My real-life friend Upswim has started a blog called Bad Homeschooler. She doesn’t mean that in an ironic way, like, “Oooh, I don’t have a Latin curriculum for my six-year-old, I’m a bad homeschooler.” She means that she doesn’t like or approve of homeschooling even now that she’s doing it herself.
Upswim’s blog is totally funny, and worth reading for that alone. But I also appreciate her critique of homeschooling. (So far. She’s only up to “Why I hate homeschooling #2;” maybe #4 or #5 is going to be “But what about socialization?!”) She’s engaging with questions about conflicts between homeschooling and liberal ideals about equality, which I think is (a) important and (b) rare. (Or at least it’s rarely done well, as the comments section here regrettably demonstrates.)
Do we have a responsibility to work towards equal educational opportunity for all children, and if so, do we violate it by removing our family from the public system? Even liberal homeschoolers don’t really seem to engage with this question much. Partly I think it’s because there’s such a strong libertarian streak in homeschooling communities, even on the left wing. But also, liberal philosophical arguments for homeschooling tend to be based on a critique of schools as rigid and stifling institutions – perhaps leading to the conclusion that trying to fix the schools is futile, because no matter how you enrich them they’ll still be institutions.
On all sides of the political spectrum of homeschoolers, I tend to see an unrealistically rosy view of families. Parents care more about their kids than anyone else ever could, and parents know what’s best for their kids’ education. Yeah. I know too many parents who use crack to buy into this one; disillusionment about the awesomeness of families is an occupational hazard for me. There will always be parents who are disengaged and/or incompetent and/or malevolent. We will always need a default educational system that is not dependent on parents knowing or caring about what is best for their children, and it needs to be as good as we can make it because those kids are already starting out with two and a half strikes against them, and they deserve a chance.
So are we hurting the chance for better public education by not taking part? The argument, as I’ve seen it made, is that families with smart, capable children and dedicated, involved parents are essential to a workable school system. If such families withdraw in favor of homeschooling or private schools, the public system is left with the hardest kids to educate, and without the benefit of active parents to volunteer at school and to be gadflies for school improvement.
I can see some legitimacy to that argument. I’ve given it a lot of thought. It falls down, for me, for three reasons:
- Advocates don’t take it far enough. I don’t see anyone arguing that people who happen to live in districts where the public schools are fine have an obligation to move to the inner city and enroll their kids in the worst school they can find, or arguing for a system of universal busing. But even looking solely within a single urban system, in most cases it seems that the inclusion of small numbers of motivated and capable families doesn’t produce across-the-board improvement; instead it results in a two-tiered system. There may be a few high-quality neighborhood schools with great programs and many dismal schools with nothing – even when resources are ostensibly equalized because the schools are in the same district. Alternatively, demand among well-off, well-educated families may lead to the creation of small programs that filter for kids with high ability (magnets, gifted classes) or motivated and involved parents (charter schools), again producing parallel and unequal systems.
Not even the staunchest public school advocate has suggested that we have the responsibility to send Alex to our assigned neighborhood school, at which half the teachers don’t have basic teaching certifications, test scores are dismal, and the disciplinary environment is based on the premise that the kids are criminals in training. We’d get a pass on “supporting public education” if we moved to one of the rare city neighborhoods with great and majority white public elementary schools, or if we beat the lottery and scored a spot at the Green School or a similar small progressive charter with passionately involved parents. I’m at a loss to see how, in either of those places, we’d be improving the lot of children in Baltimore’s other public schools – the failing ones.
- I think advocates overestimate the degree to which schools – especially dysfunctional ones – want to be reformed by parents. From what I understand, schools are delighted to have parent volunteers fundraise, make copies, correct homework, and listen to children read. These are all totally worthwhile and valuable activities; I don’t mean to slight them. But as a parent working within the system, could I de-emphasize standardized testing? Could I restore play-based kindergarten? Could a parent institute a comprehensive phonics curriculum in a whole language classroom? Could a parent arrange for evolution to be taught well in a Texas high school, or comprehensive sex education?
If your problems with the school system are big ones, not small ones, you are not going to be able to enact transformative change by working within the system as a parent volunteer. You will definitely be able to improve the experience of individual children. But that’s quite different from saying that you should be expected to work within the system to change it.
- Most importantly, I keep coming down to the idea that my 35-pound five-year-old is supposed to be my agent of social change. That she should dedicate six hours a day for thirteen years to improving public education. (Her own personal benefit appears, to some, to be optional. In the comment thread linked in the second paragraph, more than one poster suggested that if a public school’s academics are hopelessly inadequate, parents should leave their children in and plan to remediate the gaps after school.) Honestly, if I felt strongly that individuals have the responsibility to improve failing public schools through their personal involvement, then I would think it ought to be my job, not my kid’s job.
As I’ve said, I’m skeptical of the idea that it would improve the public school system if my family enrolled. But even if it did… I still think that we owe Alex the best education for her, not the best education for someone else. And for our family, in our current situation, in the Baltimore City School system, that’s homeschooling.
Re-reading this, I think I come off as negative about public schools in a way that I’m afraid is going to hurt people’s feelings. The vast majority of my friends and family use public schools, and their kids are awesome, and as far as I can tell their kids are getting good educations. I think that there are many good reasons to use public schools. I just don’t think that my family has a social responsibility to use them too.