Homeschooling vs. Public Education into Society

From Conor Friedersdorf:

What this shows is that some see public education as social engineering, and what it also shows is that some want freedom to educate as they believe, and that diversity is a good for society.

What do you see here?

In a controversial Slate article published last week, the talented education journalist Dana Goldstein laments what she says is the go-it-alone ideology of home-schooling parents, arguing that they harm children in the public school system and do society as a whole a disservice. “In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms–Christian conservatives vs. secular humanists; Tea Partiers vs. Occupiers–should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them,” she asks, “and to mistrust civic life and public institutions?”…

None of these objections explains why I am so antagonistic to the notion that everyone should join the public school system. I’m glad its there. I want it to be well-funded and substantially improved. I presume a majority of Americans will always attend public schools. But I value diversity more highly than Goldstein or Freddie deBoer, however often they invoke that same word. In their vision, kids from different races and classes should come together in public school system that everyone in America is invested in improving. I agree. But I want alternatives to exist too….

Would these different sorts of wisdom all survive if an increasingly centralized public school system operated as a monopoly? Aren’t we better off in a society that draws on folks who got different sorts of education? Some progressives seem to think a diverse society is one where every 14-year-old in America arrives at school, pledges allegiance to the nation’s flag, takes out an American history textbook shaped by panels of bureaucrats in California and Texas, and proceeds to be guided by a teacher with a state issued credential in how best to pass a standardized test. Who is celebrating diversity, the champions of putting every kid in the education wonk’s vision of the ideal classroom, or the folks who want some kids to start their day interacting with multi-ethnic classmates while others start their school day praying and still others learn about raising backyard chickens?

The final question is what sort of educational system is likely to produce the best results in the long run, or to be more specific, what system is best suited to evolving in advantageous ways. I’d bet on the diversified system, the one where there are always competitors with different models to measure public schools against. As Friedrich Hayek put it, there is value in “rules which are neither coercive nor deliberately imposed – rules which, though observing them is regarded as merit and though they will be observed by the majority, can be broken by individuals who feel that they have strong enough reasons to brave the censure of their fellows… Rules of this kind allow for gradual and experimental change. The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the more effective ones.” This philosophy suggests a different message for homeschooling parents than the one Goldstein offers. It might go something like this:

There is value in the public education system. Lots of intelligent, informed people have helped to shape its curriculum and norms. Consider their model with an open mind, and depart from it only after taking their claims seriously. And if you reach an informed conclusion that a different model is better, if that is your strong conviction, go out and be the change you want to see in the world. It may happen that you’re right or wrong, but society as a whole requires people who challenge the prevailing system if it is to identify the few who can offer new insights.

This approach ought to be particularly appealing to dissident cultural critics like deBoer, who generally see the value in dissent and radical critiques of prevailing norms. Why is education different?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tommy O’Keefe

    As a parent with one child in school and another who will be starting in the next couple of years, these are issues I spend quite a bit of time thinking through. I have to admit that paragraphs like the following really make it difficult to hear the argument being put forth:

    “Some progressives seem to think a diverse society is one where every 14-year-old in America arrives at school, pledges allegiance to the nation’s flag, takes out an American history textbook shaped by panels of bureaucrats in California and Texas, and proceeds to be guided by a teacher with a state issued credential in how best to pass a standardized test. Who is celebrating diversity, the champions of putting every kid in the education wonk’s vision of the ideal classroom, or the folks who want some kids to start their day interacting with multi-ethnic classmates while others start their school day praying and still others learn about raising backyard chickens?”

    There are definitely some public school settings that fit this stereotype, but it is a stereotype, and really a pretty overblown archetype if you ask me. I am all for diversity in schooling choices, but I also think comments like the paragraph quoted communicate diversity that excludes certain options. Just my two cents…

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I think it’s the kind of education the children receive which is key. Does it prepare them for the real world across the board, according to their gifting. And helps them grow as whole persons,or holistically.

    I definitely see a place where parents may do well in homeschooling their children. I’ve seen it happen (surely many of us have). In the case I’m thinking of the children were quite well versed in the culture, even while guided to think things through within a commitment to the faith.

    So many variables, as Tommy #1 points out. I think parents need to know well what is going on from the public education their children are receiving. Relationships are a key here among parents and teachers, not to mention the parents and their children.

    Oh for the days of simplicity in the past when everyone learned from one main scholastic book. And expectations seemed more uniform across the board. ha!

  • http://plantingjesus.blogspot.com Burly

    Thank you for posting this article. We currently homeschool (c’mon, I gotta be honest – it’s my wife teaching), but not for the protective reasons or because we hate our public school syestem. We fully support our [very highly ranked] system and I will be voting to increase its funding, even though our children do not directly benefit. They do benefit by our participation in the community and support of our schools as we are wanting them (and ourselves) to be supportive and a blessign to the community in which we live. We’re not hiding from the system, but have found (so far) that my wife is very well suited to tailor a curriculum to the children she knows very well. She’s very driven to help them enjoy learning. For now. They may or may not be in the public school system one day. We’re not driven to keep them out of it! I can see them flourishing where they are now. And their friends are flourishing in the public schools.

