The World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling, Part 5

I’ve been reading a book called Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Beacon Press, August, 2009) by Robert Kunzman. The book is a look at six Christian families and how they homeschool their children. Not every family fits the stereotype I know I have in my mind. Some are impressive; others leave much to be desired.

In the following passage, the authors talks to one (relatively sane) mother about specific criticism toward homeschooling parents:

“But I wonder if there’s some point at which people would agree that a child is being ill served educationally,” I suggest. “For instance, if your thirteen-year-old is functionally illiterate, then maybe your unschooling stinks. I agree that there’s legitimate concern from homeschoolers whenever requirements are proposed, that it could be a slippery slope to further regulation. But at least on a level of principle, wouldn’t any reasonable person be concerned about the educational environment of a teenager who didn’t have those basic skills?”

“But there are public schools all over America where thirteen-year-olds cannot read, cannot add, cannot subtract,” Carrie says. “I wouldn’t want to single out homeschooling for standards that are not met by people who are in school and get by with it, year after year, graduating illiterate, completely unfunctioning members of society. I don’t understand why — if you’re in school and not learning things — why that’s okay, but if you’re at home and you’re not learning things, you’re not testing well, then it’s not okay.

“And what about the nonsense from academics that says I can’t educate my children?” she continues. “That is extremely offensive to me. Because there is no chance that I could go in the classroom right now — I could not walk up the hill to the elementary school right now and teach. I couldn’t teach somebody else’s twenty-five children to save my life. I’m not a teacher in the sense of being prepared to teach large groups of strangers. But if I didn’t think I was the best teacher for my own children, I wouldn’t do it. There is nobody who can teach my kids better than I can.” (p. 210)

With that, I’m done quoting excerpts.

This is a fantastic book that gives you an insight into a subculture that often goes unnoticed and is certainly not well-documented. I urge you to read the whole thing. I got through it in a week (with interruptions) and was hooked the whole way through.

  • Myrealana

    You need a license and certain skills in order to teach groups of other people’s children that are not necessary in a 1-1 environment.

    I provide math tutoring for 5th grade through college. I’m not a licensed teacher – I’m just a smart person with a degree in math. I can’t get up in front of a classroom and teach children with a wide variety of abilities how to do math. But I’m very good at getting pupils to understand concepts in a 1-1 situation.

    On the other hand, I’ve known licensed teachers who had no business being in front of a classroom.

    There’s no reason why parents should be required to be licensed before they can teach their own kids. I’ve known too many homeschooled kids who have far outperformed public school expectations to think that a classroom is best for everyone.

    I do think outcomes should be tested, though, and if the child is keeping up or surpassing their contemporaries, who cares how that learning is coming about?

  • Andrew Morgan

    This passage is chock-full of fail.

    “But there are public schools all over America where thirteen-year-olds cannot read, cannot add, cannot subtract,” Carrie says.

    This is a blatant dodge of the question. It’s also a logical fallacy. The fact that plenty of public schools suck tells us nothing about whether or not we should care that some home schooled kids get a crappy education.

    I don’t understand why — if you’re in school and not learning things — why that’s okay…

    It’s not okay. Nobody — liberal, conservative, public schooled, private schooled, or home schooled — says that it’s “okay” that plenty of public schools fail to educate children. The solution to that is to improve the public schools, or find a way to get those kids into better private schools. But nobody says it’s okay.

    …but if you’re at home and you’re not learning things, you’re not testing well, then it’s not okay.

    It’s not okay. Pro-home school or not, nobody should consider it okay.

    “And what about the nonsense from academics that says I can’t educate my children?”

    Maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. That strikes me as a factual question that could go either way. There’s nothing, in my mind, about merely being a parent that confers upon somebody the ability to be a good teacher. In fact such a proposition strikes me as demonstrably insane.

    But if I didn’t think I was the best teacher for my own children, I wouldn’t do it.

    I don’t doubt it. It also wouldn’t surprise me if we have differing conceptions of what “best” means in the context of teaching.

    Blah.

