Last week I posted a link to this article on A Peaceful Day's facebook page, and unleashed an angry beast.
If you're a follower and you haven't yet seen the replies, pop over there and have a read. My friend, Ganeida posted her thoughts on her blog, as did Books for Breakfast after lying awake half the night. Other friends relinked from their own pages. And nobody was very happy with the author of the article. By contrast, the majority of the commenters on the original article were pretty riled as well, but the vast majority of those commenters agree with the author's comments.
So what are they up in arms about? Are we right? Are they? Are their points on both sides? Can we learn something from this article? In fear and great trepidation of causing rifts between us that may never be mended, I'd like to take a closer look at this article and what it's trying to say. If that's okay with you.
So, let's start at the very beginning, shall we?
In recent weeks, home schooling has received nationwide attention because of (United States) Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s home-schooling family. Though Santorum paints a rosy picture of home schooling in the United States, and calls attention to the “responsibility” all parents have to take their children’s education into their own hands, he fails to acknowledge the very real potential for educational neglect among some home-schooling families – neglect that has been taking place for decades, and continues to this day.Okay, so the aim of the author, Kristin Rawls, is to establish that it is possible that some homeschool parents might be neglecting their children's education. She doesn't say all homeschool parents does she - she says that there is a potential that it might happen. Right? She then goes on to assert that it does happen, and in fact, has been happening for decades.
Do you agree with her here? I do. I agree that there is a potential for educational neglect amongst homeschooling families. I have never seen it happen, but I agree that it is possible.
Okay, back to the article. As evidence to support her position, Rawls looks toward the homeschooling community that she is familiar with - the conservative Christian homeschooling group often referred to as 'Quiverfull' families that she spent time with in her adolescence. Is this a valid choice? Of course it is. If the author is to be believed, it is through her contact with this group that she became aware of what she refers to as 'gross educational neglect.' It's a pretty scary phrase, isn't it?
Rawls describes it further as:
...an overly politicized education with huge gaps, for example, in American history, evolution or sexuality... home-schoolers who were barely literate when they graduated, or whose math and science education had never extended much past middle school.Now we can agree or disagree with Rawl's definition of 'gross educational neglect' here - teaching maths and science to the end of 8th grade doesn't sound too terrible to me - but remember that her article is alleging that it is possible that some homeschool parents might be neglecting their children's education, and I will admit that, baring some learning difficulty, being barely literate at graduation would be something of a concern to most people.
Now let's have a look at a scary story. And it is scary, believe me.
Take Vyckie Garrison, an ex-Quiverfull mother of seven who, in 2008, enrolled her six school-age children in public school after 18 years of teaching them at home. Garrison, who started the No Longer Quivering blog, says her near-constant pregnancies – which tended to result either in miscarriages or life-threatening deliveries – took a toll on her body and depleted her energy. She wasn’t able to devote enough time and energy to home schooling to ensure a quality education for each child. And she says the lack of regulation in Nebraska, where the family lived, “allowed us to get away with some really shoddy home schooling for a lot of years.”Okay, there's lots to say here about whether maths skills are more or less important than family values and morals, and I hope you all know that I would choose the latter every time, but it sounds to me that Vyckie Garrison is guilty of exactly what she implies - an inability to educate her children to an acceptable minimal standard. I agree with Rawls that this is an example of a parent who neglected her children's education. It also pains me to admit that Garrison is right when she says that the lack of regulation in her home state allowed her "to get away with some really shoddy home schooling..."
“I’ll admit it,” she confesses. “Because I was so overwhelmed with my life… It was a real struggle to do the basics, so it didn’t take long for my kids to fall far behind. One of my daughters could not read at 11 years old.”
At the time, Garrison was taking parenting advice from Quiverfull leaders who deemphasized academic achievement in favor of family values. She remembers one Quiverfull leader saying, “If they can do mathematics perfectly but they have no morals, you have failed them.”...
...“We became so isolated because the Quiverfull lifestyle was so overwhelming we didn’t have time or energy for socialization. So the only people we knew were exactly like us. We were told that the whole point of public school was to dumb down the children and turn them into compliant workers – to brainwash them and indoctrinate them into this godless way of thinking.”
Garrison believes that homeschooling has become so popular with fundamentalist Christians because, “there is an atmosphere of real terror among some evangelicals. They are horrified by the fact that Obama is president, and they see the New Atheist movement as a vocal, in-your-face threat....