  • http://annsphillips.wordpress.com Ann Phillips

    I was puzzled by the first article because it seemed to ignore the actual facts about homeschooling. In fact, most homeschooled kids do spend some years in the public school system, whether it be homeschooling in the younger years and going public in high school, or being pulled out for a year or more for reasons that often have to do with how the public system sometimes seems to be trying to force square pegs into round holes, or simply to broaden their exposure to history, for instance, which often gets short shrift in schools that are put into program improvement.

    I have been involved with the public schools for over 12 years as a parent. In fact, we were still under the public school umbrella the year I pulled child #1 out to see if he would work better in a different environment at home. Child #2 has been in GATE classes for years. Even so, there are a lot of times when it’s frustrating dealing with requirements that make no sense for kids with no interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math. And don’t get me started on how stupid it is to make the entire school spend extra time on Math and Language Arts when my kid’s entire class needs that time for enrichment, not the aforementioned subjects!

    I am all for having more choices!

  • T

    Homeschooling and private schooling is here to stay. My wife currently homeschools one of our girls; we send the other to a local church pre-school. Like Burly, we remain open to all options going forward, but unlike Burly, we don’t live in an area with lots of great schools. They are hit or miss. Some are good; others aren’t.

    I have no interest in selling homeschooling to anyone; I leave that to each parent. But I also think it takes more than a little hubris to presume to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t be doing with the various options available to them where they are, absent neglect or abuse. Frankly, the idea that everyone should go to public school in the name of “diversity” or anything else is laughable in my neck of the woods. Just in the last few years, I’ve gotten to know tenth graders who could barely read out of the NLT Bible, but they managed to pass each grade before tenth nonetheless. And that’s just the academic side. The violence and sexual activity that is routine at a local MIDDLE school is a whole other subject. Give me all the arguments on principle in the world, but then talk with my friend who is the on-site sheriff at a local middle school and tell me you’d send a child you love there if you could help it.

  • http://www.dysmas.org Dysmas

    He had me at “Hayek”. Homeschooling father of nine. Two of whom are in college. We chose this route because we believe it is best for our children and most faithful to the call God has placed on us. Others we respect and love have chosen differently. Viva that there difference. “Who am I to judge another man’s servant?”

  • Matt Edwards

    This debate reminds me of the WSJ article you linked to that encouraged liberals to “preach what you practice.” It seems a bit disingenuous for someone to preach about the importance of public education and then homeschool or send their kids to private school.

    It is also disingenuous to fight for liberal curriculum or education models in the classroom “for the better of society” and then pull your kids out of that system for an alternative.

    It seems that if you think public education is good enough for other people’s kids, it should be good enough for your kids.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I have friends that basically took Matt Edwards position from the conservative side. They intentionally put their kids in public school (even though they could afford private school), and with the partnership of a group of other parents from their church started heavily investing in the lives of the kids at their public school. These parents decided that while they could afford private school, it would be better for the community for them to put the money they would have invested in private school into their local public school. So my friend, the mom, his the head of the local school council. Her husband is the head of the local PTA. Another of their friends started a foundation for the school. They are raising about $100k a year to put into additional resources for the school. This is not unusual for a suburban school, but this is a city school that does not have a lot of parent involvement.

  • MatthewS

    T, you’ve said a lot in that paragraph. We homeschool as well, using a version of the classical education model, and feel similarly about not every trying to coerce anyone into it. I just encourage parents to be involved in their kids’ education, whatever “involvement” best looks like for them.

    Empirically, as one who has taught Sunday School and other activities for middle school and high school kids for a number of years, I have yet to be impressed with the reading or critical thinking skills of all but a couple of public-schooled kids. It’s not that I sit back and judge, it’s that I have to be careful which verses I ask 8th and 9th grade kids to read out loud, so as not to embarrass them.

    Let it be repeated that the heroes of the school system are the teachers and other staff who devote their lives and share their hearts with the kids. There are some wonderful human beings who work very hard on behalf of the community.

    I like the positive orientation of the penultimate paragraph in the post. It should not be about being against something, it should be about taking on a challenge to do something positive, to benefit the world (and your family) as best you know how.

  • T

    MatthewS,

    Great comment. “I have to be careful which verses I ask 8th and 9th grade kids to read out loud, so as not to embarrass them.” That was my exact experience as well, except we had kids even older. I remember thinking of the tenth grader especially, with sadness and even anger, “Who is going to hire this kid, and for what kind of work, if he can barely read?” It didn’t help that in this neighborhood, young men are much more likely to go to prison than college.

  • Tommy O’Keefe

    Great comments from all – For further clarity on my comment @ #1, my wife and I were both home schooled and greatly benefited from it. In our particular case today, the local public school is a great fit and we have been focusing on pouring energy into the local school to bless and serve the community as a family. I think this can be done as you home school, in public school or in private school. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I think what is NOT optional is actively being involved in the process of education.