  • SeekingDuck

    I agree that the academic concerns about homeschooling are often exaggerated — a lot of times the implicit expectation is that homeschoolers should be meeting standards that are not met in public schools, or that their parents should meet academic standards that aren’t even required of many full-time teachers. Overall, homeschoolers perform above the average on standardized tests and such. (There’s lots of self-selection and sample skewing wrapped up in that, certainly, but the point is that the image of a homeschooler who doesn’t know how to read or do basic arithmetic isn’t representative of the real homeschooling culture, or at least no more representative than in public schools.)

    On the other hand: I was homeschooled, and in retrospect a lot of the insularity really creeps me out. The issue is that the real problems with homeschooling aren’t the things that you see knee-jerk objections to: I did great academically both during and after homeschooling, and I wasn’t incapable of basic social interactions. When I see people make those objections it makes me question whether they’ve actually interacted with real homeschool groups or have just seen media presentations of the most far-out extremists. The real problem I see with it is how its current culture is designed to propagate fundamentalism. Fundamentalists can still get good test scores. Academic objections make me feel like someone is saying “You shouldn’t attend Westboro Baptist! Think of what it will do to your SAT scores!” There is legitimate reason for concern, but focusing on that side of it is completely missing the point…

  • Shannon

    Well, you did say you considered her “relatively sane” ;-) I agree with everything that woman says in that excerpt.

    One thing though – “I don’t understand why — if you’re in school and not learning things — why that’s okay, but if you’re at home and you’re not learning things, you’re not testing well, then it’s not okay.”

    I agree with her sentiment here 100%. But I know why it’s “ok” if school kids aren’t doing well. Because school is known. Most people go to school. Homeschooling is unknown, different and therefore, it’s scary or wrong to some people.

    As I said in another post, if a homeschooler isn’t doing well people think they should be forced to go to school. So how come if a school child isn’t doing well they aren’t forced to homeschool? Or to another school? Or *something*?

  • Aj

    “But there are public schools all over America where thirteen-year-olds cannot read, cannot add, cannot subtract,”

    Ah, the two wrongs make a right argument Christians love so much.

    I wouldn’t want to single out homeschooling for standards that are not met by people who are in school and get by with it…

    If every school performed the same way then this would be understandable. Yet this is absolutely not the case. If you can justify that your specific child will not benefit from a school education compared with “homeschooling” by yourself then fine, it’s great that you can provide a equivalent or better education. It makes absolutely no sense to excuse yourself from educational standards because some schools are bad, some students are failed.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    There is nobody who can teach my kids better than I can.

    What an absolutely asinine thing to say.

  • http://zackfordblogs.wordpress.com ZackFord

    As someone who has two degrees in education, I really resent what that woman says about her ability to teach. I doubt she knows very much about educational psychology, social foundations of education, curriculum writing, lesson plan writing, rubric building, unique learning needs, classroom management, or any of that “teacher” stuff.

    She doesn’t need to know how the brain learns or how to be a master teacher. She’s the best for her kids. Okay then.

  • Miko

    “This is a blatant dodge of the question. It’s also a logical fallacy. The fact that plenty of public schools suck tells us nothing about whether or not we should care that some home schooled kids get a crappy education.”

    I imagine you’re thinking that this is the fallacy of the false dilemma. However, it’s not: in this case, the options are exhaustive. You’re either in a public/private school or you’re in a homeschool. There really isn’t another option. The argument being made isn’t really that we shouldn’t care about student performance; rather, she’s pointing out a fallacy in arguments with conclusion “If children do poorly in homeschools, we should send them to public schools:” without first establishing that the public schools do better (when, in fact, they statistically do worse), this is just a non sequitur.

    The key quotation is this:

    I wouldn’t want to single out homeschooling for standards that are not met by people who are in [public] school

    Homeschoolers are being asked to meet standards which no public school meets. It’s unfair and it’s absurd. It has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the state attempting to achieve a monopoly over education.

  • http://zackfordblogs.wordpress.com ZackFord

    Oh, all that background in teaching also has to be matched by an expertise in the subject matter… that part’s important too. You have to know, inside and out, what it is you’re teaching.

  • Miko

    @ZackFord:

    As someone who has two degrees in education, I really resent what that woman says about her ability to teach. I doubt she knows very much about educational psychology, social foundations of education, curriculum writing, lesson plan writing, rubric building, unique learning needs, classroom management, or any of that “teacher” stuff.