But is Vyckie an isolated case or not?
Just how common are stories like Vyckie Garrison’s? Unfortunately, it’s hard to know. The federal government only maintains very broad demographic statistics about home-schoolers in this country; federal data only keeps track of what kinds of people are home schooling and why. You can find plenty of information about home-schoolers according to race, family income or highest education obtained by the parents. But as regards neglect related to home schooling? The government cannot tell you — and there is no systematic state-by-state record of the percentage of truancy convictions (possibly the best measure of educational neglect at present) that involve home-schooling families versus those involving enrolled students and/or their parents.Okay, folks, is she right? Regardless of whether or not you, yourself, submit to your State Government's homeschool regulations, and why, we must acknowledge that many homeschooling families chose not to register their kids because they object to too much government control of their lives and families.
Capturing that kind of data is essential to understanding the scope of this problem, but getting real numbers will always be complicated by the fact that many home-schooling families choose not to comply with the law by submitting to state home-school regulations, or even report their home-school activity to the state. While it’s possible that some forget, others intentionally fail to report because they fear too much government intervention in their lives. For many conservative Christians, this is a key aspect of their decision not to report.
I will not enter into an argument here over the validity of this position, but for the purposes of this article, Rawls is correct when she says that as a consequence, it is hard to know how prevalent situations like the Garrison's are, and that often anecdotal reports are all you will get. We are happy when the families showcase homeschooling in a positive light; unhappy when they don't, but really most articles on homeschooling use this method of reporting for just the same reason.
Homeschooled Erika Diegel Martin says that her youngest brother ceased his formal education at the age of 12, when she left home and was no longer available to teach him herself. Is this acceptable? Of course not!
Rawls writes about another family with children that " are functionally illiterate. Their 18-year-old daughter can read, but can barely write a paragraph… and the education goes significantly downhill from there. Her youngest brother, almost 11, has barely learned to read.” Excluding learning difficulties, is this alright? I don't think so.
Rawls admits that not all homeschoolers are this way, and describes one mother that meets up with her expectations:
Maria Hoffman Goeller is one of those. A lifelong family friend, Goeller is a home-school graduate raised in a conservative Christian home, where she never lagged behind in academics. Now she has a son with special needs in the California public school system but educates two other school-age children at home. “Part of the reason we home-school is because I’m choosing what worldview or what subjects I want to introduce my child to,” she says. But she understand the limits of her own skill, which is why she placed her special-needs son in public school. “While I can teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic, I am not trained in special education,” she says. “I want my child to have the best education he can get, which at this time is public school.”Are we with her here? Kristin Rawls is saying that she has gone some way towards showing that home-schooling neglect occurs and that it's not just a fringe element. Can she say that when the only families apart from Goeller's that she has described are Quiverfull families? I say not, because these families are in themselves fringe elements in the homeschooling movement, and even then many of them are marvellous examples of home educating. Rather less common here in Australia than in America, I only know two families that would self identify with this group. One, a family of ten children, volunteers every Thursday at Sovereign Hill Pioneer Village. They have a liberal education covering the subjects we all cover. Often during the year the family piles into their adapted bus and they travel around Australia. The education these parents provide their children is remarkable in its breadth and scope. I don't know the other family so well, but what I do know is that both the mother and father are committed to providing the best possible education they can to their young family.
Though she considers herself conservative, Goeller does not demonize public schools as some families do. And contrary to stereotypes about Christian home-schoolers, Goeller is adamant that she will not sacrifice academic rigor, or shield her children from views different from her own. In fact, she says she would welcome more opportunities for them to interact with public school students, for example, in sports and even in certain classes now and then.
Certainly, Goeller is not alone in the care and thoughtfulness she takes with her children’s home-school education. But in light of what Garrison, Diegel Martin and Palmer tell me, it seems irresponsible to assert, as many home-schooling parents do, that home-schooling neglect is just a fringe element in the homeschooling world. And getting a straight answer about the scope of the problem from people who champion the cause is difficult at best.
So Rawls says educational neglect has the potential to be quite widespread amongst homeschoolers. I don't think that she has established this to a satisfactory extent because she has looked at such a select group. I do however agree with her that the potential for it to occur is there. And before we go on to the rest of the article, which is on what she thinks we should do about this, let's just have a bit of a look at our responsibilities as homeschooling parents.