    One of the other factors for us was the realization that any decision in this area, be it public, private or home schooling, was going to radically affect where our families time and energy goes. As we prayed and assessed where we are at and what the Lord is doing in and through our lives we decided that public school was the best option for now. It is a decision we will continue to reassess child by child, year by year.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    I am not for one model or another. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and some models are better suited to some families than others. Our kids attend the public school system for 2 reasons: 1) financially it would be a stretch for us to send them to private school and 2) we want to be salt and light where we live, work and play and this is one of the ways we do it. We get involved with the kids and their school.

    However, my main gripe when it comes to homeschooling versus public schooling lies more in one’s motivations. I have know VERY MANY (I will not going to qualify this statement with “most”, or “all” or a “majority”) people, mostly Christian, who have chosen the homeschooling route because of fear. Not because of challenge, or excitement of learning, or because it was the best fit for their children, or because they were uniquely suited to teach their children: but because of FEAR. Fear that the PS culture will corrupt their children (as if children aren’t born with their own sin), fear that their faith will be challenged or put down (really, are trials worth running from and didn’t the Lord say to expect that? And should we shield our kids just because they’re kids?), and because PS teach evolution and not creation, etc., etc., etc…ad nauseum.

    I know there are Christians who have chosen that route for good reasons (Burly and some of the other commenters above are excellent examples and it sounds like they’re giving homeschooling the justice it deserves.) So kudos! We need more of those kinds of folks. And we need more Christians willing to be salty in the world and get involved in their communities and PS systems.

    All this to say, it’s important to discuss the pros and cons of the various schooling models and continue to learn how we can better educate our children. They are our future, after all. But I think it’s also worth a look to ask ourselves why we choose what we choose and examine if fear is any part of the equation. In a day and age where political and religious polarization is so extreme, its natural that schooling debates get pulled into the fray, but we need to make decisions out of love and not fear.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    What I don’t understand is why you would choose home school for religious reasons. The curriculum in school is safe (unless you are a YEC), and the knowledge of what is happening with other kids is valuable.

    Now I suppose that you could make the argument that you don’t want the immorality to be shown to your kids, but that is not a religious reason, it is a moral one and there are plenty of non-religious folks who are quite moral.

    My kids stopped asking my wife for help with homework years ago, and now they are even stopping to ask me for some of their advanced subjects (the old noggin just doen’t remember that stuff anymore). I feel that the independence is an important part of the education.

    But, there are plenty of great reasons to home school and thing we all are stronger becasue the option exists.

  • Barb

    A a parent who is very pro-public school (our daughter will graduate with honors from college this spring) I could only see the harm that so many homeschooler and private school families did to our school district. By definition the home/private families are involved in their kids education–Just think about the gains that COULD have been made in their local schools if they had choosen instead to invest that time and energy into EVERYONE’s kids. If you see that students can’t read–what are you doing to help those kids–they probably don’t have parents like you to help them.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    I believe there is a place for public, private, and home schooling.

    One big factor in a child’s success is the structure, love, discipline and modeling in a household. Public schools have to work with all. Private and home schools don’t have to deal with everyone.

    I pray that the private and home options are not chosen out of fear, judgment, or superiority. I hope these options are chosen for the good of the child and the wider community.

    I celebrate those who choose to be salt and light in the public setting.

    I celebrate the private and home school folks who find incredible ways to make being salt and light and blessings others central to their children’s education

  • Susan N.

    The positive tone of this article was encouraging. Choices are good, and there is no need for us to judge or fear those who choose differently. Unless we (or by extension of our children) are engaged in a competition to prove who’s better? Isn’t it remarkable that even grown-ups have a need to sort out and identify with a “tribe?” Belonging and acceptance: I think we all need a sense of being in the “right” group.

    I’m reminded again of the centered set vs. bounded set. This is the most magical concept that I have learned lately! So many useful applications in life. :-)

  • Craig Wright

    We put our children in public school for their spiritual growth and to be able to associate with the poor on an even basis. I greatly appreciated my public school upbringing for the sociological aspect of it, meeting people different than me, and on a regular schedule compared to Sunday School.

  • http://plantingjesus.blogspot.com Burly

    Barb @ #14: I know you are speaking from a particular district and particular homeschoolers and their parents. It appears to me that you are making sweeping statements. I know that my wife and I *could* focus our mission in life (at this point in our lives) on being part of the school community; however, we are involved and have chosen to direct our efforts in the community in many other ways. And I should again acknowledge that we are in a very good system with kids who aren’t struggling academically (overall). I appreciate your passion as you express it here:

    “Just think about the gains that COULD have been made in their local schools if they had choosen instead to invest that time and energy into EVERYONE’s kids. If you see that students can’t read–what are you doing to help those kids–they probably don’t have parents like you to help them.”

    I’d push back and ask whether this is a challenge or a judgment of those who aren’t embracing spending their lives that way and spending it for their community in other ways?

    I just don’t understand why you would impose such a mission on

  • http://www.another-reason-to-homeschool.com/ ARH

    Stating that anyone who home schools or chooses to send their child to a private school because they believe it is best for their child is somehow going to end up responsible for public schools failing to educate children properly is ridiculous.


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