    If that offends you, you’ll love this excerpt from Richard Feynman’s essay Cargo Cult Science:

    But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down–or hardly going up–in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work.

    There’s a great passage by Richard Dawkins (from The God Delusion, I think) ridiculing the Christian argument that one can’t reject their religion without fully exploring every nuanced opinion on the shape of angel wings. The same applies to your social foundations of education.

    Homeschoolers typically have help writing curricula, don’t need formal lesson plans, don’t need formal rubrics, don’t care about the learning needs of anyone other than their children, don’t have to manage a classroom, and don’t really need to be concerned with any of that “teacher” stuff.

  • Siamang

    “If children do poorly in homeschools, we should send them to public schools:” without first establishing that the public schools do better (when, in fact, they statistically do worse), this is just a non sequitur.

    Actually, I think the argument is “if specific child X is doing poorly being homeschooled by their family, then they should go to public school.”

    The fact that some public schools have bad outcomes for a certain number of their students does not tell us that homeschooling would produce a better outcome for each one of those individuals.

    Indeed, given who normally fails at public school, those particular students statistically usually have it very bad at home.

    To say that homeschooling students statistically do better at tests says nothing by itself, because people who homeschool are a self-selected group. You cannot make a prediction based on that as to how each individual kid in public school would do were they homeschooled. Nor can you say that the average homeschooled child wouldn’t have done *even better* in a traditional school. At least not with over-general data like “kids do better on average.” You must know it’s self-selecting and cannot be made to apply to every individual, without exception, even in cases of particularly bad homeschooling.

    It has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the state attempting to achieve a monopoly over education.

    Funny, private schools don’t seem to have any problem meeting those standards. You’d think the evil government conspiracy to monopolize education and control kids’ minds would have outlawed those by now, huh?

  • Sesoron

    You expressed almost exactly the sentiment I was about to, Zack. I don’t have any degrees yet, but I’m far enough into my teacher education program to know that there’s a lot in what we do that takes genuine skill. It honestly doesn’t take any kind of competence to reproduce: if it did, we wouldn’t be here. An argument could be made that less competent people reproduce more, but that’s a loaded thesis that I don’t even need to support my point.

    I’ll admit that there’s something to be said for knowing your kids. You start off with a rather large shared schema, so that can be an aid to learning. But in all my teacher education thus far, only a few bits of classes here and there have dealt with how to teach large groups. We learn about cognitive psychology, strategies for retention, and different learning styles. Classroom management is only a small part, and we’re expected to learn that more from practical experience than through didactic methods.

    And speaking of methods! This is where expertise in the subject area is critical. If a teacher does not understand what he or she is teaching, it’s essentially the same as lecturing. If you don’t understand it deeper than the level of the text in the book, then that text is your only recourse. You can’t get around the ideas and approach from multiple angles. So an inexpert parent who’s teaching from a book designed for a general audience is certainly no better than a teacher who’s teaching a general audience, and that teacher (due to expertise) knows how to help out students who learn best by some less-than-orthodox strategy.

    If the only content in my teacher education program were crowd control, then this woman would have a leg to stand on with the argument that there’s no better teacher for her kids than her. That, of course, is not the case.

  • muggle

    What I hate is the stereotype that only religious nutters homeschool. My daughter homeschooled for her last few years of highschool.

    She actually used a homestudy course offered by a real high school with telephone and internet support if she needed it and finished three years of high school in half that time because she was zealous and even worked through the summer.

    The only problem with homeschooling is the school and, hence, the diploma were in a different state than ours and had different requirements for graduation. Now that she’s in college, she had to take classes to complete what our home state requires.

    I stress this wouldn’t be for every child, probably not most. My daughter works best at her own speed and has always had problems with growing bored in public schools because getting straight A’s was too easy for her. In high school, even though she had a close-knit group of friends (and still attended some dances, etc. with them after leaving), she was just totally frustrated with the emphasis on social activities rather than academia.