Because like it or not, we do have responsibilities, and despite what many of us would like to believe, education is a right of Australian children. Yes, not a privilege, a right.
In December 1990 Australia signed up to a United Nations declaration known as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC). It represents a set of rights to which nearly every government in the world is a signatory. Here's part of what Article 28 of the declaration says about education:
3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.If we chose to home school our children, then we have an obligation to ensure that they are actually educated in such a way as to eliminate ignorance and illiteracy and to facilitate access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. (Are Charlotte Mason methods modern?!!)
A mother like Vyckie Garrison failed in her duty to her children. So did Erika Diegel Martin's parents. And so do we if we don't intentionally teach our kids. This is not to say that unschooling is not a viable method of homeschooling, provided the kids actually learn something. It also does not imply that a child who is home educated might not have a learning difficulty and struggle to be able to read at 11 or write a paragraph at 18. No matter where they are educated some children will struggle. Some kids are dyslexic. Some kids are on the autistic spectrum or have ADHD or some other problem that makes learning hard.
It also doesn't mean that we have to teach our children from 9.00 am to 3.30 pm Monday - Friday with an hour for lunch. Some weeks it is impossible to get much done at all. After the flood last year, Jemimah had almost no schooling for more than a month. Some kids will have time off when mum has a new baby or is in a darkened room suffering from a migraine, or receives chemotherapy for cancer. Altered circumstances are okay for a season provided that the children receive enough teaching over enough years to call it an education. Vyckie Garrison's admission that she was unable to devote enough time to her children to provide even the basics is not enough.
Our obligations here are not absolved by whether or not Government schools live up to their side of the bargain. We all know horror stories of children who fall through the gaps and leave school illiterate at 18. We point our fingers at the abysmal literacy rates amongst indigenous Australians. Our schools are not perfect. But whether or not they do a good job of educating the majority of Australia's children, we as homeschool parents must ensure that we do a good job of educating our own.
All children have a right to a decent education - one that teaches maths, to read and write and to provide them with basic skills for life. To fail to provide this is to deprive children of something that is difficult to justify as a matter or personal or religious freedom.
Kirstin Rawl's solution to the 'gross educational neglect' that she sees amongst homeschoolers is more oversight, a suggestion that will cause many of us to see red.
Rachel Goldberg, a secular home-schooling mother from Charlotte, North Carolina, holds beliefs similar to those of many of us when she says:
“I don’t think there should be any regulation of home schooling,” she says. “I’m not a libertarian or a conspiracy theorist, but I am fiercely protective of my kids and my choices about how to raise them. It’s none of the government’s business how I teach them. Just as I wouldn’t want the state to require me to submit menu plans and quarterly nutritional assessments (even though I believe nutrition is vitally important), I don’t want the state to require curricula plans, portfolios, etc.”This statement will also ring true to many of us:
(Maria Hoffman Goeller)... is always on the alert, she says, for any government mandate that might try to determine “what I can and cannot teach.”I think that the parents that Rawls describes in this article have failed their children, but equally well, many schools are failing too. She is right that some children are homeschooled without appropriate governmental regulation, as well, but have the children who are under their control in schools been any more visible? What about the one-third of Australia’s Indigenous students who do not have the adequate skills and knowledge in reading and literacy to meet real-life challenges? Where is the oversight of these students? What about their rights?
I'm sure that along with most parents, most homeschoolers will vigorously defend our right to educate our children as we see fit. We defend our right to teach them what we believe to be true and our right to teach them as we want. But we don't have a right to neglect our children. We have an obligation to provide them with the best education that we can provide. We need someone to spend enough time with them on enough days in enough years to ensure that they learn to read and write. Our kids need to learn science and history and maths and geography and languages. And whether that education is at school or at home, I agree with Kirsten Rawls that gross educational neglect is totally unacceptable. It's just a shame that she tars all homeschoolers with her same brush.
Of course there are parents who are qualified to teach their children at home, and who do an excellent job of it. And there are children who excel in home-schooling environments. These families may well constitute a majority of home-schoolers. But this does not mean that all children do so well, and just as public schools are obligated to educate children who fall behind, so are parents who opt out of the system.