Three Smart Rules for Home School Regulation
Homeschooling is the sleeping giant of the American education system. There are at least 1.7 million children being taught at home, a rough estimate because good data is hard to find and the number has been growing about 9 percent a year for the last decade.
Home-schooling parents and their concerns don’t show up often in our debates over public schooling. They are too busy getting through the day, both making a living and teaching their children. We will likely hear more from them as they serve a larger and larger portion of the nation’s schoolchildren.
Some public school educators I know are uneasy about this. They don’t know home-schooling families well. They worry those kids are being ill-served by well-meaning but inexperienced parents. There is potential for more battles over regulating home-schooling. In the last several years, due to the efforts of groups like the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., home-schooling parents’ rights to teach their children as they see fit have expanded. Regulation has been reduced. But the political winds could blow the other way. What should we do about that?
One sensible answer appears in a new book, “Write These Laws On Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling.” The author is Robert Kunzman, an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Education and a former high school teacher, coach and administrator. Kunzman knows than many parents have chosen to homeschool for non-religious reasons, but focuses on serious Christians because they are the ones that public school professionals are most worried about.
Six home-schooling families, each in a different part of the country, their real names changed, let him observe their daily lives and record their reasons for what they were doing. He finds a mix of good practices and bad, just like public schools, and finds — at least in my view — little to worry about. I was impressed that he quickly dismissed what I have found to be among the most common and least justifiable concerns about home-schooled children — that without public education they will not be socialized and will not learn how to deal with the annoyances of the real world. Home schoolers go outside often and get just as big a dose of pain and joy and ignorance and wisdom as regular school kids.
Kunzman admits, however, that political and education leaders in the future may not be so tolerant of what they might see as homeschooling excesses. Anticipating future clashes, he comes up with three rules for regulating homeschooling that he thinks all sides could accept as a way to protect both the families’ freedoms and their children's futures.
Home-schooling regulations are only justified, Kunzman says, when (1) vital interests of children or society are at stake, (2) there is a general consensus on standards for meeting those interests, and (3) there is an effective way to measure whether those standards are met.
Kunzman offers only one possible regulation that meets all three criteria: he thinks home-schoolers, like regular school children, should be tested for basic skills in reading, writing and math.
In a Tennessee family, for instance, the father tells Kunzman the only classes he can teach competently are art and music, so he handles those and lets the children to work independently on the rest. His wife checks their English and math work and answers occasional questions, but that’s it. “The consequences of this relative neglect of other subjects aren’t difficult to see,” Kunzman writes. “During the art lesson, for instance, twelve-year-old Aaron struggles with his math, which involves multiplying two-digit numbers. He continues to use his finger to multiply, even with problems such as ‘five times nine’ — counting forty-five fingers in all.”
Existing academic accountability regulations for homes-choolers, Kunzman says, range from virtually no rules in places like Indiana to required testing in Oregon to curriculum approval in Vermont. But the families he interviews find it easy to subvert some regulations’ intent. A family in Vermont, for instance, has a friend sign a required letter to state authorities that the home-schooling mother writes. Kunzman also sees a news article about a Coloradoan who mails in a progress report for his 6-year-old Missy and receives a satisfactory evaluation, even though Missy is a dog. .
Basic tests, administered every two or three years, makes more sense to Kunzman than easily corrupted curriculum assessments and progress reports. “Wouldn’t homeschoolers prefer a simple, straightforward assessment that most students would (I suspect) easily pass so they can get on with their studies?” he asks.
At one point Kunzman, the former public high school educator, expresses concern about a Vermont mother’s fondness for what he calls the “read the book, answer the questions, take the quizzes, and move on” style of learning. By contrast, he notes, one of the social studies classrooms at the school where he worked often had “an animated buzz of thoughtful, informed discussion about historical and current events.” Ever the realist, Kunzman admits there was another social studies class at the same school where “students were invariably hunched over their desks, staring blankly at the endless stack of worksheets they were required to complete.”
Like most educational issues, bad teaching is something that both regular schools and homeschooling parents have to worry about. All surveys of home-schooled students so far indicate they have higher achievement rates on average than regular students. I think this is in part the result of having unusually motivated and involved parents. Kunzman says the data is iffy because it only covers home-schooling parents willing to test their kids and share the results. But, as far as we know, their kids are mostly well served.
That, in turn, will keep the home-schooled population growing. What will this often overlooked corner of the schooling world look like in another decade? I am keeping Kunzman’s e-mail address in my source file, and his fine book on a nearby shelf where I can refer to it regularly.
Washington Post Editors
| August 21, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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