    Also, homeschooling does need to be very closely supervised and, at the very least, have testing done yearly to make sure kids have been taught all they should have. With no oversight, it is far too open for abuse. Not just with religious nuts who want their kids to have every bit of information religion-tainted but the parents who couldn’t be bothered and letting the kid hang out is less trouble than dealing with the school.

  • Siamang

    What I hate is the stereotype that only religious nutters homeschool.

    I think that’s the stereotype because it’s a large majority.

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, quoted in wikipedia:

    Statistically, the typical American homeschooling parents are married, homeschool their children primarily for religious or moral reasons, and are almost twice as likely to be Evangelical than the national average.

    It’s kinda like the stereotype that only white people watch Glenn Beck. It’s not completely true. It’s just mostly true.

  • Shannon

    “Oh, all that background in teaching also has to be matched by an expertise in the subject matter… that part’s important too. You have to know, inside and out, what it is you’re teaching.”

    I don’t agree with that.

    This is just one anecdote from a stranger on the internet so by all means, ignore it ;-) But here’s a story. I ran into an old acquaintance (friend of an ex) after not seeing her for 5 years and asked what she was doing. I was surprised to find she was teaching math at a middle school. The last I had seen her she was working at some insurance company with her BA in English. She told me that math is apparently a hard subject to find teachers for so she was able to get the job despite not having a teaching degree or a math degree. Now maybe it was a temporary lack in this state at that time (this was 10 years ago), I don’t know, but she told me how she had to read the book ahead on the weekends to make sure she knew the material to teach the kids. And I’m not knocking her, she’s a perfectly intelligent, nice woman. I’m sure she did a great job. But it did make a point.

    There are plenty of teachers who are against homeschooling, but I personally know quite a lot who decided to homeschool their own kids *because* of their years teaching. Public and private school teachers both. I guess they get the cold shoulder in the teacher’s lounge?

    There’s also age to consider. I’m of the opinion that most of what goes on in grade school is just busy work and filler. My oldest is 10. At this age there is no need for her to be sitting at a desk having facts stuffed in her head every day. I’d rather inspire her to *want* to learn in the first place. Take her to aquariums, show her cool videos, get great books from the library, go bird watching, go to the museum. Actually live life instead of learning about it from a teacher.

    Damn. I’m one of the crazies huh? LOL!

  • Christophe Thill

    “But if I didn’t think I was the best teacher for my own children, I wouldn’t do it. There is nobody who can teach my kids better than I can.”

    My body is mine. I’ve always had it, ever since I was born. Nobody knows it better than I. So I don’t no stupid doctor to treat me when I’m ill.

  • Susan Barb

    I’d just like to add that homeschoolers are learning facilitators, not necessarily doing direct teaching like a classroom teacher. They are utilizing a wealth of of experiences, techniques and curriculum to create a rich learning environment. For example: My daughter went to Scotland with a group which became a History of Scotland class. We homeschooled from Kindergarten on. My daughter graduated in June and is pursuing her BSN at a 4 year college. She scored a 33 in reading on the ACT’s. She is pulling almost straight A’s in her classes. I think there is a tendency to criticize and pigeonhole things one doesn’t understand. We also homeschooled with diverse groups, religous in nature, but from both Catholic and a protestant denominations. Believe me it works and homeschooled kids are generally a force to be reckoned with in college. That’s why even Ivy League level schools are recruiting them. As an added note, we homeschooled for mastery. Each concept was mastered. In my experience, if you don’t learn the concept in schools, many times you move on to the next lesson and that is the end of it. To homeschool well requires enormous commitment and should generate respect not derision.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Thanks for posting these excerpts, Hemant. I finally got around to reading this book, and I agree with your assessment. I found it completely fascinating and thought-provoking and (from an atheist perspective) quite disturbing as well.

    Not every family fits the stereotype I know I have in my mind.

    I’m curious, which families broke the stereotypes for you? I have to admit I wasn’t surprised by any of the families in this book. Sure, some of the parents weren’t as extreme as the others, but I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the author chose to profile the most sympathetic families in the first and last chapters. Overall, I found the vast majority depressing and disheartening: heavy religious indoctrination, false science, revisionist history, isolationist/segregationist parenting, and harsh corporal punishment. In addition, at least two of the six families were providing their children with substandard education. None of that went against the stereotypes for me.


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