encouraging--it won't matter how good the teachers are, or how good the principal is, or what new and nifty teaching techniques are being used, or how much high tech equipment is brought in. It’s simply not going to be a very good place to learn. The scary thing is that we have lost a lot of kids to homeschooling over the last few years, and we aren't as good a school as we were when I wrote my book.
There are homeschooling parents for whom I have a great deal of respect. Obviously I respect the parents of that economics and sociology student that I had. I also have a great deal of respect for Mark Roulo, a homeschooling parent, who is kind enough to privately tell me via email when I've made a mistake on one of my posts, rather than letting everyone know in the comments section. But anyone who has read a few of my posts probably knows that I believe the effect that kids have on other kids in our schools is incredibly important. The most critical need in our public schools today is for good parents who really think education is important to have enough confidence in us to trust us with their children. Good parents who send their kids to public schools may not know it, but they are performing a service to their communities and to our nation. If we have enough kids from those families, our public schools are going to be just fine. But if more and more of those good parents become convinced that public schools are too inadequate for their kids, then that perception will increasingly become reality. And that would be a national tragedy.
Any appeal I make in this respect may well fall on a lot of deaf ears, because I'm not sure many of the homeschooling parents--at least in my community--care about this. Obviously, as a public school teacher, I don't have much contact with them, but I did when I ran our Little League baseball program in which some of them would enroll their kids. I realize that this is anecdotal, but in my dealings with them, I found the homeschooling parents that I dealt with, by their actions and requests, to be very concerned about their own children, but not about anyone else's. They didn't care about their kids' teammates, they didn't care about kids on the other teams, and they didn't care about what we were trying to do with our program. It's natural for parents to care the most about their own children, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think we have better communities and a better nation when parents who are concerned about their own kids' education and activities also have concern for other kids. I see that in the best parents of kids in our school. I have seen very little of it in homeschooling parents in Warroad.